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eva-hesse-contingent

Eight sheets of fabric dipped in latex and suspended in fibre glass hang from the ceiling. They are all roughly human scale, varying between about nine and ten foot in height. Some hover just above the floor whilst others just tickle its surface, one bends at the base, seemingly under the force of its contact with the floor. The fabric dipped in latex tends to reach from about a quarter to three quarters of the sheets entire length. At each end, therefore, is a crumbled, transparent area of fibreglass, which allows light to flood through. Light is able to pierce the more opaque central sections, occasionally working its way through chinks in the fabric or occasionally glowing through an area where the surface is stretched like a membrane.

The process of viewing these objects is both optical and physical. We start by circumnavigating the collective, our attention drawn to the repetition of form and the shifting interrelation of parts, in terms of their materiality and scale. We become aware of both their similarities and their differences. Broadly they are all the same, fitting into the generic description above. Yet the shift in scale and thickness attests to both the natural qualities of the materials and the handmade nature of their production.

Upon circling the whole we are drawn into the constituent parts. There is something deeply seductive about the surface, it is almost irresistibly tangible. We become slightly mesmerised by the shifting qualities of light within and through the surfaces. We are aware of the inherent contradiction in the work. It is seemingly fragile, ephemeral and delicate, yet there is a certain rigidity and weight to the pieces. In spite of their fragility they intimidate us through their scale. There is just enough room for us to move between each sheet, but we dare not. We are both intimidated by the seemingly claustrophobic space and worried about breaking or disturbing the surface and stillness of the forms.

The experience is one of seductive allure and uncomfortable intimidation. The ambiguity of the emotive experience is a paradox, but it is the space between these two psychological registers in which we find the constant framework for our experience. The seduction and intimidation are merely factors, signs, which direct us towards an enveloping sensation of ambiguity and uncertainty.

We can almost drown in the multiple associations these eight hanging sheets induce, almost all of which are anthropomorphic. They appear like dresses, beautiful fabrics waiting for the final tailoring of the designer. The whole reads like some mystical clothes line, with static forms seemingly capable of blowing in the wind. They are flayed skins, the trophies of some ritualistic torture or punishment. They are hanging carcasses of some unknown animal, the display room of a butcher from some unknown abattoir. They are sheets of honeycomb glowing and in the process of decaying or vague resemblances of bodily forms floating just above the ground. The rough human scale, the sense of skin in the surface, the fragility of the materiality’s, the translucency of the parts reading like autumn leaves held up to the sun. It is all of these properties which lead to us making such human associations.

All of these associations have an inherent contradiction. They attest to the material beauty of the surfaces and forms and the seemingly horrific associations of the whole. Somewhere in this dialogue lies the works meaning.

‘Contingent’ (1969) is one of Eva Hesse’s most iconic works, completed not long before she became terminally ill. The above readings make more sense when placed in the wider context of her production. She had a continued fascination with fragile and ephemeral materials. She liked having fun with the ability to transform materials, playing against their natural quality. She used surface and form to play linguistic games, situating her sculptures in position where visual slippage was possible. A form might read both as an internal organ and a phallus. The ambiguity caused by this, leaving us feeling uncertain and possibly uncomfortable was crucial to her practise. The potential for the repetition or doubling of the sign was often central to creating this ambiguity, creating a sense of the absurd in her work. She was certainly consciously looking for the absurd, we only need to look ‘Hang Up’ (1965-6) to realise this. Her work was imbued with a humour, sexuality and sensitivity, all of which point towards a poetic sensibility.

Situating Hesse’s work into a wider context can also be helpful. The label ‘Post Minimalism’ is often applied to Hesse. It does not give a conclusive picture of her practise, but it does point to a interesting relationship with the minimalism of the recent past. As Lippard points out, Hesse takes a number of the devices and approaches of minimalism and uses them to new ends. Industrial materials are used, but handmade rather than made to order. Repetition is taken on, but the play on subtle differences becomes as importance as the exactitude of repetition is to the minimalists such as Judd. For all Judd’s celebrations of a materials natural properties we have Hesse’s celebration of the ability to transform a material into a state which goes against its natural suggestions and being.

Hesse’s work is certainly no cynical deconstruction and critical commentary on Judd et al. Rather it attests to the evolutionary quality of art, where one artist takes ideas from another and positions them in a new context, both at the stage of production and consumption. Hesse’s work also happens to throw new light on artists such as Judd, showing up the inaccuracies of much of the criticism and ideology surrounding the work. For all the singularity and visual purity of Judd’s specific object, there remains a definite spatial ambiguity to his practise which becomes more apparent when we have seen Hesse’s work.

It would be wrong to harness Hesse merely as a tool to reinvestigate minimalist work. Equally it would be wrong to project certain biographical details of Hesse’s life, which has been done excessively, onto the sculptures. They have an independence which is above and beyond this.

When viewing them we are placed in a position of uncertainty, both aroused by the beauty of the work and intimidated by the possible

Hesse’s work is certainly no cynical deconstruction and critical commentary on Judd et al. Rather it attests to the evolutionary quality of art, where one artist takes ideas from another and positions them in a new context, both at the stage of production and consumption. Hesse’s work also happens to throw new light on artists such as Judd, showing up the inaccuracies of much of the criticism and ideology surrounding the work. For all the singularity and visual purity of Judd’s specific object, there remains a definite spatial ambiguity to his practise which becomes more apparent when we have seen Hesse’s work.

It would be wrong to harness Hesse merely as a tool to reinvestigate minimalist work. Equally it would be wrong to project certain biographical details of Hesse’s life, which has been done excessively, onto the sculptures. They have an independence which is above and beyond this.

When viewing them we are placed in a position of uncertainty, both aroused by the beauty of the work and intimidated by the possible associations. The careful balance between fragility and structure makes us aware of the own works transience and thus our own mortality, as both an individual and humans in general. By creating a situation and feeling which is clearly neither illustrative or specific, Hesse is capable of tapping into an aspect of the human condition which is universal. We are left feeling awe and fear over the very vulnerability of existence as a whole.

 The careful balance between fragility and structure makes us aware of the own works transience and thus our own mortality, as both an individual and humans in general. By creating a situation and feeling which is clearly neither illustrative or specific, Hesse is capable of tapping into an aspect of the human condition which is universal. We are left feeling awe and fear over the very vulnerability of existence as a whole. The fact that the work now only exists, from the original, in photographic form, means that this feeling is experienced at one step removed. Yet if we are able to bridge that gap, then this reality feeds even deeper into the works being.