Tim Hawkinson (2000)

Tim Hawkinson, Toronto: The Power Plant; North Adams, MA: MASS MoCA, 2000.

Click to read original publication

Or scroll to text below

Design: Hahn/Smith Design

Design: Hahn/Smith Design

Back cover

Back cover


And experience shows that there is no flux without eddy, no laminar flow which does not become turbulent. Now, and here is the crux of the matter, all times converge is this temporary knot: the drift of entropy or the irreversible thermal flow, wear and aging, the exhaustion of initial redundancy, time which turns back on feedback rings or the quasi-stability of eddies, the conservative invariance of genetic nuclei, the permanence of a form, the erratic blinking of aleatory mutations, the implacable filterings out of non-viable elements, the local flow upstream towards negentropic islands—refuse, recycling, memory, increase in complexities...What is an organism? A sheaf of times. What is a living system? A bouquet of times.
    —Michel Serres, "The Origin of Language: Biology, Information Theory and Thermodynamics"

Most commentators wonder at the sheer inventiveness, diversity and prolificity of Tim Hawkinson's work. They attribute a Yankee ingenuity and a tinkerer's sensibility to an eccentric production where Rube Goldberg seems to meet Marcel Duchamp. In Hawkinson's work, unlikely waste materials are unconventionally used in constructions that mimic the workings of various machines and instruments or the appearance of diverse natural bodily systems. But there is nothing natural about these resulting automata which seem instead to share with each other an arrested dysfunctionality. The closed systems of Signature (1993)—a machine for writing the artist's signature—and Bagpipe (1995)—a giant instrument played through the air ducts of its exhibiting space—have no need of human impetus or inspiration to pursue their mournful tasks.
    As intriguing and whimsical at times his works might be, as intellectually seductive they present themselves, they are more than elaborate mimicries—¬¬jokes we quickly get but which then exhaust themselves in the perpetual motion of the sculptures' machinic absurdity. A world is described by Hawkinson whose poetic, for want of a better word, links each sculpture to another in an elaborate and continually unfolding cosmography.
    To describe this cosmography is a difficult task, however. This world does not unfold itself as the revealing of a rationale that can be followed along the narrative path of writing where we look to link the elements of a work or the thematic relations between different works in a symbolic whole. This despite the ripe symbolism of the tree. The themes of the tree and breath, among others, that we find in Hawkinson's work have no trappings of an elevated romantic humanism about them.  Rather, Hawkinson's work is down to earth. And given his predilection for waste materials, the artist usually takes what is ready at hand for investigation and transfiguration.
    Thus this universe is mapped on and traced through the lowly body—which often happens to be the artist's own body. The mappings which result seem to be twofold, corresponding to the visible surfaces and the invisible depths of the body. On the one hand, the unique surface topography of the body is charted in new and odd configurations. For instance, in the Blindspot  series (1991-95), the artist represents all the areas of his body which he cannot directly see, with the result that the body appears as an amorphous rug flung from the hairline. Conversely, in Humongulous (1995), he depicts all his epidermis that was visible to him: the distortion is due to his embodied perspective.
    (To the breadth of these spatial representations, Hawkinson treats the body to another concept that maps it (or measures its span)—that of time. In the series that has it outcome in the figures of Pentecost (see Drain and Plug, 1995-96, and Bathtub-Generated Contour Lace, 1995), Hawkinson had himself photographed every ten seconds in a bathtub as it slowly filled with black paint. Such a sectional reckoning plots the body in two-dimensional increments over time. Seen from above, the topographic levels of this contour map tell time much like the rings of a tree. Here the mapping of space cannot be separated from the measure of time.)
    Flaying the skin from its inner armature, on the other hand, opens the body's internal circuitry or structure to view. Thus we are presented with a mapping of, in the artist's words, the "'vein' and 'neuro' systems" of a junked Hammond organ in Organ (1999), or the anatomical model of a skeleton made of rawhide bones in Penitent (1994). In the unity of Hawkinson's universe, no part of the body is wasted in examination or unconsidered as a material for visualization.
