hills like pink elephants

ArtistejenlucLos Angeles is burning — specifically, Griffith Park, right in the shadow of the famed Hollywood sign, home to popular hiking trails, a newly renovated observatory, and a zoo, among other attractions. It’s all over the news, and Allyson (Depth of a Puddle) and Clifford (Asymptotia) have firsthand accounts, living, as it were, in the ringside seats. Disaster has been hot on my heels of late: a fire destroyed DC’s Eastern Market a few days after I left, and there was a car bomb in Las Vegas this past weekend, a few blocks from where we were staying — apparently a murder, not a terrorist act. And now with the raging brush fire. Suspecting that I am somehow responsible, my pal Lee has taken to calling me "Jennifer Storm Crow." (Feel my wrath, puny humans!)

But it hasn’t been all fire and brimstone in the City of Angels. A mere two weeks ago, Future Spouse and I drove out to the Getty Museum to take in a panel discussion on the work of the rather quirky artist Tim Hawkinson — part of a program centered around a small commissioned exhibit at the Getty, called Zoopsia. I wasn’t familiar with the term, but it’s a clinical description of the visual hallucinations of bizarre animals often experienced by hardcore alcoholics suffering from acute withdrawal: delirium tremens, or "the DTs."

LA Weekly art critic Doug Harvey set the tone for the discussion by showing the famous clip from Disney’s Dumbo, with the march of the animated pink elephants on parade morphing into all manner of shapes — some cute, some threatening, some vaguely disquieting. This was in the 1940s; I can’t imagine you’d ever get away with creating that kind of sequence in a Disney film today, although there were 12-stepping sharks in Finding Nemo ("Fish are friends, not food!"). Not coincidentally, the term "pink elephants" has come to denote any visual hallucination resulting from heavy drinking.

Hawkinson’s approach is a bit more subtle than Disney’s, but there’s the same humorous whimsy, unexpected morphing, and merging of the cute and grotesque. One problem with the Getty is that the architecture of the museum itself is so visually striking, and the hilltop views so spectacular, that the art housed therein tends to pale a bit in comparison. Hawkinson’s whimsical works held up pretty well, managing not to be completely overwhelmed by the imposing Getty setting. The cephalopod-loving PZ Myers would be tempted to hang Octopus on the wall at home, in which Hawkinson rearranges splices of his own anatomy — fingers, hands and lips — to create an image of that most common of sea creatures. I never realized just how much the pursed human mouth resembled a sucker on an octopus tentacle until I took a closer look at this piece. Octopus_zm

Seeing common animals or objects in new and interesting ways is Hawkinson’s trademark — and he doesn’t even need to rely on the DTs to accomplish this. My personal favorite among the Getty’s small exhibit was Leviathon, in which dinosaur vertebrae turn out — upon closer inspection — to be comprised of tiny humanoid figures rowing. 

Hawkinson is also known for employing unusual mixed media materials in his art. Bat is simply a hanging black bat; its ingenuity lies in what it’s made of, namely, plastic bags from Hawkinson’s local Radio Shack, which serve as the skin and fur. It’d be perfect as a lifelike Halloween decoration, but per the Getty’s curator, the object vastly transcends the mere party favor: "Materials are meaning: the sound waves that fuel Radio Shack revenues are vehicles of self-perception, the sonar with which a bat locates itself in relation to the world."

I only bring that last bit up in case folks are wondering what the heck an art exhibit has to do with science. Hopefully, those who visit the cocktail party regularly don’t need convincing that art is chock-full of science, and vice versa. Take the whole DTs phenomenon, with its lurid visual hallucinations. That’s steeped in chemistry and neuroscience, since the "visions" are caused by the effects of alcohol in dampening the action of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called GABA. Basically, very heavy drinking dampens GABA receptors while producing more excitable neurotransmitters like dopamine, epinephrine and serotonin.

Over time, as any college student can attest, one’s tolerance for alcohol increases. When the supply of alcohol is suddenly cut off, you’d think the GABA receptors would kick right back into action, but they don’t — they’ve become so insensitive to GABA that the usual amounts have little to no effect. The end result, in neurological terms, is an "adrenergic storm" as neutrotransmitter chemicals run amok, creating greater risk of irregular heart beats, stroke, hypertension, anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, and extreme agitation. In extreme cases (up to 5%, with treatment, and 35% if withdrawal is done "cold turkey" with no medical supervision), the DTs can result in death. In that respect, Hawkinson’s Bat sculpture fits perfectly into the "zoopsia" theme. Jen-Luc Piquant reminds me that in the 1945 film The Lost Weekend, Ray Milland’s character flees a detox facility after suffering severe DT-related hallucinations: notably, a bat devouring a mouse tucked into a crack in the plaster wall.

In contrast, the whole bat/sonar/Radio Shack connection strikes me as a bit of stretch, but Hawkinson plays more overtly with sound with Uber-Organnot officially part of the Zoopsia exhibit, but displayed prominently in the museum’s entrance hall. It’s a vast collection of enormous balloons and horns suspended from the ceiling that plays for roughly five minutes on every hour. A 250-foot-long paper scroll provides the musical "score": there are black dots and dashes to encode the notes of traditional hymns, pop songs and Hawkinson’s own improvisational tunes, which are then deciphered by light-sensitive switching and scrambled to create what the Getty curator describes as "an endless variety of compositions." I guess it depends on how you define "variety," but we were a bit disappointed in the "instrument’s" range, even as we admired its ingenious construction. Uberorgan_zm

Organs, of course, have a long, rich musical history steeped in the science of sound. It’s tough to name the "inventor" of the organ, but historians generally attribute it to a Greek engineer named Ktesibios, working in Alexandria around the third century B.C. Apparently he wasn’t trying to invent a new instrument, he was attempting to solve a mechanical problem, namely, how might one person play more than one wind instrument at a time? (We didn’t say it was a vitally important mechanical problem. Clearly the ancient Greeks had a bit more leisure at their disposal.)

