WHERE T HE LIMITS LIE
A true provocateur of the artistic realm has Sydneysiders thinking, with a striking body of work that holds a mirror up to mortality, writes Sebastian Smee
WE are machines. We take in fuel. Our lungs heave. Air streams in, pours out, streams in again. Our hearts squeeze blood through tubes that branch and fork, almost unmappable in their profusion. Our bodies are cathedrals of sensation. Conveyed to the brain, their perceptions trigger continuous response.
The brain, meanwhile, involves itself darkly in calculation.
All this — the basic mechanics, that is to say, of our corporeal existence — is material for Tim Hawkinson, as it was for Leonardo da Vinci. Hawkinson is no Leonardo, but he is one of
Tim Hawkinson: Mapping the Marvellous Callum Innes Museum of Contemporary until March 5.
contemporary art ’ s brightest stars, a Californian artist who has been delighting and provoking audiences across the world for two decades.
Hawkinson ’ s work, full of fancy, perversity and profundity, proves that courage is not enough when it comes to looking the reality of our mortal predicament in the face. You need a sense of humour, too. He has no discernible style, unless an attitude of improvised whimsicality and homely make- do qualifies as style. He makes sculptures from bronze one minute and from cardboard the next. He makes flippant- looking machines with moving parts that function as startling metaphors for the human body.
He will make a huge abstract pen drawing and then make a sculpture of an enlarged eyeball from the same pens that were used in the drawing ( which, by the way, was executed by attaching the pens to a modified drill head).
He has also rendered a small, utterly convincing bat out of black RadioShack shopping bags, melting and shredding them to get the requisite furry effect. Among the other materials he favours are aluminium, Styrofoam and Latex.
Hawkinson is part of a generation of artists highly conscious of their role as entertainers.
In this they hark back to earlier eras — William Hogarth ’s, for instance — when artists felt obliged to think up ever more ingenious ways of getting the public ’s attention, often against stiff competition.
Today, in a similarly competitive environment, no one better manipulates the public ’s attention than Britain ’ s Damien Hirst — h e of the shark suspended in formaldehyde and the diamondencrusted skull — although Hirst has the likes of Tracey Emin, the Chapman brothers, Maurizio Cattelan and Jeff Koons constantly snapping at his heels.
Hawkinson shares similar traits with these artists. His work is full of surprises, conceits, occasional excursions into the macabre and imaginative thrills. There is almost a circus- like atmosphere around some of his concoctions.
But he is also radically different from Hirst and Koons. Hawkinson is devoid of cynicism, immune to insincerity. Unlike those others, he does not make himself a focus of attention ( ‘‘ I am not a verbal person, ’’ he has said. If I were,
‘‘ I would be a writer instead of an artist ’’ ). Rather, he wants the viewer to experience genuine and sustained wonder in front of his work, not just a short- lived wow ’’ .
‘‘ I initially went to the Museum of Contemporary Art ’ s Hawkinson show, called Mapping the Marvellous, with my three- year- old son. So I can certainly vouch for the wow effect. It worked on my jaded, hard- to- please palate as well as on his. He particularly liked the bat. I liked the sea monster that drips water on tinfoil- covered pails in percussive rhythm. And we were both absolutely smitten by the model sailing ship in the shape of a Moebius strip.
But Hawkinson manages to do more than merely entertain. He startles you and then gets you thinking. And the thinking is not circumscribed. You are not supposed to get it’’ .
‘‘ You are not supposed to ’’ anything. But
‘‘ something in you can ’t help but remember the forms, the materials, the general air of invention and inquiry.
Much of that invention and inquiry relates to the wonders of the human body, how it functions, how it perceives, what it depends on and where its limits lie. The eyeball with the iris is made up of green pens, for instance, suggesting to me something about the mysteries inherent in the relationship between seeing and drawing.
The nibs of the clustered, serried pens all point inwards, leaving a small, circular void at their core. From a distance, this void creates the convincing illusion of a black pupil. But it also hints at the close association between the urge to draw and the desire to approach the invisible. And this again takes us back to a consideration of everything we don ’ t know or allow ourselves to forget about how our bodies work: the miraculous, invisible machine within.
Other works by Hawkinson, as curator Rachel Kent points out, represent the body as a secondary effect, a by- product of external forces such as gravity, displacement of fluids or the
limits of vision. From soft polyurethane foam, for instance, he has made a shallow relief cast of his own body as it is seen in reflection when the nose is pushed against a mirror. And he has made a bronze sculpture of a fetus with giant ears, an attempt to represent the relative importance of aural perception inside the womb.
Unfortunately, however, despite its many pleasures, the show remains in some ways unsatisfactory. Trying to correlate the catalogue with the exhibition is the first clue that something went wrong.
The catalogue is a handsome, 168- page production, with a helpful essay by Kent and reproductions of dozens of works.
The problem is that there are only 23 works in the show. This makes it smaller than any museum show I have seen this year. A number of those included are pretty minor and one of them,
Ranting Mop Head ( Syna showstopper called thesised Voice) , was not functioning on one of my visits. Half the works Kent refers to in her essay are not present and many of the plates reproduce works that never made it to our shores.
Unless one of the planes carrying Hawkinson’ s works to Sydney ploughed into a volcano en route, the MCA seems to have had a hard time obtaining the loans it was counting on. Either way, it ’ s a shame. So various are Hawkinson ’s methods, so fertile and elastic his themes and so unexpected his methods of realising them that it becomes difficult to get a sense of what he is on about without seeing his oeuvre in some depth. Obtaining loans of signature pieces by artists as internationally hot as Hawkinson cannot be easy. But I, for one, wanted to see more.
Taking up the remaining space on level three at the MCA is an exhibition of abstract paintings by Scotland ’ s Callum Innes. Innes ’s work — austere, minimalist canvases in cool, near- colourless tones — looks odd at the MCA, which over recent years has tended to prefer conceptual art with a political edge.
I wish I could commend it wholeheartedly, but I can’ t. I saw it before the Hawkinson show, on a different day, so I don ’t think it was a case of Innes ’ s work suffering by comparison.
In its way, Innes ’s work is elegant, intelligent and attractively restrained. But it is missing some crucial ingredient. For me, the artist ’ s emphasis on process — in particular, the various ways he applies paint to canvas — has an element of blind faith to it, and it comes at the expense of sensuality.
On top of that, I found the very choice of Innes slightly inexplicable. Why choose a respected but essentially little- known Scottish abstract painter when Australia has so many wonderful, neglected abstract painters of its own?
The MCA ’s last big group show, Cross Currents, guest- curated by John Stringer, was a necessary reminder that Australia is richly stocked with such painters. Almost any of the abstract artists Stringer chose — particularly Debra Dawes and Vivienne Binns — might have been given solo shows at the MCA or indeed at our larger state galleries; but none of them has.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of other Australian abstract artists who might engage audiences more than I suspect Innes will: names such as Brian Blanchflower, Brett McMahon, Geoffrey de Groen, Stephen Bram, Allan Mitelman, Syd Ball, Marie Hegarty and John Bartley spring to mind.
It is not fair to Innes, of course, who has more international standing than any of those Australian painters, to hold him responsible for the way they have been neglected. But the context of local neglect does compound the disappointment I felt in this modest, strangely nerveless show.
Innes’ s Scottish abstract artist Callum Exposed Painting, Cadmium Orange
Hawkinson’ s Tim Finger Basket ( 2006), above left, and his Balloon Self- Portrait # 4 , above