As-is Aesthetic, The
A ’90s mecca for the downtown L.A. art crowd (just across the river from Chinatown), the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store’s chaotic as-is yard was like a simmering primeval soup of art ideas and materials, and one of several trawling grounds favored by Tim Hawkinson, whose elaborate kinetic, multisensory concoctions are often painstakingly constructed from salvaged components. After eyeing a particular vastly overpriced home electric organ in the main store for several months hoping for a price reduction, he finally caved in—only to find that the keyboard was no longer in the showroom. The dejected artist shuffled out to the as-is yard, where, lo and behold, the pre-dissection Organ (1997) was waiting, at a twentieth the price. As is, stripped of its pejorative implication, takes on an almost Zen-like connotation and opens the door for such serendipitous connections. The commitment to work with whatever is put in your path is the mark of an artist secure in his or her own—and the world’s—creative potential.
In 1998, following the multiplatinum success of his sample-delic Odelay, Los Angeles techno-bohemian Beck released the much-anticipated Mutations. A collection of beautifully arranged, quickly recorded, minimally produced low-key folk ballads, Mutations was hailed by some as unvarnished proof of Beck’s songwriting prowess, but more frequently it provoked bewilderment at his abandonment of a successful formula. A conscious abdication, the recording was even marketed with a self-defeating “This is not the real follow-up to Odelay ” campaign. So why did Beck choose the art of Tim Hawkinson to adorn the cover and booklet of this statement? Beyond the cyborg grafting of high and low technologies and cultures that both artists display, there are other affinities: both formed their artistic vision under the influence of an adolescent obsession with neglected American roots music. Beck is the grandson of the late Fluxus artist Al Hansen, who himself dived in a dumpster or two for the sake of art. These calls to the preservation of cultural detritus are close to the heart of both artists’ variegated oeuvres. My guess is that Beck recognized the principal of restless novelty around a still center at work in Hawkinson’s diverse output, the use of a continual mutating flux of creative strategies and aesthetic vocabulary to define a primordial negative space and prevent the people from confusing style and substance.
Hawkinson’s penchant for diverse entertainments of an edifying and entertaining nature invites comparisons of his solo exhibitions to carnival sideshows and other vernacular museological exercises. Though the term is sometimes used in a dismissive sense, the sideshow has a rich and enduring symbolic significance in Western culture, with a unique rural American strain emerging in works such as Charles G. Finney’s novel The Circus of Dr. Lao as a variation on Mikhail Bakhtin’s revolutionary notion of the medieval carnival’s liberating disordering of social conventions. Hawkinson’s work, so inextricably rooted in the carnal, with its relentless testing of boundaries and inversions of just about everything, dovetails neatly with Bakhtin’s sense of constantly mutating semiotic plurality he calls dialogism. It comes as no surprise that Hawkinson’s work as a whole carries this reading to a more organically complex social level.
In Balloon Self-Portrait (1993), by inverting a literal materialization of Deleuze and Guattari’s body without organs, Hawkinson organ-izes almost the entire universe within his skin; the only thing that remains “outside” is the space occupied by the inflating air. LikeThe Base of the World(1961) by fellow inflatables enthusiast Piero Manzoni, Hawkinson’s Balloon Self-Portrait is a breathtaking display of schizophrenically simultaneous humility and hubris, and a declaration of almost transcendent territoriality. Osiris-like, Hawkinson effectively re-members (including the dis-Bobbittizing sense) the drawn and quartered corpus of the world, with only the single pneumatic blind spot (as the optic nerve passes through the retina) where the mechanics of perception are translated into phenomenal events. Offering his Self as an absence whose impermeability restores the continuum of phenomenal reality—hocus pocus—the artist’s martyred creative ego is splintered and dispersed throughout all creation in rhizomatic immortality.
In considering the winning do-it-yourself philosophy permeating Hawkinson’s practice (apart from the obvious, his materials and technical skills are cheaply and readily available in most industrialized societies and, unlike most contemporary sculptors, he generally eschews subcontracted fabricators), it occurred to me that there’s a subtle variation on the conceptualist undermining of the art-object-as-commodity built into his work. I imagine an art collector who, rather than purchasing Hawkinson’s jetsam, re-creates the work on his or her own. Take pictures of yourself at intervals as black paint gradually submerges your body in a bathtub. Sculpt a bird skeleton from your fingernails. That collector would learn more about art in six months than most critics learn in a lifetime.
