hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture December 2022/ January 2023


A roller coaster at its heart

New MoCA show draws on the thrills, bright lights of amusement parks



Viewers can sign up to ride the single-cart roller coaster at the center of “Brake Run Helix,” the new installation by Los Angeles artist EJ Hill at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Courtesy Mass MoCA


Contributing writer


The solo rider in the single cart drops a full story in a rush, lifting both arms overhead and shouting, and the cart slues into a wide arc.

Internationally acclaimed Los Angeles artist EJ Hill has created an installation out of experience on an edge of terror and delight. His “Brake Run Helix,” which opened in late October as the newest exhibit at Mass MoCA’s Building 5 gallery, has at its center a real, rideable roller coaster inside a vast room at the old mill building.

“Extremes of physical sensation move you to feel something in your gut,” curator Alexandra Foradas explained, watching the rider skim backward around the loop overhead.

To work in this space, the coaster runs entirely on gravity. The attendant waiting to winch the car back up to the top says that when he sees the roller coaster on a clear day, sunlight will cross the sculpture in bright bars, breaking through it. Then he saw it on a cloudy afternoon, with the lights on within the wooden frame, and the whole structure glowed — “it just exploded,” he said.
At night, as the light dims, it all feels like a single piece, Foradas said, and when you’re riding, you can look through the long windows and see the mountains outside touched with sunset light. She finds it magical.

Foradas said she first encountered Hill and his work when he exhibited at the Venice Bienale in 2015, and she reached out to him in 2018 after seeing his installation at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. His work there looked beautiful and intensely demanding, both emotionally and physically.

He created a winner’s podium at the Hammer, she said, and he stood on it every hour the museum was open. For weeks, he made himself part of the work, so that everyone who walked into the room would see him.
“It was very draining,” she said.

Hill embodied and faced “ever-present threats of exhaustion and debilitation,” says Makayla Bailey, the exhibition’s co-editor and interpretation consultant. As a writer and curator in New York, she has served as a joint curatorial fellow at the Museum of Modern Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem, and she is now co-director of the Rhizome digital project with the New Museum.

“This installation was a ritual reclamation,” Bailey wrote, considering Hill’s Hammer exhibit. “Hill ran victory laps around his former schools, collapsing into stillness in the form of daily, enduring presence on a podium (christened Altar) in the gallery.”

Here, as in an installation at the Studio Museum in Harlem, “his unceasing, perpetual presence during museum hours traced a grueling endurance from one day to the next.”

After these shows, and the pandemic, Hill was looking for spaces in his practice for care and respite, Foradas said. She said she sees an impulse toward withdrawal in some of his most recent work, including the Whitney biennial, where he contributed a single blank page of pink paper.


Creating a spectacle
Here, he turns to a practice that places fewer demands on his own body. In place of enforced stillness and strain, Hill has created an act of spectacle and excitement in a performance space that has already come alive with people and music. “Brake Run Helix” opened with dance party.
And he is turning the lens around, Foradas says, inviting speculation about who is watching whom. This roller coaster shifts perspective. Instead of full train cars in an oblivious crowd, one person can climb into this cart at a time, riding alone with a crowd watching.

“To turn a roller coaster into a performance encourages you to question the degree to which all public acts are a performance,” she said, “and especially for EJ Hill as a queer Black man — in North Adams and Berkshire County especially.”

In the time he has spent on site here, helping to get the show ready to open, Foradas said Hill has been aware of the way people look at him. Just walking up Main Street or into a coffee shop can become performances, whether he wants them to or not, when all he wants is a hot cup of coffee and a few minutes of quiet, she explained.

“He is looking for a more capacious exploration of the embodied experience of art,” Foradas said. “For him, roller coasters are already art. … Roller coasters are an experience of terror you opt into, with your consent. His work is a reclaiming of experience” of adrenaline and danger.
She said Hill has turned to rides and amusement parks out of a lifelong fascination. He loved riding roller coasters since he was a boy, and he has an equal fascination with their history. The exhibit pays homage in photographs he has taken over the years of classic rides at historic parks. One of his earlier installations, “Prospect 5,” centers on a Ferris wheel from a New Orleans park that closed after Hurricane Katrina.

But roller coasters have a more complex and challenging history than speed and thrills and the limits of physics, one of “roller coasters as sites of access — and prohibited access — to places of leisure and joy,” Foradas said.

Unlike the kinds of fair and carnival rides sometimes owned by traveling families for generations, roller coasters began as an amusement for nobility. Hill traces them back to ice slides in Russia in the 19th century.

In America until the 1960s, Foradas said, amusement parks operated on a Coney Island kind of model. They went up near cities, easy to get to and priced inexpensively by the ride, so everyone could go.

