Tim Hawkinson: Untitled (Log)


In its mixture of uncertainty and identity, the title Untitled (Log) tells us as much as Tim Hawkinson wants to reveal about this sculpture. The vagueness of its untitledness leaves the work open to interpretation, while the title's parenthetical description—"log"—offers us a place to start to elaborate what is before our eyes.
    And yet this work is not so determinately a log, that is, one log. Rather it transforms itself—a metamorphosis initiated by the commonplace materials that the artist employs—before our eyes. Perhaps we see the sculpture as a log fallen in place on the forest floor, or maybe as washed up on the sands like a piece of driftwood, now bereft in its landscape after having floated away from some maritime use—log raft or pier support—lashed together as the log seems from separate pieces. Or perhaps we see it as a landscape in itself, now become a rocky promontory over which figures scramble, sightseeing.
    This final transformation is cued by a change of scale. Initially, we physically identify with the tree trunk that occupies our space. Then, recognizing these figures as human in shape, we imaginatively become one of them. Such an imaginative leap, though, may diminish the function of these little beings.
    For these humanoid forms, the merest of representations made from a hobby modeling material called Sculpey, are engaged in an activity. Using their hands, feet or heads they tap out rhythms on the truncated branches of the tree trunk. Actually, motors attached to each of their bodies, controlled by a computer embedded in the tree's upended roots, pulse, manipulating the one articulated appendage of each of their bodies in a percussive gesture. The sounds produced resonate through the hollow cardboard tubes from spent fabric rolls. Since the shafts of these tubes differ in length and diameter, and are capped by found percussive, resonating objects such as plastic lids and tin cans, the sounds vary, and there is a makeshift, tinkerer's orchestra quality to the high-pitched music. Eight figures are controlled by one program, four by another, and though the resulting group composition seems to make sense, still, the odd random kick disturbs the medley.
    In its materials, appearance and function, Untitled (Log) relates to many other works by the artist, but most notably to Pentecost (1999). Pentecost is a giant, spreading tree made from Sonotubes. Twelve life-size humanoid figures sit on or hang from its branches on whose truncated drum-like ends they similarly tap their rhythmic messages, controlled by a computer with its found music program.
    The tree is a common image and metaphor in Hawkinson's work. It is represented in many works, but it more frequently insinuates itself as a metaphor through other found and transformed objects and constructions. For instance, it is evoked in combination with a ship in the bemasted television antenna of Untitled (Mobile) (1998). There the antenna's sail-rigged branches draw silent communication from the airwaves as leaves draw nourishment from the sun. Or, its form is abstracted as an explanatory model, as in the genealogical branching of Stamträd (Family Tree) (1997). In this work, the branchings that delineate a speculative genetic history have been drawn into a circle so that the work's shape also mimics the time-telling cross-section of a tree. The tree's networks of branches and roots are also a model for the circulatory systems of the body, the latter suggested by the nerve-like exposed wiring of Organ (1999), a musical instrument stripped of its outer shell. As well, the tree's branches and roots suggest both conveyance and connectivity. The branches of Pentecost conduct sound where an actual tree conveys life-giving sap. In this work, tree and figures happily coexist, each nourishing the other, as if life was sustained in prelapsarian grace.
    Hawkinson usually employs unconventional materials in his sculpture, cardboard in Untitled (Log) being a commonly recycled and recyclable material. Made from the pulp of trees, cardboard and papier mâché here remake a tree. A cycle is thus completed in the artist's restorative representation—from life to death to rebirth. Yet the tree is restored in Hawkinson's sculpture only insofar as it remains a dead thing, a fallen or washed up stump.
    This does not mean that life does not go on and the log continue in it. The climbing Lilliputian figures suggest another function than that of sightseeing maintained in the lively curiosity of their poses, that initially seem to evoke the tourist-postcard sublimity of nineteenth-century Romantic landscape painting. More scavengers than sightseers, perhaps, they are parasitic on the log or what is washed up on it. Like the insects and micro-organisms that feed upon and return timber to soil, these happy labourers turn the log into sounds. (Curiously, in French "parasite" also means the static of noise.) In transforming the log into a musical instrument, they become part of this new entity, the two—log and figures—symbiotic.
    The figures are played as they play the log, the computer program determining each. So much Promethean clay, they are enlivened by their bionic appendages. Just as the living and the dead coexist in each other in life, so the artificial, then, is not parasitic on the natural. The musical instrument is a combination of both, the natural and the artificial. In Untitled (Log), music is made from, of all unlikely things, resuscitated waste.   


I was asked by Tim Hawkinson to write a text for a one-work exhibition, at the Issey Miyake foundation in Tokyo. I'm not sure whether the exhibition took place since the text remains unpublished.