I’m not exactly clear on when figuration was supposed to have disappeared from art history, but apparently it’s back! Unfortunately, much of today’s successful figurative art panders to the same nostalgia that makes people want to believe the government has their best interest at heart: a longing for a golden age of blissful naïveté that never actually existed. Hawkinson is one of a handful of artists whose depictions of the human body embrace the challenges posed by modernism and the information age, subjecting its rhythms and dimensions to measurement, fragmentation, transformation, and ultimately rebirth. No more or less than artists from Lascaux to Vito Acconci have done, but in a new form that is coincidentally discrete and continuous, binary and holistic, deconstructive and generative, sexy and clinical, sublime and ridiculous.
Hawkinson’s work, obsessed with the dualistic and the symmetrical, is profoundly androgynous. His embrace of contemplative homecraft and use of domestic materials, his employment of wombs and cocoon forms, and his relative lack of alienation from his body are balanced by his lab-tech geekishness and priapic novelty. It is not an ambivalent but a bivalve sexuality: two-shelled. The giant clam produces a trillion eggs in a single spawning.
Thanks to Donovan, we’ve all heard of the hurdy-gurdy. However, what the hell is a hurdy-gurdy? It turns out that the hurdy-gurdy is an awesome musical instrument, a zitherlike box with a cranked wheel that bows the strings (one of which is a drone), plus push-button frets. Although Hawkinson would deny it, there isn’t much of a division between his art and his life. His home and studio abound with examples of idiosyncratic and labor-intensive domestic solutions. Where do you draw the line between the crafting of his musical pieces such as Tuva (1995) or Barber (1997) and the painstaking reconstruction of the broken hurdy-gurdy he bought on eBay a couple of years ago? Design authorship and the fact that the sculptures are closed systems while the hurdy-gurdy demands to be played are not sufficient distinctions.
In 1996 Hawkinson was invited as the first Westerner to participate in the guest artist series of Pleats Please Issey Miyake, the Japanese fashion designer’s limited-edition clothing line. The two collaborators decided to translate images of Hawkinson’s preexisting work into fabric designs, which were made into tightly pleated jumpsuits. The remapping of body imagery like the Bathtub-Generated Contour Lace (1995) onto the rigid accordion contours of the crisply pleated fabric added yet another layer of topological complexity, but perhaps more interesting was the reinscription of Hawkinson’s art work, largely intended for reception within the specific parameters of the art world, onto its equally hermetic but thinner mutant twin, the fashion industry.
What Jesus was about was paying attention and withholding judgment—essential tools for making art. Tim Hawkinson is sort of like Jesus, the way he insists that the castoffs of society contain everything that we value or consider meaningful, the catalyst being attention. See Magdalen (2003).
As I have noted elsewhere , the phrase “How Man Is Knit” is a cunning anagram of the artist’s name. Knitting—a process by which a single, unbroken string is convoluted into a wide variety of autonomous three-dimensional forms (mostly pertaining to the cocooning of the human body)—has obvious parallels with Hawkinson’s creative strategies. In a number of cases, as with his knotted extension cords and Blindspot Elizabethan Collar (1994), the connection is made explicit. Hawkinson is certainly not unaware of the political gender issues entangled in this most meditative form of socially valorized domestic busywork for genteel ladies, nor of feminist artists’ ongoing attempts to recontextualize this handicraft. By giving equal weight to these ways of translating reality as he does to more macho approaches like digital sampling, his work effortlessly bears a feminist—within an encompassing humanist—interpretation.
Attention is a light we cast upon the world to illuminate the limits of our perceptual mechanisms.
A moiré is an optical effect that results when two identical or close geometric patterns—typically grids—are overlaid. Moiré patterns are most commonly known for their problematic appearance in computer-scanned news photos, but they also have a history in decorative and fine arts, ranging from watered-silk endpapers in old books to the early paintings of Sigmar Polke and Larry Poons. In almost all of Hawkinson’s work, but particularly pieces like Self-Portrait (Height Determined by Weight) (1990), Stamträd (Family Tree) (1997), and Cyctor (1997), we encounter what might be called a conceptual moiré, where content from one system is superimposed on a different system. After the initial, bracing conceptual dislocation, and the formal and conceptual elegance of foregrounding structures by their difference, there is a more fugitive charge —the emergence of a third system that seems to be a product of aesthetics and intelligence, but eludes all authorial attribution and attempts at rational analysis. Does this phenomenon describe the function of the human brain seeking meaning, or an underlying intelligence to the world? Is there a difference?
