Building 5, MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA
October 30, 2022–January 2024
Curated by Alexandra Foradas @aforadas
EJ Hill’s latest exhibition at MASS MoCA, Brake Run Helix, is a tour-de-force of art, performance, and emotional exploration. Hill’s groundbreaking artistic vision invites visitors to a thought-provoking and visually stunning experience that challenges systemic exclusion and transcends the traditional boundaries of contemporary art.
Brake Run Helix presents a collection of Hill’s sculptures, paintings, and works on paper that explores the conflicting emotions of fear and joy, and critiques the societal structures that have historically denied Black, working-class, and queer communities access to leisure and pleasure. The exhibition also features Brava!, a monumental kinetic sculpture and rideable installation that embodies the form and function of roller coasters.
Hill’s obsession with roller coasters, which he views as a symbol of joy and social equity, is a recurring motif in his performance art, photography, painting, and sculpture. The exhibition title, Brake Run Helix, refers to two elements of roller coaster design, but Hill’s Brava! does not contain either of these mechanisms, liberating viewers from external forces that subject the body to societal and environmental structures.
Roller coasters originated in Russia in the early 1700s as amusements for nobility, eventually becoming permanent public attractions for a broader audience in Europe and the United States. Amusement parks in the U.S. became sites of discrimination throughout Jim Crow-era desegregation efforts as Black Americans were systematically denied access to these leisure sites. Following the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case, amusement parks were officially desegregated, but new restrictions, such as high admission fees, continued to limit access for those without the financial means to enter the park. Through Brake Run Helix, Hill reclaims these communal places of shared pleasure as a Black queer person, offering viewers the pursuit of joy as a universal quest.
Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted with the sweet aroma of fresh-cut wood. The first gallery showcases a series of sculptures inspired by amusement park forms, including a two-story pillar that takes the idea of a roller coaster’s vertical drop to the extreme. These sculptures are made from reused and found materials, including pre-made neon signs and scrap wood from MASS MoCA’s woodshop, adding an eco-friendly and sustainable element to the exhibition.
The Building 5 gallery features Brava!, Hill’s monumental, minimalistic kinetic sculpture. A single cart spectacularly emerges from behind a two-story green velvet stage curtain, moves across pale pink tracks solely by gravity’s force, and ultimately comes to rest on a wooden stage while onlookers observe from below. Visitors can observe the roller coaster as it is activated by museum visitors throughout the day. Upon entering the coaster’s backstage, just seconds before piercing the green curtains and plunging into the void, viewers are “warned” by a bright pink neon sign that reads “Promise Me Peril,” a reminder of how joy and fear can be perceived as two sides of the same coin. Brava!, which can be ridden by only one person at a time, transforms the rider into a performer.
Beneath the mezzanine, visitors can find a retrospective of Hill’s passion for roller coasters expressed through a series of figurative and abstract paintings depicting coaster tracks in soft pinks and blues, clouds, roses, and foliage. The association of floral elements and pastel colors suggests Hill’s exploration of femme-queer aesthetics.
Brake Run Helix defies gravity and confronts societal structures, offering a powerful meditation on the social and political dimensions of pleasure, joy, and leisure. Hill’s exhibition is an essential exploration of art’s capacity to challenge and inspire, inviting viewers to engage with complex ideas while basking in the pure joy of the exhibition’s visual and sensory elements.
By Eva Zanardi