Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Did You Know? Tim Hawkinson: Totem

Tim Hawkinson was born in 1960 in San Francisco. He graduated from Cal State San Jose and later earned his MFA from UCLA. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles. A twenty-year survey of his work was shown at the Whitney and then again at LACMA in 2005. Hawkinson’s work consists of drawings, prints, and photo-collages; however, he is most recognized for his sculptural creations. Hawkinson’s human-centric sculptures are often abstracted representations of his own body and usually incorporate homemade mechanical inventions in their creation and/or completion. His sculptures range greatly in size from his two inch sculpture of a bird skeleton made from his own fingernails to the stadium-sized installation at MassMOCA (and later at the Getty) of “Überorgan” – a fully automated bagpipe-like creation of inflated plastic sheeting resembling internal organs that emit an original groaning musical compilation.

Überorgan, 2000

Bird, 1997

Hawkinson’s work has a distinct handmade quality. He works with ordinary materials in unusual ways. He is known for his simple mechanical innovations in the creations of his sculptures. In his sculpture Signature Chair (1993) Hawkinson used a repurposed record player to create a machine that would automatically crank out copies of his signature. In Hawkinson’s intestine-like drawing Wall Chart of World History from Earliest Times to the Present (1997) he created a drawing tool using a basic drill with a pen attachment to create his large-scale linear drawing.

TOTEM, 2009

Hawkinson uses recognizable, ordinary, scavenged, personal and or collected materials to create his extraordinary sculptures. In Totem you will notice the forms of various plastic bottles and containers. The fountain we have on display at the Museum was based on a 2007 collaged sculpture of the same name made of string, plastic containers and papier mache. The Totem (2009) fountain on display is one of an edition of four. The one at the Nevada Museum of Art is the first installation of the piece. It is here on loan from the Pace Wildenstein Gallery in New York.


Totem poles are attributed to the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast and are traditionally carved from cedar. Totems vary greatly in subject matter but were traditionally used to illustrate local legends, family lineage, notable happenings or personal tributes.


  • Ask visitors to think about this sculpture without the water. How does the water change the way we interpret the sculpture?

  • Ask visitors to think of the storytelling aspects of traditional totems and to create a story about Hawkinson’s modern Totem.

  • Ask visitors to think about the relationship between Native American cultural traditions and land use and water use conflicts and how this might relate to Hawkinson’s sculpture.

  • Ask visitors to think how this sculpture might relate to modern-day issues of consumption and waste.