    Yet, we cannot so easily dichotomize surface and depth in his work, full as it is of topographical inversions, like a glove turned inside out. Thus the pink colouration of Graph (1999)—a self-portrait made from the imprint derived from latex pulled from the artist's body and made into paint rollers—makes us think that we are rather mapping the inside of the body exposed through its orifices, themselves the dominant articulation on the glossy epidermal surface of Graph's image.
    Such distorted images only deviate from a norm insofar as they follow other, privately formed systems of modelling and mapping. The translation of a three-dimensional body to two dimensions is only the most common. But perhaps it should make us think that all Hawkinson's works are translation systems of sorts. Not that we have to find the key to unlock the meaning for what may only be evidence of a process. What we take as an end product or representation really is a picture of a process of transformation. Or, if we can treat the body as a nesting of communications, it is a message sent between different levels of organization or information. All Hawkinson's works are messages of sorts; even mimicry itself is a form of communication.
    The tree is only a handy model for the networks and linkages that exist in and through Hawkinson's work. To make an entry into this work, let's look at one which deploys the tree as its main support—Pentecost (1999). Its title refers to the incident recorded in the New Testament of the Holy Spirit descending on a gathering of apostles, speaking in tongues and communicating the Word to people speaking different languages. Something of this incident has been translated in Hawkinson's sculpture. The artist made a tree from paper, cardboard and Sonotubes, very much like a scenic tree in a stage set. Twelve humanoid figures sit on the branches, as if they inhabited the tree, or they hang from it like fruit and seem to display an easy, symbiotic relationship with it. An appendage from each of these bodies—a nose here, an elbow there, a big toe or a penis—tap out rhythms on the truncated branches which function like drums. These percussive rhythms, generated from Christmas carols on a computer program which the artist found and modified, resonate through the hollow Sonotubes. Over the time that we experience this piece, they create rhythms of differing complexity.
    The music that the figures individually produce and which unites them in its polyrhythmy has nothing human about it, though. At least as far as in its original making and use, it is a degraded, spiritless mechanical rendering of clichéd tunes which are not recognizable anyway due to the artist's retuning of the scales. Pentecost's dumb musicality deflates the metaphoricity of inspired breath that invests this religious event with reverence. Despite this conclusion, it seems necessary to rescue this work from the idea that communication comes to naught, because this is not at all the spirit of the artist's work.
    What is being communicated without words in Pentecost if not communication itself? Communication may take various forms and circuits in Hawkinson's works. The messages are not language based; his work plays with signals from the genetic realm to the cultural domain. We might follow these different pathways through the works in the exhibition, as if along the branches or roots of a tree. Here we will discover the intersecting themes: the tree with its branches metaphorically linked to notions of networks and circuits, the blood and nerves of the body or to other electronic systems; sound percussively or pneumatically produced without human intervention, as a model of messaging; new topographical models of representation using the body (always the artist's own) as the measure, but radically transformed in the process; and, the silent measures of time that might be calibrated according to different spans in the natural world or in the human, from the genetic level to the cultural constructs of history.
    Though it might not be readily apparent, Hawkinson's works exteriorize the silent communication and the invisible codes that give form and structure to our being. Thus while insufflation loses its spiritualizing symbolics, communicational circuits or channels—whether those of language, blood or nerves—gain in integrative and explanatory value. Music might be made, circulated and sustained by machines in Hawkinson's works (music and pneumatics partake of the circulatory model: the percussive tappings sounding throughout Pentecost's tree are carried by air), but it is none the less communicative and, thus, meaningful. The silent communication of the code is just as much a message as the audible communication is. It might seem that it is the message that humanizes us, but the code and its conduit unites us in our being and connects us to the world. Pentecost's symbiotic messaging system is a symbol of the all-embracing connectivity of life on planet earth in which the human participates with the non human, the living with the material. As the poet-philosopher of science, Michel Serres, writes, "a macro-molecule, or any given crystallized solid, or the system of the world, or ultimately what I call 'me'—we are all in the same boat. All dispatchers and all receivers are structured similarly."1 Perhaps this is the spiritualism of a cybernetic age.
