By Michele Leight
In ancient times, Tim Hawkinson might have
rubbed shoulders with alchemists, artists, monks, magicians and
flute and lute players. Merlin might be called a scientist today
instead of a magician or alchemist, but the word 'scientist' had
not been culled for contemporary usage in medieval times.
When the Director of the Whitney Museum of
Art in New York called Hawkinson a "modern medievalist,"
not a mad scientist, it struck the right chord. The artist's first
major retrospective is a wildly imaginative rollercoaster ride
of emotions, artistry, mechanics, materials, self-examination
and a beguiling blend of ancient and modern references and inspirations,
grounded in solid classical traditions.
Fine artistry is always close at hand in Tim
Hawkinson's work despite the deliberately distracting wizardry,
mechanical dexterity and complexity of some of the constructions,
not to mention the sheer wealth and variety of materials, both
found and fashioned, that make up the majority of the pieces.
There is one work that might be called a "painting,"
a gorgeously subdued, fantastical work featuring multiple shrinking
Tinkerbells - fairies - in monochromatic colors: "Divan"
(1997) in the hands of Hawkinson, becomes a sofa extraordinaire.
Now in the collection of Tony and Gail Ganz, it is one of the
most straightforward pieces in the show in terms of materials,
created from pastel and paper on board mounted on wood.
Fascinated by cartoon and Hollywood magicians,
I have always relished the way a person or thing becomes humongous
or miniscule with a simple wave of technology, often disguised
as the 'magic wand': Tim Hawkinson's works generate the same sense
of wonder as they veer from gargantuan and humongous to minutely
detailed and tiny. For example, the drop in scale from the colossal
"Pentecost" in the opening gallery of the show to the
tiniest "Feather" (1997), created from a strand of the
artists own hair - or a eensy "Bird," (1997), artfully
constructed from the artist's own superglued nail clippings.
It is just not possible to walk past a work
by Tim Hawkinson without reacting. Familiar with his mechanical
face, "Emoter," 2002, (included in this show), from
The Whitney Biennial in 2002 (see The
City Review article), I was even more drawn in by "Uberorgan"
in the Atrium of the IBM Building on Madison Avenue in New York.
I was on my way to an event but stopped dead
in my tracks, smitten by the huge multi-armed aerial octopus,
or tree-branch - or whatever the gigantic construction reminds
you of on a particular day - with inflated organs trailing entrails,
anchored by pipes which invoke Tibetan horns if your imagination
is ignited. The sound this modernist organ makes in one musical
segment is just like the Tibetan horns I heard in Ghoom Monastary
not far from Kurseong, clinging to the mountainside on the dizzy
ride up to Darjeeling, in the foothills of the Himalayas. There
are no monks, or mountain mists, here in the heart of Manhattan's
vertical columns of commerce and enterprise, but the sounds generated
by this work are eerily similar. "Uberorgan" unlocks
different memories and associations for different situations.
If, like some, you are more perplexed than
impressed by the aerial construction in the IBM Atrium, you will
still probably stop and look at the massive contemporary art organ
mated with a wind instrument for a giant, if for no other reason
than fascination that it is constructed of all kinds of wonderful
media - found, man-made and deftly fashioned. I connected the
name of the artist on the description of the piece in the IBM
Atrium to an upcoming press preview at The Whitney. The "Uberorgan"
made me mark my calendar in bold script - go see this show. I
wondered what else this witty Merlin of contemporary art had to
I was not disappointed; the show at the Whitney
appeared at first to be about many wildly imaginative things,
including "Uberorgan" installed down the avenue at IBMs
headquarters, but the more I looked at, smiled at and absorbed
Tim Hawkinson's work the more seriousness I found. The playfulness
is winsome, especially when you are all grown up now, and the
unselfconscious approach of the works - mirrored in the artist
himself - makes it okay to have fun, to be young again, but the
seriousness comes later.
Smart, playful, witty and original, Hawkinson's
multi-disciplinary approach belies a keen intelligence. While
it is easy to be taken in by the playfulness and leave it at that,
spending more than just superficial time with some of the constructions
at the show recalls life- preserving and life-threatening equipment,
all under the innocent guise of a mechanical face, or musical
instrument, or weird contraptions that blip water via a computer
simultaneously into several steel buckets with the pulsating accuracy
of a plasma drip.