Sure, there were pan-pipes around back then, but Ktesibios was more ambitious. He figured out how to combine several wind instruments of different sizes above a hollow chamber containing pressurized air. He generated the pressure via a few simple hand-operated pumps, controlled by the weight of water. He also instituted a system of keys and valves to control access to each of the individual wind instruments. And voila! The hydraulis, precursor to the venerated pipe organ, was born.

(Per Jen-Luc, Queen of Useless Trivia, Mozart once declared the organ "the king of instruments" in a 1777 letter to his father. Five years earlier, composer Joseph Haydn had composed a set of pieces to be performed on a mechanical organ located inside a clock. And when Joshua Stoddard invented the steam-powered calliope organ in 1855, the Worcester, England, City Council forbade him to play it within the city limits because it was just too damned loud.)

The instrument has undergone many refinements in the thousands of years since Ktesibios lived, but the four key components remain unchanged: (1) pipes that produce sound, (2) placed on a chamber that stores wind, (3) under mechanically generated pressure, (4) with access of wind to the pipes controlled by a keyboard.  Some of the more recent permutations are quite ingenious, like the Great Stalacpipe Organ housed in the Luray Caverns in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. In 1954, a man named Leland Sprinkle (his parents clearly disliked their infant son) scoured the caverns for stalactites that precisely matched a musical scale, connecting them to a large keyboard console by wiring electronic mallets throughout the caverns. Depressing a key causes a rubber-tipped plunger to strike the corresponding stalactite, producing a concert-pitch tone. (You can listen to a classic NPR piece about the organ, complete with sound clips, here.) Sprinkle manned the console for years, although today, the organ can be played by simply activating an automated system similar to that which operates a child’s music box. Uber-Organ plays music using a similar concept, too.

Hawkinson’s bio mentions that as a child, he created his own toys, a habit his parents encouraged. He’s arguably still doing that as an adult; Uber-Organ is merely the latest in a long line of impressive kinetic and sound-producing sculptures. He used strands of his own hair caught in a hairbrush to turn the hands of a "clock," for instance, while 1993’s Signature consists of an analog machine that translates the artist’s physical gestures into a literal motion record, ceaselessly inscribing the artist’s name in ballpoint pen on an antique school desk.

Two years later, in 1995, Hawkinson debuted Spin Sink, a 23-foot long row of interlocking gears of varying sizes. A tiny toy motor turned the smallest gear, which in turn drove the next largest, and so forth. (The largest gear supposedly should only rotate once every 83 years, assuming the sculpture remains in any one place for that long.) That’s cute; Emoter is downright disturbing. Hawkinson created a 2D mechanical facial puppet out of his own distorted features. The expressions are randomly determined by patterns of light from a nearby TV set — a clear parallel to how consciousness is linked to the firing of electrical impulses in the brain.

And how could I not mention Hawkinson’s massive granite sculpture, Bear, truly an inspired feat of engineering — which explains why it’s housed in the academic courtyard of the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego? Towering 23 feet and weighing 180 tons, Bear is made out of eight large pieces of quarried granite arranged to form a torso, head, ears, arms, and legs. I can’t even imagine how much engineering know-how went into ensuring the piece was sufficiently stable for southern California’s earthquake prone region, but the UCSD press release assures me it is so. The school’s engineering students helped with the analysis, and the dean, Frieder Seible, conducted the final independent engineering check.

See? There’s all kinds of science in Hawkinson’s art, and more than a little art in that science. And now I must get back to the business of unpacking, which has consumed my life the past several days, as the movers dropped off my accumulated worldly goods right before our weekend jaunt to Vegas. There’s a blog post in there, I just know it… should I ever find the time to write it up (and if you’re wondering why posting has been light this week — that’s why). In the meantime, amuse yourselves with this fascinating short film, in which miniature catapults launch tiny cream pies into the faces of live insects. I kid you not. They’re serious about the whole "size matters" thing, too: the scale is carefully marked. A bit of science +  a bit of art (or at least artful camera angles) adds up to an entertaining five minutes on the Internets. Enjoy!

2 thoughts on “hills like pink elephants”

  1. “Sprinkle manned the console for years, although today, the organ can be played by simply activating an automated system similar to that which operates a child’s music box.”
    Automated organs are direct ancestors of modern computers. The punch cards which stored digital information right up through the 1970s descend, via the Hollerith census tabulator, from the cards which controlled the Jacquard loom. Joseph Marie Jacquard was one of those lucky schmucks who got all the credit by adding the last piece: while today his name covers the entire concept of automated weaving, his real contribution was to take a loom first invented by Basile Bouchon (and improved by Jacques Vaucanson) and combine it with the punch cards invented by Jean Falcon. The Bouchon and Vaucanson designs used holes punched in paper, which was easy to tear and feed in the wrong way; cards were more durable and easier to position.
    And where did Basile Bouchon get the idea of putting holes in paper to store information? From his father, the organ-builder. Automated organs of the period used large rotating cylinders with pegs stuck in them; as the cylinder turned, the pegs tripped levers controlling the valves on the organ pipes. (When I was much younger, I had a music box which played “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. Inside it, you could see a metal cylinder with little teeth, operating on the same principle.) The organ-builders told the carpenters where to put the pegs by giving them a roll of paper punched with holes.

  2. “apparently a murder, not a terrorist attack”
    I lived in DC during the sniper scare, and I remember one morning the police were reporting that a shooting in the District the night before was “just part of the normal urban crime, and not part of the new pattern.” For some reason I wasn’t comforted…

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