North Adams, Massachusetts
EJ Hill has been making work about roller coasters for years, following an obsession that began in childhood. Some of his previous roller coaster sculptures have operated as inert platforms for his performances, which are often durational. For example, in Pillar (2017) at the 57th Venice Biennale, Hill walked and stood on an elevated serpentine track made of wood. Similarly, with A Monumental Offering of Potential Energy (2016) at The Studio Museum in Harlem, he remained half prone on a platform in the middle of a much-less-than-life-size wooden roller coaster with neon tracks. In these works, Hill centered himself and remained in position for many hours across many days—a Black man’s body, held by a structure of joy.
Those actions were somatic steps toward reclamation of Black joy in the long wake of America’s Jim Crow era. Amusement parks were systematically denied to Black Americans well past the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and there is an argument to be made that this exclusion is still happening today, as entrance fees climb ever higher, serving as a legal barrier to entry. Now, in Hill’s exhibition “Brake Run Helix” (on view through January 2024), he has moved even deeper into his ongoing project of reclamation.
“Brake Run Helix” is organized into three sections. First, visitors walk through a field of proto-roller coasters made from reclaimed wood and commissioned materials, including a pink neon heart on the front of a wooden car. The core of the exhibition comes next, with Brava!, a light candy-pink, two-story steel roller coaster that operates with a single-rider, turquoise blue car. One person per hour can ride the roller coaster, which launches from a second-story platform after an operator gives the car a push. Speeds can reach 20 to 30 mph. Finally, behind Brava! and past a velvet curtain, lies a gallery of wall sculptures and paintings.
In Italian, brava is the feminized version of the masculine bravo, which, among other things, can mean “brave.” In the United States, we default to saying “bravo,” but both versions have the same meaning—well done, good job. The roller coaster’s title could be directed at museum riders for being courageous enough to ride what is effectively a backyard construction, albeit an extremely well-built one that comes with its own safety crew and release forms. But in the context of Hill’s other major works, Brava! feels like a declaration of queer Black selfhood, the entire kinetic sculpture a stand-in for his absent self. This absence is intentional, giving others the role of body-as-spectacle while allowing the artist’s body to rest—but not before he had assumed the role of joy engineer, centering America’s most rapidly declining feeling at the core of this sprawling exhibition.
There’s quite a lot of pink here, from the Brava! tracks to neon to painted roses and clouds. The color is so ubiquitous that it nearly disappears. This is a very clever way to highlight pernicious and systemic beliefs about gender and who is supposed to have access to which colors. Hill’s pink is a joyful color, like cotton candy. It’s simultaneously nostalgic and progressive, at a time when access to pink spaces—from gay nightclubs to trans people’s rights to their own bodies—are once again under increasing physical and legal threat.
Author Robert McRuer writes about moving toward a more “sustainable pink,” one that doesn’t “color over or refract egregious forms of containment, exploitation, and bodily and environmental degradation.” This is the track Hill is on. Pink is not a washing over of violent histories, but a movement toward safety in the landscape for Black and queer bodies, with safety being the first requirement on the path toward joy.