Tim Hawkinson: Creating Art with Moving Parts Tim Hawkinson's art has been called slyly conceptual and a carnival sideshow, profound and preposterous. A mid-career retrospective is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
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Tim Hawkinson: Creating Art with Moving Parts

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Tim Hawkinson: Creating Art with Moving Parts

Tim Hawkinson: Creating Art with Moving Parts

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Tim Hawkinson's art has been called lots of things: slyly conceptual and a carnival sideshow, awe-inspiring and absurd, profound and preposterous. His works range from the size of your thumb to the length of a football field. Fashion designer Issey Miyake collaborated with Hawkinson, and pop star Beck featured his art on an album cover. Hawkinson has exhibited in Tokyo, Berlin and London and at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. A midcareer retrospective organized with New York's Whitney Museum of Art is now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Sarah Spitz of member station KCRW reports.

SARAH SPITZ reporting:

The first thing you see in the gallery of wonders created by Tim Hawkinson is a massive tree with 12 Gumby-shaped figures sprawling on its giant branches. It's quiet till a motion detector senses a viewer's presence, and then the figures come to life, striking the tree like a drum, each using a different body part.

(Soundbite of "Pentecost")

SPITZ: Percussive rhythms bounce around the tree, controlled by a converted computer program that used to run a Christmas display.

(Soundbite of "Pentecost")

SPITZ: The work is called "Pentecost," named for the New Testament story about the 12 disciples of Christ who speak in different tongues once they receive the Holy Spirit. But Hawkinson stresses it's not meant to be religious.

Mr. TIM HAWKINSON (Artist): No, I wasn't interested in a literal interpretation. In fact, the title came after completing the piece and I saw it as kind of about communication and expression, and I thought that it was an interesting story to relate it to.

SPITZ: "Pentecost" is just one of the works in this 65-piece retrospective that react to a human presence. In a sense, the viewer is communicating directly with the artist, since the figures in "Pentecost" and many other of the works are modeled on his own body. Lawrence Rinder, now dean of graduate studies at California College of the Arts, organized this retrospective for New York's Whitney Museum. He says the art is not about Hawkinson.

Mr. LAWRENCE RINDER (Dean of Graduate Studies, California College of the Arts): There's virtually no discernible ego in this work. There's no Tim there, you know, but there's someone, there's something, there's a sense of an individual.

SPITZ: The artist literally transfigures his body. For "Alter"--spelled A-L-T-E-R--he covered himself in fabric and, in the manner of a gravestone rubbing, used a pastel crayon to highlight his protruding bones, creating a sort of low-tech X-ray. Lawrence Rinder says Hawkinson's mechanical objects really demonstrate how his works are interrelated.

Mr. RINDER: Every single one of the works throughout the exhibition is powered by a single line of electricity through a series of interconnected extension cords, all of which are plugged into a single outlet in the first gallery. So this is a very important thing that he's drawing our attention to that these works, which span a period of almost 20 years, are interconnected in ways that sometimes are evident and sometimes not evident.

(Soundbite of "Tuva")

SPITZ: "Tuva" is a motorized mouth made of clear plastic bottles that mimics the sounds made by Tuvan throat singers.

(Soundbite of "Tuva")

SPITZ: "Penitent," a human skeleton on bended knees, is built out of rawhide dog chews. It whistles as if calling a dog.

(Soundbite of "Penitent")

SPITZ: Viewers like Helena Lazaro gape in amazement.

Ms. HELENA LAZARO (Museum Visitor): You want to hear what blows my mind? I just saw one of the guards, like, looking at a piece, which--they're usually so stoic. It's amazing to see even them kind of engaged by these things. And the kids are really interested, too, like, the children are just as fascinated as the adults.

SPITZ: The parents of twins Ryan and Brandon Constable may be in for a surprise.

Unidentified Twin #1: It's like something we would make.

Unidentified Twin #2: Awesome. I would want to go and do something like this at my house.

SPITZ: In spite of the wow factor, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Tim Hawkinson is how unremarkable he appears to be.

Mr. HAWKINSON: We live in this wonderful middle-class neighborhood and many of our neighbors are involved in the art world. And those are the people that we're in contact with the most, and so it's just a very normal existence.

SPITZ: But it's obviously not just backyard barbecues that occupy Tim Hawkinson's thoughts. "Balloon Self-Portrait," a latex cast of Hawkinson's body, hovers near the ceiling of one of the galleries. It's inflated through tubes connected to another work called "Reservoir," a giant latex shape attached to the gallery wall that's pumped with air by a hidden respirator.

(Soundbite of "Reservoir")

SPITZ: Co-curator Lawrence Rinder says this pair of pieces exemplifies a big theme in Hawkinson's art.

Mr. RINDER: There is a sense in that piece of the necessity of taking one's inspiration or one's life force from some other source that lies outside of oneself. So one of the interesting things is that that cast of his body is turned inside out so that what would have been the inner space of his body is now the space of the entire universe. It's a very, in a way, optimistic view of the self as containing infinity and eternity.

SPITZ: In fact, the retrospective's other curator, Howard Fox of LA County Museum of Art, calls Hawkinson's mechanized creations metaphysical machines. The artist himself is reluctant to speak about his spirituality.

Mr. HAWKINSON: I am a Christian and I strive for a closeness with God and to find God in my life. I don't want to be dogmatic about it. I guess it just has a presence in my work because it's--you know, it's part of me.

(Soundbite of Claire making noise)

Mr. HAWKINSON: There's Claire. Hi, Claire.

SPITZ: Another big part of his life is his soon-to-be two-year-old daughter. These days he's home with her as he oversees construction of side-by-side studios for himself and his artist wife Patty Wickman. Though he's not making any new work right now, he hasn't stopped thinking about what's next.

Mr. HAWKINSON: I can see very clearly in my head a motorcycle made out of feathers, like, this big ostrich plume for the gas tank and these beautiful black rooster feathers kind of interlaced for the tires. But I haven't done any of this yet, so I don't have anything to show you, but I can see it and I think it's going to be pretty interesting-looking.

SPITZ: A typical understatement from Tim Hawkinson, who'd rather let his art speak for itself.

(Soundbite of "Pentecost")

SPITZ: For NPR News, I'm Sarah Spitz in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of "Pentecost")

NORRIS: You can see photos of "Pentecost" and some other works by Tim Hawkinson at our Web site, npr.org.


NORRIS: I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): And I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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