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Tim Hawkinson

The Whitney Museum of American Art

February 11 to May 29, 2005

Wit and Wisdom - With a Dash of Merlin

Tim Hawkinson

Tim Hawkinson in front of "Wall Chart of World History from Ancient Times to the Present," 1997

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.


"Divan," pastel and paper on foam core on panel, 1997, collection Tony and Gail Ganz

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.

"Emoter," altered ink-jet print, monitor, stepladder and mechanical components, Andrea Nasher Collection, 2002

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.

"Uberorgan," (following three images) in the IBM Building Atrium, Madison Avenue and 56th Street, New York, woven polythylene baloons, nylon, cardboard tubing, mechanical components and air.Andrea Nasher Collection, commissioned for exhibition at MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, 2000.

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 offer.

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.

World Chart of World History from Earliest Times to the Present

Detail of Wall Chart of World History From Earliest Times to the Present," 1997. Ink and colored pencil on paper. Private collection, courtesy Ace Gallery

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.

Balloon Self-Portrait

"Balloon Self-Portrait," 72 by 48 by 33 inches, 1993, refabricated 2005, Ace Gallery

"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.


"H.M.S.O.," wood, fabric and string, 90 inches diameter, 1995, collection Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson

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:

Detail of Uberorgan

Detail of "Uberorgan"

Another view of Uberorgan

Another view of Uberorgan

"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 proven.

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.


"Pentecost," polyurethane foam, sonotubes, solenoids, found computer program and mechanical components. Dimensions variable. Andrea Nasher Collection, 1999

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!

Life-size mirror self portrait

"Life-Size Mirror Self-Portrait," Synthetic polymer and aluminium foil on polyester. Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles, 2000

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!

Armor Ooze and Volume Control

Background, "Volume Control," paper, aluminium foil and glue on panel, 1992, private Collection, courtesy Ace Gallery; Foreground, "Armor Ooze," aluminium foil, synthetic polymer on urethane foam, and brass brads, 1996, collection of Eileen-Harris Norton and Peter Norton

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.


"Drip," 2002, polythene, mechanical component, and water. Dimensions variable. Collection Steven Neu.

When one of the constructions abrubtly stops working for instance, we are uneasy: the voice inside says:

"It has stopped." Like a heart beat, a pulse.

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.

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