Hills Snyder: Book of the Dead

Artpace San Antonio

Lawrence Jennings

Confronted by a chair which looked like the Last Judgment—or, to be more accurate, by a Last Judgment which, after a long timeand considerable difficulty, I recognized as a chair—I found myself on the brink of panic.
— Aldous Huxley
The Doors of Perception

Don’t Be A Pussy!
Ram Ayala

To experience Hills Snyder’s Artpace project on opening night, people had to wait in a long line before gaining entrance, one by one, into a very dark foyer with a low ceiling. At the end of the foyer, you had to crouch through an elliptical opening like Alice chasing the rabbit down the hole. A motorized leather recliner and circular video screen are the only two things awaiting you on the other side. The video—a daytime sky with clouds passing by—hovers above; it is the only source of illumination in the room.

Watching the real-time movement of clouds is meditative despite the eerie, darkened surroundings. Unlike James Turrell’s skyspaces, this work projects illusionary daylight but somehow brings to mind the real, dark city night outside.

The second chamber is less comforting. It too contains a chair, this one made of wood and fluorescent Mylar lit with a black light. The chair transmits a supernatural glow in the otherwise murky darkness. Snyder refers to this object as a hybrid—somewhere between an execution and conventional chair—and the small space does feel somewhat like an execution chamber. The piece also recalls the artist’s plastic guillotines, recently exhibited at the Finesilver Gallery. The word “STAY” is posted by the exit. Is this a command or a suggestion, a reprieve from death or a reminder of our state’s notorious record?

As thoughts of Andy Warhol’s electric-chair paintings, capital punishment and murder riddle my thoughts, I leave the room, saying goodbye to all external stimuli. I find myself in a crowded, pitch-black maze. The prevalent darkness throughout Snyder’s labyrinth causes extreme dilation of the pupils. After a few minutes, my eyes became more attuned to variances in light and color, much like a side effect of strong hallucinogens. (This is, perhaps, why it didn’t seem strange that as I entered the second room, someone nearby started singing the intro to Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit.)

Like isolation tanks used to limit sensory stimulation, the last portion of Snyder’s maze is best unlocked without other people in the corridor; a completely solitary, internal experience is most revealing. Participants must walk with arms extended like zombies to feel the space and walls around them. I repeatedly felt as if my next step was going to drop off some unseen ledge.

Hills Snyder, Book of the Dead
Site specific installation and performance, 2005
Photo by Michele Monseau

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, used by such visionaries as Timothy Leary, Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert) and Ralph Metzner as a guidebook for psychedelic experiences, mentions the journey of the soul beyond death into the underworld, its passage into the unknown void and, finally, its reentry. Snyder’s previous works evoke the “splat-shtick” horror-comedy hybrid of the Evil Dead films in which the hero (played by writer-director Bruce Campbell) fights off zombies awakened by the reading of passages from the Necronomicon (The Book of the Dead). The series ends with the bloodied hero’s passage through a swirling wormhole or time-passage—a space not unlike the passageway at hand in Syder’s current installation.

After negotiating the tunnel, a dim light ap-pears around a corner. The light at the end of the path is the entry to a brightly lit, functioning living room—or, possibly, a waiting room—filled with the recently departed participants (or the reborn, depending on your point of view). Familiar faces lounge on multiple couches and chairs, drinking, smoking and conversing quietly. Others watch the startled expressions of people exiting the maze.

Hills Snyder, Book of the dead
Site specific installation and performance, 2005
Photo by Anajli Gupta

Upon reentry, Snyder greets each guest holding a tray of fluorescent shot glasses filled with a favored social lubricant: tequila. He gives them a blessing and a page number from “the book.” This unexpected ending—the abrupt twist from a dark, internalized and isolated experience to a bright external, social realm—is very effective. The experience presents one with an alternating array of multi-layered, fluctuating meanings that orbit around classic dichotomies i.e., Light/Death, Ego/Death of the Ego, Judgment/Punishment, Fun/Fear, Stasis/Travel and Internal/External.

After two shots of tequila and some living-room conversation, I left through the final exit upon which read, “Don’t Be a Pussy.” I am told this was one of Ram Ayala’s favorite phrases, typically used to persuade someone to live fully and without anxiety or fear. On June 24th of this year, Ayala, patriarch of the San Antonio music scene, was killed in a robbery of his bar Tacoland. Snyder’s tour de force—like Ram’s famous interjection—can certainly be taken many different ways.

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