Like a Splinter in Your Finger

The time has come to make a choice, Mr. Anderson. Either you choose to be at your desk on time from this day forward, or you choose to find yourself another job. Do I make myself clear?

Thomas Anderson has made his choice. Walking out of the cubicle and mind-numbing desk job at Meta Cortex starts his transformation into Neo, saviour of humanity. And we all know this story. The Matrix is a film embodying a metanarrative of contemporary existential paranoia. It is grounded in our world, but works to reveal that this world is illusionary, a trap designed to keep humanity subservient to artificial intelligence. A film that once felt so slick, pressing, and futuristic is now more than a little clunky and wooden. The Matrix has slipped from contemporary classic to cultural cliché, and now lives on through late night television repeats, bargain bins at the dvd store, a chapter in Philosophy for Dummies.

Yet here sits Anderson’s cubicle, brought forth from The Matrix more than a decade after the film. This is, of course, not really Anderson’s cubicle; it is a sculptural double made by Glen Hayward, an artist who often looks to the misplaced, the by-passed or the barely noticed. Working from an enlarged screenshot, Hayward has painstakingly remade one of the most iconic but also most banal scenes from the film as a sculptural object. From partition to computer screen to ballpoint pen, every element is constructed from wood, and painted to replicate the screen grab. A virtual world is rendered in wood and paint, sculpture made out of film.

To call anything here real is to miss the point of the film, and of Hayward’s practice, both of which work by rupturing the experience of the physical and simulated worlds. In the film, the cubicle doesn’t really exist. It is part of the illusionary world controlled by the oppressive Matrix. In the making of the film, the cubical used was no more real. Rather, it was a prop used to look like a cubicle, likely no more functional than Hayward’s wooden version. Hayward’s cubicle has real presence in the sense of being a physical object that occupies space, something that can be walked around, entered and touched. Yet it is a replica of a replica of a replica, replicating something that never really existed in the first place. As the meta-world of The Matrix is expanded, the cubicle re-enters our space and consciousness.

Both cubicles carry symbolic value. In the film, this is the environment that marks Anderson as the ‘every-man’ who will soon become Neo and liberate humanity from the Matrix. For Hayward it is the ‘every-cubicle’ of shared workaday experience, demarcating that state between being productive and unproductive, what you have to do and what you wish you were doing. A carved and painted replica of this cubicle exhibited within a gallery pushes all of these possibilities, while further unsettling that art/life divide that seems to make contemporary practice so troubling—especially for those visitors who might wander into the gallery on their lunch break, seeking ‘real’ art as an escape from their own cubicle-bound existence.

Such disjunctions and associations are Hayward’s core business. An object–maker whose starting point is the everyday things that surround us, Hayward’s acts of making, re-making and re-presentation variously render these objects and the world they belong to strange, hilarious, or threatening. These objects are returned to the world, but now as simulations that perfectly replicate the original yet are devoid of any utilitarian or functional purpose they might once have held. Hayward’s practice endlessly upsets our relationship to the things that surround us, disrupting those divisions we make between art and lived experience.

In replicating a prop from The Matrix out of wood, Hayward furthers his explorations into how the hyperreal, handmade object can operate in and on our world. Here is a maker of simulacra, making simulacra out of a film about simulacra. His very physical act of re-making responds to another pivotal scene from the film—when Neo reaches for the bookshelf and extracts Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacrum and Simulation (1981), the primary philosophical text on these issues, a key source for contemporary art, and one you may first turn to  in seeking an understanding of Hayward’s work. Neo opens the cover to reveal that the book is a hollowed out fake concealing hacked software, enabling movement through the virtual world. Hayward interrupts and reverses this flow. He reaches into and rips something from the virtual world of The Matrix and re-presents it on sculptural terms—as an object to be read physically through an encounter in real space and real time.[1]

Far from simply quoting from The Matrix, Hayward draws on a connection to the film to explore a set of shared concerns around simulacrum and reality that open into broader considerations about the role of art in the contemporary world. The Matrix provides a conceptual space into which Hayward can insert his work, to ask new questions of it and the things it can do—both there, in the virtual Matrix meta-world, and here, physically in gallery space, performing for its audience.[2]

Like many artists using handmade or antiquated processes that emphasise the craft of making, Hayward’s practice is often seen to carry an implied suspicion or distrust of technology and the contemporary world. In many ways his labour-intensive remaking of objects taken from and then inserted back into the world does serve to slow down or interrupt the pace and flow of that world for both maker and viewer. When he remakes objects of technology, that technology is rendered obsolete or given new possibilities. His carved security cameras installed in gallery spaces turn a blind eye to visitor behaviour, resist the imperative for surveillance, and even become tools of subversion. In rendering technology impotent through hand-making, Hayward twists and reverses that contemporary logic where human labour is increasingly replaced by and subservient to machines and industrial production.

