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Tim HawkinsonUberorgan

  • Exhibition

  • June 3, 2000 - October 28, 2001
  • Building 5

Überorgan was a new work by Los Angeles-based artist Tim Hawkinson, commissioned by MASS MoCA for its Building 5 Gallery, which is nearly 300′ long. Possibly the largest indoor sculpture ever created, Überorgan was a massive musical instrument, a Brobdingnagian bastard cousin of the bagpipe, the player piano, and the pipe organ. It consisted of thirteen bus-sized inflated bags: one for each of the twelve tones in the musical scale and one udder-shaped bag that fed air to the other twelve by long tubular ducts.

Filled with these large, lumpy forms — some hanging from the 28′-tall trussed ceiling — the gallery and its contents insinuated the chest cavity and internal organs of a very large living organism. The beamed ceiling read like a rib cage, and the translucent, biomorphic bags encapsulated in orange netting were unknown glands or organs delicately traced with blood vessels.

If the bags recall internal organs, Überorgan’s player piano mechanism and its various switches form a nervous system, responding to stimuli and giving commands to the organs. In the “brain,” a 200′-long roll of Mylar scored with dabs and dashes of black paint winds over twelve photo-electric sensors arrayed like piano keys. Each sensor gives commands to a reed assembly attached to one of the bags. When a dab on the Mylar roll passes over a photocell, a valve in the corresponding reed assembly opens, forcing air through a 25′-long resonator pipe and producing a fog-horn like blast.

Überorgan’s most majestic cousin is the pipe organ, and its musical program is derived in large part from church hymns typically played on pipe organs. Its title recalls Friedrich Nietzsche’s übermensch, or superman; like the ubermensch, which has “overcome” its human pretensions, Überorgan “overcomes” the classical pipe organ by subverting its pious grandiosity. The grand silliness of the Überorgan, its low-tech sophistication and handmade craftsmanship, and its complexity and truly vast scale are all put in the service of a playful, mirthful, even goofy end — the Überorgan laughs at itself.

photo by Doug Bartow

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