    I am not suggesting that the tree of Pentecost is the central or originating metaphor in Hawkinson's work. There is no centre, only linkages established in every direction, as in the transversal weave of fabric. (Shorts, 1993, for example, weaves its garment from the slack of an electrical extension cord deployed in its exhibition space.) In Hawkinson's works, we do not seek out analogies but homologies. The tree is mapped onto the human through the analogy of the nerves and blood vessels, for instance, because they share similar communication circuits. One does not explain the other. The tree of Pentecost and its human "fruit" share in a manifold of principles. Neither takes precedence hierarchically over the other. Although Hawkinson always uses his own body as the basis of these topographical representations, the human is not necessarily the measure of all things in his cybernetic world.
    If we can place Hawkinson's depictions—dissections, we should rather say—of the body between the two realms of the natural world of the tree and the artificial zone of automata, it is not to maintain a hierarchical separateness for it. By having displayed the body's disembodiedness, he has revealed its incorporation in larger circuits. Many of Hawkinson's functional works address traditional automata, those writing machines, calculators, clocks and self-playing musical instruments so popular from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. Automata were more speculative devices than tools and were used to question the relation between the human and the inhuman. They were philosophical playthings before they became the fascination of artists. Since they were meant to be self-sustaining machines, it is no wonder that Hawkinson's contribution to the idea of the automaton has been to try to "breathe life" into its musical instrumentality (e.g., Tuva, 1995, and Barber, 1997). But another favourite automaton was the clock which serves to displace the notion of the human to the inhuman span of the cosmos.
    Time has always been an issue in Hawkinson's works and he has devised various measures of it. Some of his clocks plot time in its traditional sense, although obliquely. (One of the "clocks" of Secret Sync, 1996, tells time by the movement of two hairs on a hairbrush.) Others employ odd recording devises, such as the tree (e.g., Concentric Circle: 705-Year-Old Tree Drawing, 1989), to document differing spans of time. (Hawkinson's Spin Sink, 1995, gears down from 1400 rpm to one revolution every eight-three years.) Stamträd (Family Tree) (1997) charts the branchings of a theoretical family tree traced back ten generations. The usual branchings of the genealogical tree have been reshaped here into the circular pattern of a botanical tree, with history inverted: time radiates out from the present to the past, from the individual in the centre to his ancestral progenitors.
    Morphologically similar to Stamträd, Shatter (1998) is a fake shattered tempered glass window, which is actually meticulously constructed from mirrored ribbons set in polyester resin. In this "transcription," we see the record of a chance blow delivered to the centre of the "glass," but however instantaneous in real life such a happening might seem to be, the radiating patterns of its shock waves actually grow in time. Is there a pattern guiding even such arbitrary events similar to genetic determination? Is its rationale any different from Hawkinson's seemingly absurdist charting of the rise and fall of empires modelled on the digestive system of the body in Wall Chart of World History from Earliest Times to the Present (1997)?
    The branchings in Hawkinson's work do not function like those of a logic tree but radiate outward gathering new references and associations in their wave-wake. Each works links to others, multiplying themes in transversal connections. The theme of the tree connects to that of the ship in Aerial Mobile (1998), a television aerial rigged with sails, through the intermediary of the bemasted tree of Das Tannenboot (1994). The theme of breath is maintained and furthered in the idea of the propulsive power of the wind which guides this vessel which is also invisibly navigating the airwaves with its message of—the circular linkages that bring us back to any possible message: "From this moment on, I do not need to know who or what the first dispatcher is: whatever it is, it is an island in an ocean of noise, just like me, no matter where I am."[2]


    1. Michel Serres, "The Origin of Language: Biology, Information Theory and Thermodynamics," Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press), 82.
    2. Ibid.


NOTE: This text may not correspond exactly to its published form.