The use or subversion of narrative is evident in many of Hawkinson’s individual pieces: the description of the history of transportation in Trajectory (1995), the durational poetry of Spin Sink (1995), the subtle mockery of linear historicism in Wall Chart (1998), or the plotless repetition of Signature (1993) each address the problems of art and storytelling in novel and liberating ways. Many other works derive their depth of meaning (and punch lines) from the story of how they came into being. Built into each of these ontological cliffhangers is an interactive social narrative between artist and viewer, mediated by the object, where the viewer is taken on a scripted cognitive ride from puzzled curiosity through the looking glass to a sense of conspiratorial, co-creative complicity.
The son of a lens crafter, Hawkinson often synthesizes optical effects—the “false” iridescence of Volume Control (1992) and Pearl Vision (1994), the “meaningless” complexity of Wall Chart (1997) and My Favorite Things (1993), the “hallucinatory” Op Art translations of Winer (1993) or Draw! Paint! Weave! Spin! (1996)—into another subtly scripted experience: choreographing the whole body of the viewer, leading with the eye.
The pens used to make Wall Chart (1997) are bundled together as blood vessels in an oversized severed fingertip, entitled (Index) Finger (1997). Puns are a much-despised backwater of literary invention, but notoriously irresistible to mathematicians and other highly evolved types. In fact, this bad reputation is something of a bum rap—seminal modernist literature from Finnegans Wake to the writings of Raymond Roussel (which were epiphanous for Marcel Duchamp) are deeply, inherently punny, as is Hawkinson’s art. The pun’s disgrace, and its iconoclastic power, derive from its breaking of the fourth wall at a fundamental semiotic level, rupturing the invisibility of the authorial voice by violating the basic contract between word and meaning, calling into question the reliability of any text, including this one.
[As this essay was partly inspired by Hawkinson’s Alphabetized Soup (1992), which contains no Q, I am leaving this entry empty, as a blind spot.]
Nautical themes crop up recurrently in Hawkinson’s oeuvre, from early works like Untitled (Sinking Ship) (1987) to Aerial Mobile (1998). Given the artist’s concern with amniotic environments and corporeal fluidity, an argument could be made that this branch of his work derives from our species’—indeed all land-based life’s—slight removal from our briny mom. An inordinate amount of Hawkinson’s attention in this area has been devoted to the intricate miniature rigging found in Aerial Mobile , Das Tannenboot (1994), and H.M.S.O. (1995). The nostalgia of these pieces is once-removed; for most of Hawkinson’s audience the first association to spring to mind would be the pop media meme (and anachronistic surrealist fetish object) of the model ship built inside a bottle by a slightly pixilated recluse or a blustery college dean. Models are Hawkinson’s first point of reference. Rigging—the patiently evolved, physically intricate webbing that both keeps the mast rigid and wraps the sails around the shifting winds—becomes interpolated into cast-off fragments of contemporary culture, by way of an unmentioned, impossible uterine architectural folly.
In conversation, Hawkinson and his painter spouse Patricia Wickman, who had recently become parents, brought up the subject of swaddling, an ancient infant-care technique they had employed with little Kitty for her first several months. It was only in skimming a previous essay on Hawkinson’s work that I realized I had raised a comparison some years before between this practice—wrapping babies in strips of cloth to restrain their movements—and the artist’s exploration of body boundaries. Although the motivation to “return to the womb” is generally disparaged as regressive and irresponsible, these criticisms evaporate if one considers time as cyclic and human evolution as a progression of incrementally more encompassing womb-states, each of which—needless to say—may be mimicked in the medium of swaddle.
What is with these twins who grow up separate, never knowing each other, and wind up using the same brand of exfoliant cream and marry people with identical social security numbers except for one digit? I mean, come on! And yet, if they grew up together, I’ll bet they’d use different exfoliant creams! How many individuals are actually present? Hawkinson for one. Or two. Or none. His work betrays an acute awareness of the bipolar nature of identity, not to mention its nonexistence.
