Over the course of this burning summer, the U.S. president met with the leader of North Korea, a Thai soccer team was rescued from a cave, Saudi women were allowed to drive, sexual harassment allegations that would bring down the head of CBS surfaced, Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court and Tesla founder Elon Musk said a bunch of things.
Through it all, Los Angeles artist EJ Hill stood quietly on a winner’s podium inside a gallery at the Hammer Museum every hour that the museum was open — that’s 11 weeks or 78 days or 621 hours of standing, depending on how you do the math.
His piece, titled “Excellentia, Mollitia, Victoria” — which translates to “Excellence, Resilience, Victory” in Latin — was part of the Hammer’s 2018 “Made in L.A.” biennial, which closed earlier this month. In it, he used symbols of sport to ruminate on the nature of sacrifice, competition and achievement.
A track circled the room and Astroturf carpeted the floor. To one side stood an impossibly tall wooden hurdle. Around the gallery, like stations of the cross, were stark photographs of Hill running “victory laps” around the schools he once attended: St. Michael’s Elementary in South Los Angeles, West High School in Torrance and El Camino College, also in Torrance.
Most riveting was the deceptively simple sight of Hill on the podium.
The artist stood on his perch as mute observer but also as object to be observed by visitors who streamed through the gallery — visitors who, by popular vote, chose him to receive the biennial’s public recognition award, worth $25,000.
“We make these things, hoping that people pick up what we intend for them to pick up,” says Hill. “Most people get their arts education from going to museums and seeing art on their terms … For them to say, ‘Hey man, good job, we love this,’ feels like I can say with confidence that I am making work for the people.”
On the day after his summerlong vigil has come to an end, Hill welcomes me to the South Los Angeles home of his mother, Karen Thompson. They are having breakfast — scrambled eggs, beans and the spongy Belizean frybread known as a fry jack. (Although Hill was born in Los Angeles, his family hails from Belize.)
Padding around in shorts and a pair of socks decorated with palm trees, Hill has shaken the look of far-off intensity, sometimes pain, he would demonstrate in the gallery at the Hammer. Here at home, he is relaxed.
At moments, however, he grows slightly dazed, like an astronaut who has just reentered Earth’s atmosphere after a journey through space.
“We’re talking about this in the past tense,” he says of his performance with a jolt of surprise. “That’s nuts. I can’t believe that this thing is behind me.”
For months, his life revolved around nothing but the podium.
“It was kind of a monastic existence,” he says. “I would come home and just eat and go to sleep. Right now, I feel really resolved, centered and light.”
Thompson says her son would frequently come home exhausted.
“I was, like, ‘Why can’t you just do this for an hour’?” she says good-naturedly. But she says she came to understand that a performance about perseverance would require, well, perseverance. “The first month, I’d go pick him up at the end of the day and I’d get there 15 to 20 minutes early and just watch him.”
Now that performance is done.
“I missed a lot,” Hill says with a laugh. “I’m catching up on things. I went to see ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ — so, going to the movies. I was reading the Kavanaugh hearing stuff. Everything feels so surreal.”
Throughout the summer, I checked in on Hill’s performance, repeatedly drawn in by the topics it explored, its fraught symbolism, its stubborn steadfastness.
When I first entered the gallery in June, he was dressed all in black, looking defiant, ready to face the weeks that lay before him. Over the course of the exhibition, the performance evolved.
In July, he wore white; by August, he was rocking a metallic gold sweatshirt, looking like an interstellar voyager ready to float into space. On some days, he seemed light, on others, he appeared to be willing himself to continue.
“I called them phases,” he says. “The white, that was like, ‘My body has settled into this, my mind has settled into the routine. The day is long but I don’t have to answer emails.’” A wry laugh spills out.
The reaction of viewers seemed as much a part of the piece as the performance itself. Many visitors to the gallery avoided looking directly at Hill, casting only furtive glances in his direction. Hill says he had people jab at him to see if he was real.
“One older couple came in and the guy was, like, ‘Do you get it?’ and she’s, like, ‘No!’ So they leave,” he recalls. “They were there for, like, 10 seconds max. That was so funny to me.”
But those who lingered were rewarded with something profound.
Hill had placed his body on a podium as an object to be evaluated — the hyper-scrutinized black, male body in a position to be scrutinized further still. To be a fair-skinned woman walking around that podium gazing at his legs, his arms and his chest was to feel complicit in our historical objectification. The black body scrutinized as vehicle for sport. The black body scrutinized as vehicle for labor. The black body on a podium. The black body on an auction block. One afternoon in the gallery, I found myself in tears.
Hill says many visitors to the gallery cried.
“People connect with what it feels like to want to completely throw in the towel,” he says. “This isn’t our game. We’re in this thing that wasn’t designed for us. It still grinds on us … It’s hard being black, brown and queer. It’s hard to be alive in spaces that are designed to kill you. But there I am, still standing.”