PRINT Summer 2002


“IF YOU FOLLOW THE DOTS,” says David Hammons, “you’ll end up aboard the Underground Railroad—on Mars.” One is entitled to wonder about the presence of a robotic Mars rover among the images Hammons has selected for these pages. But once you note the name that NASA assigned the craft (Sojourner Truth), the question answers itself. It is useful to remember in this connection that Sun Ra is one of the artist’s favorite musicians and thinkers. “If you came from nowhere here, why can’t you go somewhere there?” Ra used to ask. And, indeed, Hammons is as concerned with the transcendent as he is with worldly social symbolism.

Like many artists, Hammons thinks about that fine line between appearance and reality. He talks a lot about metaphor, about how an object may look like a side of beef-as in Yukio Nakagawa’s Discovery, 1976—when it is in fact a compressed slab of hundreds of red tulips. This sort of morphological metaphor creates, in his words, “a three-card monte kind of thing.” But while other artists worry the problematics of mimesis, Hammons is concerned with the ways in which the essence of an object survives its aesthetic, physical, and, if you will, ideological transformation.

Take the ceiling of the Shah mosque in Iran. Gaze up at the intricate mosaic and ponder the image’s implications for our ongoing engagement with Islam. God is both infinite and unknowable, and the ceiling is a picture of this belief. Or, from another end of the universe, there's the painting by Miles Davis. The musician approaches the infinite from within what we might label, in a bit of shorthand, a jazz aesthetic.

These images can be discomforting, and there’s the rub: What’s at stake, finally, is less some sort of time and place-bound notion of cultural “authenticity” than a willingness to understand the metaphor of the “other” (the “nowhere here”) as, in its essence, a synonym for the universal condition.

Geoffrey Jacques