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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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.

Art,

Syd­ney,

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.

Al­ter­na­tive view:

Innes’ s Scot­tish ab­stract artist Cal­lum Ex­posed Paint­ing, Cad­mium Orange

Thinker:

Hawkin­son’ s Tim Fin­ger Bas­ket ( 2006), above left, and his Bal­loon Self- Por­trait # 4 , above

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