Set within or alongside the filmic universe, Hayward’s emphasis on the power of the anachronistic handmade object becomes an act of resistance to the Matrix, and the technological/virtual world it spawns. In the film, the only way to recover conscious human subjectivity is by reconnecting the body and mind through recognition of the material world, of the real things and objects than surround us.  This is the very role that Hayward ascribes to his sculptures and their ability to throw the viewer off guard and disrupt their viewing experience, especially within the sanctified spaces of the art gallery.  Seen through this lens, the artist becomes akin to the hacker of the film—the hero with the specialist skills to drag us back to the real, to the understanding that the so called certainties that surround us may not even exist.

Hayward’s investment in the power of the handmade object to disrupt and compel comes more directly at contemporary art traditions. Working by stealth, this project may at first present itself as either a readymade object, or some strain of relational aesthetics.[3] He plays into a widespread distrust for contemporary art, exploiting the fact that many visitors would assume it likely that an artist would install a real office cubicle inside a gallery.

Hayward subverts the Duchampian tradition of the found object from within, reversing the logic of the readymade, through making. Replica everyday objects are sent back into the world but adamantly as art; hand-carved, hand-painted, these objects are the product of an intensive process of making—everything the readymade resists in its circumvention of the traditional values of art. In replicating everyday objects rather than treating them as readymades, Hayward ends up mimicking or offering a simulation of the readymade. The original Duchampian joke made at the expense of the traditional art object and the viewer is turned back on itself.

It is the labour-intensive act of remaking rather than selection that distinguishes Hayward’s simulated readymades from those in the Duchampian mode, with its undermining of the concept and value of artist as maker of objects. This simulated cubicle is the product of considerable labour, and technical virtuosity spread across both sculpture and painting. Hayward’s ongoing jostling with the legacy of Duchamp and what he describes as its gift of ‘the suspicious viewer’ takes on additional levels of absurdity here.[4] The ‘found object’ in question is itself a piece of readymade furniture designed to be simply installed within office spaces, the primary function of which is to increase worker productivity.

This project has compelled a shift in Hayward’s working methods and processes, and by extension his tactical engagement with the readymade. He conventionally works from the source object, imitating or echoing its form, mass and surface qualities. Here Hayward has worked from the screen, using enlarged screenshots to assess the spatial and formal relationships both of and between each of the individual components that make up the cubicle scene. Replicating the spatial and atmospheric qualities of the screen shot, as well as the objects it contains, has forced a pronounced use of painting as a tool of illusion. Hayward’s practice has long tested the various relationships that painting and carving have to reality and illusion, which here are each put in the service of re-presenting a two dimensional form on three dimensional terms. Despite its overt sculptural form, this work equally co-opts concepts such as the trompe-l’œil or of painting as a window onto another world. All of this allows Hayward to offer another take on the readymade. A film still is offered as a three dimensional readymade. The cubicle is offered as a found object, but one just found on the screen or another plane of existence that has had to go through an extensive process of translation and remaking to become present in the gallery.

As a found environment as much as an object, the remaking of this cubicle represents a significant, though far from unheralded, shift in Hayward’s practice towards the sculptural articulation of space. If his act of making is a reductive process, of carving away layers of wood to take on the form of the object he replicates, the presentation of these objects is often an additive one. Various works are regularly brought together in specific contexts to assert expanded meanings and experiences for these objects that extend beyond their material qualities. In many ways the term ‘installation’ feels as inadequate a description for these setups as ‘readymade’ does for his objects. Hayward presents simulations of installations, designed primarily to provide context for the objects and amplify the troublesome way they sit in and on our world. Hayward has described this mode of working as ‘something that expands, like a network or a virus, it becomes a model for language and the production of meaning, in that the subsidiary objects are linked by bigger patterns—in an attempt to summon a kind of mysticism for more mundane everyday objects.’[5] Often these setups creep into and disrupt the experiences and spaces of the real world, from the insertion of period replica fittings into historic houses, of safety equipment into galleries, or to the construction of fictional scenarios and environments.