People always forget how funny Samuel Beckett is. I think it’s some kind of defense mechanism: if depictions of such wretched frustration can be so, well, life-affirming, why pay the rent? One of Beckett’s (and Buster Keaton’s) last great works was Film (1965), a treatise on opticality and existence that remains unparalleled as a synecdoche of unrequited creative reflexivity: to be is to be perceived, but how can you be in two places at once? Yet while Duchamp languorously siphoned the retinality out of modern art, safe in his Manhattan bunker, Beckett was fighting Nazis with the French Resistance. How was he able to overcome the solipsism upon which his finest works hinge? Like Hawkinson, Beckett’s cornucopic wit boils from the margins of a lacuna—an absence, a blind spot, a Not-I—that places the ego in overwhelming perspective.
If variety is the spice of life, what is the spice of death? That’s poetry, man. Variety is death as long as it only keeps the viewer entertained. Entertainment is like refined sugar or crack—highly addictive distillations of relatively benign and complex organic substances that lose their essence in the process of sublimation. And yet, variety is life. Evolution tries everything before whatever is advantageous sticks. Hawkinson’s art works are evolutionary probes, adaptive radiation in search of forms that will allow art to survive.
A creature whose inside is continuous with its outside; a tube through which every bit of the world must eventually pass. This may be Hawkinson’ s goal—to act as a transformational conduit, working the world like a compost heap, grinding the inert lumps of twentieth-century art into fertilizer.
X-rays are employed as a tool for revealing what lies beneath surfaces, those of the human body in particular. A mysterious, invisible force that makes visible the hidden workings of our very being, X-rays are the kind of bravura magic that make people such passionately religious true believers in Big Science. With lo-tech radiographic substitutes like Alter (1993) and Penitent (1994), Hawkinson comes across as a believer in small science, or at least in a magic less fixed in one end of the rational/spiritual spectrum.
The tree at the center of the world; the arboreal axis mundi where Deity is fixed. In spite of repeated intimations of Christianity, Hawkinson’s work exudes a distinctly pagan aroma. Pine-scented: incidences of conifers abound. And like all good pagans, Hawkinson is possessed by a visceral need to uncover the sacred within the mundane.
What’s so funny about cubic zirconium? Why are precious stones valued in the first place? For their optical effects of cubist kaleidoscopy and dazzling internal reflection. Not only are we hardwired to respond to the beauty of colorful, faceted translucent pebbles, but, like flames and crystal balls, they are useful light-mediating visual tools for accessing altered state of consciousness of the numinous variety. Oddly, consciousness of this experiential psycho-spiritual functionality has been superseded by The Diamond as the ultimate symbolic condensation of commercial materialism. Next door in that spectrum is the objet d’art, a conventionally useless thing around which an entire subculture labors to generate a consensus of meaning and value. Like the gemstone, the art work’s pragmatic, ahistorical ability to entrance us—to open new ways of understanding the world and show us things we can’t otherwise see—gets the short end of the stick compared to its confabulated scarcity and capacity to induce consumer frenzy. Yet, like the Soviet-perfected skull crucible system used to produce cubic zirconium, Hawkinson’s stripped-down, materially anti-elitist object lessons in physics, spirituality, and phenomenology are saturated with alchemical juju. They embrace their zirconiumism by transubstantiating potent and surprising aesthetic experiences from whatever means and materials are readily available: cheap and plentiful technological miracles. In spite of its homeliness, Hawkinson’s work stands out like a star sapphire in a display case full of paste costume jewelry. Surrounded by placeholder art predicated on the denial of the senses in favor of hierarchically mandated verbal consensus, the radical autonomy of Hawkinson’s oeuvre testifies to the transcultural, transtemporal, transpersonal usefulness of art. So shine on, you crazy cubic zirconium. Shine on.
1. “Tim Hawkinson: Man with No Skin,” in Tim Hawkinson (Toronto: The Power Plant/MASS MoCA, 2000), p. 24
2. Ibid., p. 22
From the Abrams catalog for the exhibit "Tim Hawkinson" at the Whitney Feb 11 – May 29; LACMA June 25 - Sept 5,2005