When I first saw Jason Hackenwerth’s art, I thought to my self “what the _______?” (I will allow you to fill in your own expletive). Naturally, I didn’t know what to think. I knew, of course, what I was thinking. “Okay… those are latex balloons… okay… that’s a giant sea urchin… how do I know what a sea urchin is?”
Well, my three years as camp counselor for Magnolia Intermediate School’s 6th grade science camp served me very well, as I was able to identify some of the sea creatures, shaped via Hackenwerth’s impeccable balloon twisting skills (clowns everywhere are eating their hearts out). The balloon figures that stood out immediately were the sea urchin and the sea cucumber. While I would like to say that I remember these creatures because I was enthralled during our tour the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I cannot. Though our tour guide, a Cal-State Monterey Grad Student, described the urchin and cucumber with enthusiasm and vivacity, it was the 6th graders who left the impression upon my young, vulnerable mind. I will not tell you the things they snickered about that night in our cabin as we prepared for bed (Let’s just say, I blushed then, and I am blushing now). If you really want to know, then to go the urban dictionary and look up those two terms at your own risk—just make sure the kids are in bed and the blinds are drawn before you do so.
I am not suggesting that Hackenwerth is creating sexually explicit art and hanging it in, among other venues, children’s museums. What I am suggesting, however, is that Hackenwerth is not not creating something of an erotic paradox. What we call Hackenwerth’s work is unimportant (I tend to think of it as performed-kinetic, mobile sculptures, but feel free to add or subtract adjectives at your own discretion); instead, how we conceptualize it is, to quote Hamlet, “the rub.” On the surface, his pieces are vaudevillian marine creature/insect-like balloon twistings. That is to say, they are wholesome family fun. However, by his own admission, they are also “sexually suggestive,” and are meant “to maraud, flirt, and antagonize viewers.”
In sum, Hackenwerth’s art creates contradictions—to get technical, it creates binaries (See: Derrida, Jacques), causing the viewer to have a “what the ________?” sort of response. His art is a challenge, and an uncomfortable one at that. It is clandestinely explicit. And such explicitness, by definition, is meant to unfold. In Hackenwerth’s case, his explicit balloon sculptures unfold social morays, provoking the viewer to reconcile the fact that his latex balloon art looks an awful lot like male and female genitalia. As he states, “The work expresses an allegory that is experienced personally between the artist and the viewers. In this process, the object is obliterated, leaving behind only the participants.” That is, to view Hackenwerth’s work is to experience it. This experience is what Hackenwerth terms an “allegory,” or story. The beginning of this story forces an uncomfortable question on the viewer, the climax is the evocation of that which makes the viewer blush wildly, and the resolution involves destroying not only the art, but also social morays that have made the viewing uncomfortable to begin with. In the end, as Hackenwerth says, only the participants are left. The art does not matter. As Oscar Wilde noted in a Preface to “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “all art is quite useless.” So, in that light, Hackenwerth has succeeded in making the most wonderfully useless art that I have ever experienced.
To further experience the teenage-gigglely-awkwardness that is Jason Hackenwerth’s art, look no further than: http://www.jasonhackenwerth.com.
By Scott Warfe