“Catch me if you can” seems to be what is on David Hammons’ mind as he walks the streets of Manhattan. Who—or what—is he trying to elude? As an artist who feeds his work with a philosophy inherited from the political activism of black nationalism, Hammons has worked to resist and challenge the dominant culture and its vision of centrality. He attempts to escape the constraining cast of art history as it has been written by a Eurocentric and white tradition, a tradition that carries the weight of a history based on exclusion and domination. The white cubes of galleries and institutions are the sites in which this history is played out. There, according to Hammons, the light is on but no one is home.
He seeks an alternative that would counter and subvert the mainstream culture’s notion of an avant-garde where “art is dangerous only one-tenth of a second.”1 In terms of aesthetic strategies, he has often been compared to Marcel Duchamp and the Arte Povera movement. If true at first glance, these associations nevertheless seem contradictory to Hammons’ artistic aim of identifying alternative critical and theoretical tools. He leans against the wall of art history, but he also has his back against it, as if about to be shot. The Holy Bible: Old Testament (2002) demonstrates such a critical relationship with a dogma he considers overrated and decrepit. A sculpture in the form of a publication, the work is an appropriation of Arturo Schwartz’s book The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, rebound in leather with gilt edges and embossed with gold to mimic and debunk both Duchamp and the Old Testament with their respective cultural and ideological baggage.
From a specific point of view—that of African American culture—Hammons absorbs and critically recycles notions of racism, primitivism, postcolonialism, and exoticism, using them to undermine stereotypical representations. His aesthetic is fed by the rubbish, the castoffs, of the urban wasteland in which he strives to reassess the subversive potential of art. The sculpture Flight Fantasy (1978) encompasses many elements central to Hammons’ oeuvre. The mobile is part of a series of sculptures completed between 1978 and 1980 that are dominated by allusions to flying, being high, the bird kingdom, even jazz artist Charlie “Bird” Parker. Flight Fantasy is made from bamboo dowels, feathers, African American hair, and shards of 45rpm records. Half bird, half African sculpture or fetish icon, it pinpoints a stereotype often at play in the artist’s work: the jazz musician as the epitome of the black artist, just as sport (mainly boxing and basketball) is a derogative cliché of black social promotion. Hammons’ use of human hair is recurrent, serving to critique the status of the black body in American culture as well as the fetishism of its representation. Cut and collected hair, from Samson to voodoo magic, can convey a sense of empowerment or enfeeblement, and its appearance in Hammons’ works urges the viewer to decipher the presence, or the absence, of “the souls of black folks.”2
The video Phat Free (1995/1999) plays ambiguously on the jazz stereotype by opening on a black frame with a drumming sound track similar to a free jazz improvisation. As the image appears on the screen, it becomes clear that the sound is actually a bucket being kicked through the nighttime streets of Manhattan by the artist. The title, typical of Hammons’ play with words, refers both to hip-hop slang and to the American obsession with weight. The mundane action is representative of Hammons’ other street “performances.” Often inconsequential and decidedly un-phat, his street activities—whether urinating on a Richard Serra sculpture and throwing sneakers at it or selling snowballs on the sidewalk3 —remain facetious and ludicrous, calling attention to the artist’s status both as an outcast and as a jester for whom “play” is a critical and emancipating way to be part of the world.4 The piece also stresses the philosophical economy of his work: doing something with nothing. A mesmerizing film, Phat Free kicks us around while Hammons reminds us, with a laugh, what “kicking the bucket” really means.
Over the years, Hammons has developed a critical discourse and aesthetic based on observation and appropriation of street culture. Through street-smart strategies, he reimagines the relationship between the arts and audiences and reinvents a way to give visibility to peripheral cultural practices. As the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica once said, “The museum is the world: daily experience.”5
Hammons, conversation with the author, New York, winter 2004 (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩
The Souls of Black Folks is the title of W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1903 book, which has come to be an important milestone in the history of black nationalism. ↩
In 1981, Hammons urinated on Richard Serra’s TWU (1980), a monumental steel sculpture that was located on a street corner in downtown Manhattan, and threw twenty-five pairs of tied-together sneakers on top of it. His infamous performative work Bliz-aard Ball Sale took place in 1983. ↩
In this, Hammons seems to embody Eugen Fink’s philosophy of play as a symbol of the world. See Eugen Fink, Spiel als Weltsymbol (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1960). ↩
Hélio Oiticica, “Position and Program,” in Guy Brett, ed., Hélio Oiticica, exh. cat. (Rotterdam: Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art; Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1992), 104. ↩