This concern with larger patterns and models is Hayward working as world-maker, setting up alternative realities or spaces that transform the experience of the everyday world and the objects that dwell there. If Hayward as maker of everyday objects is akin to the hero of The Matrix, Hayward as world-maker acts more malevolently,as the Matrix itself, presenting simulations of the everyday world, creating a network or spreading a virus which displaces and traps audiences within an illusion that transforms experience. 

The cubicle reveals no signs of personalisation or actual work being undertaken, and this pristine status is again unusual for Hayward’s objects. Often the making or presentation of his work reveals the trace presence of another user or maker in ways that go beyond the presence of a vacated chair or a slightly dog-eared folder. The Bonfire of the Vanitas, or How to Make Your Empties Go Another Round (2012) amassed objects inside a janitor’s cupboard to suggest a rogue and possibly dangerous presence sifting furtively through the detritus of the contemporary world, while sweeping the floors clean. The stacking of paint tins into an absurd tower that reaches for the ceiling in Yertle (2011) is presented as a ‘behind the scenes of the gallery’ joke by inventive technicians. Both works suggest that humans (and artists) may do more productive and creative things when they are not consciously working, or just goofing around off the clock.

In this sense, Hayward would seem be more naturally drawn to the office worker who resists the homogeneity of the cubicle by building makeshift barriers to provide a forth wall, pinning up family snaps, or etching the names of favourite bands into the desk. Yet this cubicle seems barely touched by human activity. It is also singular, a one extracted from the many—the network of cubicles which links the individual worker to the ‘team’ and provides sense and structure to the ‘productive workplace’. This is not someone else’s physical work space. Rather it’s a cipher, a stand-in for that divide between being on the clock and off the clock, productive or unproductive, subservient or subversive. Hayward’s sculptural exploration of physical space creates a mental space. It channels that very human drive or need to flee workaday experience, and asks where we find such impetus: in science fiction, in film, in art, in making. Escape or escapism seems the only sensible option.

While this project can read as a satire of office space and politics, it speaks as directly to the equally complex working environment of the artist’s studio. Like the humble office cubicle, the studio is premised at least symbolically on a separation from the surrounding world. It demarcates a private workspace, free from outside distractions. Using a significant amount of studio time to make a highly-crafted replica of an office cubicle taken from a film to be installed inside a gallery brings together these working spaces and the different types of labour that take place there. It’s an entangled act of making and re-making that ends up working both for and against itself, questioning what we might value as productive, or consider a total waste of time.

Published in I don’t want you to worry about me, I have met some Beautiful People: Glen Hayward (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 2013), 27-35.

[1] Hayward’s sculptural remaking of this cubicle also responds to a proposition offered by Bronwyn Holloway-Smith in the exhibition The Obstinate Object: Contemporary New Zealand Sculpture (City Gallery Wellington, 2012). In her project Whisper Down The Lane, Holloway-Smith made virtual replicas of works in the exhibition, including a number of Hayward’s sculptures. These physical sculptures were re-presented on virtual terms, as files sent out into the digital realm where they were could be altered and remixed by users, and potentially printed out via 3D technologies. Hayward here usurps these ‘digital’ possibilities for conventional sculptural form, remaking virtual form on physical terms for a gallery presentation. Holloway-Smith’s commissioned response to Hayward’s new work is included in this publication.

[2] Hayward’s practice carries a strong performative dimension, often conveyed through modes of  installation and presentation suggesting the recent presence of the body. Performance operates in Hayward’s work as sculptural form does in the practice of an artist like Alicia Frankovich. Where Frankovich leaves objects as physical traces of performance, Hayward’s sculptural setups hint at some unseen performance or event. Both artists explore the objects that come out of actions and the actions that come out of objects.

[3] The cubicle form has been used in many ways within contemporary practice. Brooklyn artist Mika Tajima has made a number of projects using original ‘Action Office’ cubicle components as found objects, exploring the legacy of modernist form in art and lived experience (See As part of the exhibition The Future is Unwritten (2009), Fiona Connor brought the back offices of the Adam Art Gallery, Wellington, into its exhibition space, turning the institution inside out, and revealing the layers and value of work undertaken within the contemporary gallery context. In its exploration of translation, labour and desire in the act of making, Hayward’s project is more closely aligned to Simon Starling’s Three White Desks (2008-2009) where three cabinet makers were commissioned to replicate a desk designed by Francis Bacon based solely on photographs of that made by the previous maker. Starling and Hayward share an ongoing conceptual engagement with the readymade as itself a found object.

[4] Glen Hayward, The best things in life are usually not things, Auckland: George Fraser Gallery, 2005, p.1.

[5] Ibid.