For all of Tim Hawkinson’s entertaining use of sound and movement in his work, his sculpture’s stunning inventiveness and the way it responds to the history of media and technology, he is ultimately interested in some very old questions. Hawkinson connects the more recent influences of conceptualism, kinetic art, sound and installation work to a tradition of philosophical speculation and religious thought deeply embedded in American culture and most famously articulated in the 19th-century literature of Emerson, Whitman, and especially Herman Melville. But his work is far from “literary” in its experience and instead drops you in the middle of an age-old puzzle about the nature of our world and our place in it—forcing you to grapple with the meaning of all the strange sounds, intricate constructions and whirring machines that surround you. The recent retrospective of his work at LACMA, designed and installed by Hawkinson himself, presents a self-portrait of the artist as engaged in an obsessive, philosophical quest, in which anything, from manila envelopes to model ships, can take on special significance. To get at some of the fundamental issues in Hawkinson’s varied sculptural practice, I will focus here on the parallels between a few pieces which use the nautical as a metaphor for a mode of philosophical inquiry that is present in much of his other work.
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