Speaking with Tim Hawkinson was effortless
and he was good-humored about having his picture taken in front
of "Wall Chart of World History From Earliest Times to the
Present," (1997), a gorgeous and obsessively detailed pink,
red and gray scroll, reminiscent of the ancient Chinese variety,
of enormous length - 51 inches wide by 420 inches long.
"Let's take the photograph here, so the
red shows up," he said, ever aware of the impact of color.
The result is the photo at the top of the story. The artist smiled
when I said his work was both playful and serious. "Yes,"
he replied, eyes gleaming.
Hawkinson has a keen sense of humor, and our
conversation somehow turned to children: I said how wonderful
it must be for his daughter - Claire, just 16 months old - to
have a father who makes such fantastical constructions and artworks.
"Actually, that one scared her,"
said Hawkinson, indicating "Balloon Self-Portrait,"
(1993), an inflated latex human form suspended from the ceiling
above our heads.
"I had covered myself in latex and was
waiting for it to dry and she walked in on me in the bathroom,"
he explained, revealing the process of the aerial baloon man above
us. Little Claire did not go for "Balloon Self-Portrait"
- but the other works in the show do not involve her father becoming
smothered in grungy fluids that must have looked pretty strange
to a toddler - so they must delight.
Through the centuries serious issues and messages
have lurked behind humorous and playful facades - Shakespeare's
buffoons and clowns for example. They get to say what Shakespeare
himself wanted to say about many things: they were safe to hide
behind. The bard knew only too well how the public could be. Hawkinson's
work has the same banter and buffoonery.
Imbedding seriousness in humor makes it infinitely
more palatable. That takes a lot of savviness these days, with
all of us so bored and over stimulated by everything. We are in
perpetual visual surround-sound, and therfore in danger of over-dosing.
Most of us would rather have fun, then - if we absolutely must
- deal with reality. We know cod liver oil is good for
us, but we can't see the good it is doing and who really likes
to ingest that awful tasting stuff anyway? My son used to ask
in his blunt childlike way:
"How do I know it is good for me? I can't
see it. Show me."
Confronted with this ingenius form of kid logic
I ended up promising my son chocolate cake in return for taking
the foul tasting mixture (without spitting it out) which worked
far better than the "it's good for you" approach. I
have not drifted away from the subject: the "chocolate for
ikky tasting vitamin or medicine" trade is just how I felt
about the approach Hawkinson takes to engage the viewer - humorously,
gently, cleverly - and then the seriousness, the idea or underlying
message emerges, by which time it is far easier to deal with.
The following three photographs show Hawkinson's
"Uberorgan" with tentacles outstretched in the IBM Atrium
on Madison Avenue and 56th street in New York City. Here is how
the artist describes his creation:
"Several bus-size biomorphic baloons,
each with its horn tuned to a different in the octave, make up
a walk-in self-playing organ. A 200 foot-long scroll of dots and
dashes encodes a musical score of old hymns, pop classics, and
improvisional ditties. This score is deciphered by the organ's
brain - a bank of light sensitive switches - and then reinterpreted
by a series of switches and relays that translate the original
patterns into non-repeating vairations of the score."
Uberorgan, 2000, is constructed of woven polythylene
balloons, nylon, cardboard tubing, mechanical components, and
air. Andrea Nasher Collection, commissioned for exhibition at
MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, 2000.
There were a couple of dazed and confused looking
ladies with grey hair peering up at the gigantic "Uberorgan"
octopus in the Atrium of the IBM Building the first evening I
saw it. No doubt the cost of the piece was running through their
minds, and what is the point of it? what does it mean? has the
world gone mad if this is art? But they stopped and reacted -
they did not just walk on by. They even smiled after a while.
Great and good art should produce a reaction;
anger and outrage is better than no reaction at all. Worst of
all is catatonic acceptance and boredom. Anyone who goes to "Tim
Hawkinson" at the Whitney will react and not be bored or
disappointed, even if they don't 'get' the art. That might come
later. The kids will love it too - that is a certainty. For one
who has been to many contemporary art and sculpture shows, I was
pleased to discover that I could still be altered by a show. I
am frequently moved and exalted by art, but to be altered even
in a small way is challenging these days. Changing the way one
thinks, even slightly, is something. I found the show opened up
whole areas of thought that had lain fallow after years of neglect
- I became connected to my art school days. Happy times.
