James Hopkins’ sculptures have the uncanny ability to make you see sound and lose time.
The Boiler Room at the Saatchi Gallery in County Hall is a confusing place. We have no difficulty in recognising the three musical instruments in the centre of the room. There they are, big, bright and bold, all set up and ready for the band. All the concepts are there too: We think pop ready-mades or a commentary on showmanship or even, if we’re so inclined, a meditation on the absence of the musicians. We’d better take a closer look, but as we do, things don’t go quite as planned.
There’s something a bit odd about these instruments. The guitar is stretched out and elongated, the drums strangely compressed, and the keyboard tapers bizarrely into the distance. We search for the right angle from which to view them, but we don’t find it. We move around, we squint, we crouch, we’re getting dizzy. We realise that these are anamorphic sculptures, and hence that there will be one point in the room from which they will come into perfect perspective. But where is it?
Let’s withdraw for a moment to assess the situation. Better still, let’s turn our back on the sculpture to regain the composure of our coordinate systems. But now, right in front of us, as if frozen in the act of capsizing, yet preserving the integrity of the many full and empty glasses that stand horizontal on its surface. The upturned table reflects the dizzying experience we have just had with the instruments. We need to find something to sober us up, something stable, immutable and just a little more secure.
What about that clock above the doorway? Here’s one object guaranteed not to betray us, a fixed point we can appeal to when all else seems awry. And yet, compounding this madness, the clock itself is rotating anticlockwise, while its hands turn defiantly clockwise, perhaps in one single, isolated act of charity to us. Welcome to the universe of James Hopkins, the 27-year-old Goldsmiths graduate who is making us lose our balance with a string of simple, singular and beautifully crafted works.
Entering his studio is no less bewildering than entering the Boiler Room at County Hall. The doorway is a trompe l’oeil oval mirror which one has to step through, a rite of passage that evokes the Narnia stories Hopkins was so fond of as a child. Once inside, we are greeted with a compendium of curious objects: a safe built inside-out, an axe with a sapling for its handle, chairs resting on only one leg in gravity-challenging boldness and a wicked mass of brightly coloured plastic spikes and protuberances that when viewed from a precise point reveal the Simpsons settling down for an evening’s TV.
Hopkins is fascinated with visual teasers and problems, and his passion for anamorphosis produces some intriguing results. Anamorphic art enjoyed a particular vogue in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, emerging soon after the formalisation of linear perspective. It uses the laws of perspective to construct images that when viewed frontally remain opaque, yet suddenly become clear when one has moved to a position oblique to the picture plane, or, in some cases, when one introduces a mirrored surface.
The most famous example is no doubt Holbein’s The Ambassadors at the National Gallery, in which we see two finely painted figures surrounded by objects of vanity and knowledge. A strange greyish mass floats towards the front of the painting, amorphous and undefined. It is only when we move away from the frontal position to a precise point to the side of the picture that this perculiar shape comes into focus to reveal a human skull. This shift renders the rest of the painting unreadable, and so we are forced to choose between our viewing positions. Each choice will involve losing part of the picture.
Much ink has been expended on trying to explain and contextualise anamorphic art. Its religious dimension involves drawing our attention to the spiritual world beyond the register of worldly objects, through allowing us to see something ‘beyond the image’. The death’s head and the carefully hidden crucifix at the top left corner of The Ambassadors suggest mortality and salvation, yet they also tell us something about artistic practice. The relation of the crucifix to the concealing curtain echoes that of the skull to the rest of the picture: it draws our attention to the quality of the painted surface and what lies beyond it.
The fact that there are two viewing points implies that perspective construction itself is artificial. The technique that was supposed to depict the visual world ‘as it really is’ becomes unmasked as convention. What you see, after all, depends on where you see it from. And rather than bringing the eye to a depicted scene, it shows how the eye made the scene in the first place. The picture is much more than a window to which we bring our well-defined gaze, since our own involvement includes us within it.
One of the many virtues of Hopkins’ practice is that it inflects the anamorphic tradition in a very specific way. He is not simply recapitulating perspective techniques with contemporary motifs like the Simpsons or pop instruments. As we move around the guitar, drums and keyboard in County Hall, we find no one viewing point that would bring everything into focus. Instead, we are made utterly conscious of our own bodies and their disorientation in space. As we strain and grimace at these elastic objects, we become aware of our own visual operations in the most intimate way. We have the terrible experience of not knowing whether our visual instability is due to the foreshortening of the objects or our own foreshortening techniques when we look at them. We don’t know if it’s them or us. Perspective becomes visceral. We feel it.
As well as reintroducing the body so dreadfully and so neatly into the act of viewing, Hopkins’ work also makes us consider how our sensory modalities communicate with each other. This is a theme of great interest to contemporary psychologists. In a series of devilish but instructive experiments, researchers would present the youngest infants with dummies to suck on. Some of these would have smooth surfaces, others would be textured in particular ways. The experiments were constructed so that the infants could not see the dummies, and yet, some time later, they could clearly identify which dummies they had sucked on from purely visual data. What they had first felt and not seen they could later pick out without feeling. In other words, information was being transferred from one sensory modality to another: in this example, from touch to sight.
How cross-modal perception operates remains a mystery, but its dynamics are central to Hopkins’ work. With his musical instruments, he says he is aiming ‘to transfer the experience of sound into the very stuff of the sculptures themselves’. The distortions in the visual register and in the body’s orientation that we experience when we encounter them are, for Hopkins, equivalent to the effects of sound. ‘I wanted to make an instrument’, he says, ‘that looked like the sound it made’. Just as the beer table materialises the feeling of drunkenness, so the anamorphic instruments materialise the experience of sound.
Sound, in fact, has a rather special place in the artist’s trajectory. His first excursions into art practice involved copying the psychedelic album covers of 60s records his family cherished. The circular rotation of vinyl would then fascinate him in the thousands of pots he manufactured during his teenage years. ‘There was something mesmeric’, he says, ‘about the making procedure’, as he would watch the clay organise itself around the ‘central point of absence’. The hole at the centre of the concentric rings of vinyl would metamorphose into the emptiness at the heart of the pot and then into the concern with centres in his anamorphic work, with both vision and gravity.
His new show at MW Projects continues this exploration of what Hopkins calls ‘central points’. In Limbo of the Lost, the scale model of a boat lost in the Bermuda Triangle is installed in a box with two viewing windows. Through one, we see the boat and surrounding sea and sky. Through the other, we see the sea and sky but no boat. The piece has actualised the act of disappearance, showing us once again how our own act of viewing determines what’s there and what isn’t. In the accompanying piece Great Issac’s Rock, the functioning model of a lighthouse from which two keepers vanished without trace in 1969 rotates its beam of light around the gallery space. At a precise point on its circular course, it produces a subtle shadow on the walls, and we recognise the form of a death’s head.
These variations on an anamorphic theme interpellate the viewer, and perhaps generate the same wonder and perplexity that the artist describes on first encountering the potter’s wheel. Shapes continually change, bounding and defining a central point in what Hopkins calls an ‘elastic band reality’. This central point is a hole, either the missing point of perspective in the array of instruments or the eccentric memento mori in Great Issac’s Rock. Like a potter, Hopkins shows us with some dexterity the possibilities of making something out of nothing.