When federal laws mandated desegregation, however, privately owned amusement parks began to move away from urban centers and public transportation -- to places reachable only by car. And they shifted from a system of small fees for each ride toward a flat fee at the gate, a structure that made the parks more expensive overall -- and more likely to be cost-prohibitive to families on slimmer budgets.

The result, Foradas said, was that Black families often were denied access to places of leisure, just as they had often been barred from public parks and pools. So she sees “Brake Run Helix” as acknowledging a history of exclusion — and envisioning a future of strength and confidence and pleasure.

Hill calls some of his paintings here joy studies.
“Joy isn’t something with an end,” she said. “It’s something you continue to learn.”
In his photographs and his repeated images of clouds, she sees a motion upward, ascent into a better place -- visions of Black futurisms, moving toward a spaceship or toward the heavens. As he wrote in neon in the Hammer show: “We deserve to see ourselves elevated.”


Swirls of color
Hill’s work touches on themes deep and close to him, Foradas said. He has talked with her about his work as a very vulnerable process. Even though he does not appear in this work, it is a kind of exposure to reveal work he has been growing and evolving, sometimes for years, to people who haven’t taken the time to get to know him.

He also celebrates what he loves, even in the face of ridicule. He has chosen pink as a thematic color, she said, because he has always loved it, and as a child he was made fun of for loving it. He has swept color through the room here in grand style. The roller coaster runs on pink tracks.
In the center room, he shows paintings of roses in bloom, along with neon clouds and the wooden scaffolding of rides against the sky. These images stem from an interest in nurturing and growth, Foradas says, and a deliberate respect for softness and femininity.

He has named the roller coaster “Brava!” — the word people call out in excitement at high points in a performance when they are riding excitement, or when they throw flowers. In Italian, “brava” means brave, showing courage and endurance. And it means that for a woman.

“Brava is what we shout to a female or femme-identifying performer,” Foradas said. The word exists to celebrate a woman, and she is often the star.

In the pandemic, Hill has been painting and drawing flowers, and Foradas said he told her that in these works his grandmother finally saw what he was doing as art. And she is someone who has always gardened, has always had her hands in the dirt.

Along with the pink swirls of paint and loops of track, Hill brings in deep, dark green velvet, as an echo of plants, Foradas says, and also as a note of performance that sounds throughout the installation. Although the rides themselves are a show, the wooden platform for the coaster can also become a stage for popup music and theater.


Feats of engineering, lighting
At its center, “Brake Run Helix” is a work of engineering as well, trading elements of supersleek monoliths and backyard bike jumps.

To design and build a roller coaster inside a museum, Hill and Mass MoCA’s fabrication crew worked with Skyline Attractions to create a brand new design, Foradas said.

Hill wanted to fit his coaster into the existing architecture, she said. The loops form a figure eight as high as the mezzanine, and physics dictate the run from there. Because it’s gravity-powered, the coaster has physical limits on its height and drop and a finite length of track.

Skyline made the track and the cart and the struts from bent and riveted steel, she said, and the underlying structure is made of raw wood. Hill wanted the DIY feel of something you can make in your backyard. He has reused almost all of the materials from past exhibits, planed down and reshaped.

The gray boards come from Glenn Kaino’s boardwalk in the show that had run in this space through September, with its shadow play of protests around the world and Deon Jones singing his unflinching R&B cover of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

Around the vast coil of “Brava,” Hill has envisioned three more trains on coaster tracks, tapping into the history of roller coaster design. They are all speculative carts, Foradas said, and they all work. Hill calls them collectively “metaphysics for a pink sonata,” and the cart in front can move through the space, becoming a kind of dance notation and allowing him freedom to adapt.
On the weathered boards and in the galleries, sculpture and paintings glint with neon, all of it from Lite Brite, a custom lighting shop in Kingston, N.Y. The shop created the neon script that reads “Promise Me Peril” and loaned neon lighting from other projects — on the freestanding carts, the heart on “Heartline,” and the bar on “Stratus.”

Foradas imagines the shine in the gallery at night, or on a winter afternoon when it’s dark by 4:30 and the pink lights on the roller coaster light the room. The lighting holds its own drama then, a momentum like the name of the show.

A helix is the moment in the ride where the G forces are strongest, she said, as they can be in a corkscrew. And a brake run is a space at the end, to let the cart slow down.

“Both are forces on your body,” she said, “physical demands on you that social structures are placing. They’re only metaphors here — we don’t have either of these structures. He has titled the work for something not present. It has poetry to it too — full stop, full speed, spinning.”

EJ Hill’s “Brake Run Helix” continues through January 2024 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Reservations to ride “Brava!” will be available on a rolling basis throughout the exhibit. Visitors can see the roller coaster activated by riders throughout the day without reservations.