Tim Hawkinson explores the ins and outs of
the world, emotions, bodies, perceptions and the inner self with
quixotic grace and intelligence - then sews or knits his discoveries
into the wider fabric of our existence, revealing the magic and
madness, beauty and barbarism that is the 21st century. The seeming
innocence of much of his works makes the viewer long for that
state of innocence, now gone from ourselves and our vision. But
the latent seriousness in many of the pieces is a reminder that
seriousness has after all preserved civilizations - and our acknowledgement
of the need for a "classical order" is historically
Above all, the devotion and often myopic diligence
required of many of Tim Hawkinson's works recalls the excellence
and discipline required of artists, goldsmiths and sculptors in
medieval and ancient times. The artisans guilds or monastaries
that were a hot-bed of fully funded patronage and support; the
inter-action between artist and the "work" is reminiscent
of the Zen monks of olden times who painted the most awesome calligraphic
artworks with their own hair and squid ink; a time when apprenticeship
as an artist entailed back-breaking attention to detail and surface
preparation - often as many as 24 coats of gesso, fine sanded
between each layer, for a Renaissance master's gilded triptych.
As we explore a Hawkinson work in front of us we understand the
exactitude and focus beneath the playfulness. Our role changes
- viewing and having fun is not enough and we start to engage
in the rigour of "making" and the mental gymnastics
required in the process of understanding.
Works like Uberorgan and the fantastical
"Pentecost," 1999,(Andrea Nasher Collection) in the
opening gallery at The Whitney make us by their sheer size step
back, as well as engage, as one does when confronted by a sight
as awe-inspiring as The Grand Canyon or The Eiffel Tower. The
huge works push the viewer away, yet they are strangely cosy and
accessible. The minute "Bird," 1997, (fingernail pairings
and superglue, Andrea Nasher Collection), seems innocent enough:
it's tiny scale is inviting - then close inspection reveals it
is made of clipped finger nails, and we are momentarily startled,
taken unawares and off-guard. Fingernail clippings? Eek!
Hawkinson knows the power of positive/negative:
attract/repel. But he pulls back just in time so that things don't
get too disturbing. A strange tune emerges from an even stranger
looking construction that suddenly emits a well known and comforting
passage by Bach, or a recognizable pop song!
History is important to Hawkinson, as well
as our place in it; in the process of engaging our focus with
a simulated CD made of luscious aluminium foil, (in front of which
lies what looks like a latter day fallen knight in shining armor),
or "Drip," with its fine, vein-like tubes of blipping
fluid, we accept that there is a steady, consistent flow, a stabilizing
physical, emotional and mental "classical order," that
has been passed on through the centuries.
Preserving the past while making his mark in
the present and moving into the future is a constant theme in
Hawkinson's work; continuity is cleverly packaged in startling
21st century objects fashioned from found and ready made materials
that are non-threatening, often strangely familiar and therefore
re-assuring. It can also be eerie, surreal, disquieting - like
all great art.
When one of the constructions abrubtly stops
working for instance, we are uneasy: the voice inside says:
"It has stopped." Like a heart beat,
What if everything we have come to rely upon
stopped working? How reliable is what we know, feel , see and
touch - everything that is our world? How permanent is all this?
Hawkinson's constructions make you stop and stare,
no matter how busy or preoccupied your mind is.
One of my favorite exchanges about his work
took place between two thirty-something businessmen, intent in
conversation, striding purposefully through the IBM Atrium, thankfully
right past my alert ears.
As if to exert its magic over two diligent
souls too busy to notice its presence, "Uberorgan" began
its whizzing, gas-emitting, soft-strangulation, sublimely sonorous
and extra-terrestrial sounds, accompanied by ever-so subtle bumps
and mechanical grinds.
"What's that?" asked one businessman,
amazed, momentarily rooted to the ground.
That's art," his colleague replied seriously.
"Really," he said, looking up in
wonder at "Uberorgan," suspended like some extra-terrestrial
above the bamboo trees.