| This Corrosion by Jonathan
Scene, July 10 - 16, 2003
San Francisco artist Jim Haynes uses rust, chemicals and sound
with his photographic works to explore the nature of change
Decay is a fact of existence, a fundamental truth borne out
by the simple understanding that all living things must die.
Inhabiting the post-industrial age, we understand decay in
a whole other way as well. We see life cycles not just in
plants and animals and humans and insects; we witness them
in the things wrought by humankind: machinery, buildings,
even entire cities. No matter how much cultures and technologies
might advance, they are always subject to elemental forces,
whether a slow trickle of water, a shift in the earth's fault
lines or the indiscriminate, immediate destruction of a tornado.
This idea is somewhere at the core of Jim Haynes' work, though
the artist might be hesitant to pose it in precisely those
terms. Instead, he uses a combination of rust and chemicals
in his photographic installations to enact change and decay
on his own work: to evince its unpredictability, its potential
for a rough kind of beauty, its inevitability.
The San Francisco-based artist, who grew up in Nashville,
returns to his hometown this week to install "Magnetic
North," a series of three large images, each one a rectangular
grid composed of smaller, individual photographs to which
he has applied a combination of rust, cupric sulfate and aluminum
chloride. The mixture reacts with the photographs to start
a corrosive process in which both the chemicals and the images
themselves slowly transform. The result not even Haynes himself
can fully predict, and therein lies much of the piece's power:
Though "Magnetic North" may represent a carefully
thought-out series of artistic choices, those choices can't
be entirely determined by the artist.
Of the three pieces in "Magnetic North," the third
is the only one that contains a distinct image. Here, Haynes
took 25 photos of an unidentified architectural structure,
each one capturing a square of detail so that when they're
all laid out into a giant ordered grid, we can make out the
overall form. Or, at least we'd be able to see it clearly
were it not for the chemicals and rust that Haynes has applied
to the photographs. The corrosion covers the shape of the
edifice, making it possible to view the work as a statement
about the ephemerality of manmade things.
It's much harder to determine what's depicted in the panels
that make up "Magnetic North 1" and "Magnetic
North 2," as the photographs are arranged in such a way
that no continuous image emerges throughout. Instead, we see
lines (electric power lines?) carried across part of the composition,
or much vaguer, shadowy shapes, or shades of gray suffused
with light and dark. Worked into most of these individual
panels are patterns created by the rust and chemicals. The
shapes are striking and distinct: In some cases, Haynes has
created splashy, overlapping circles that look like the stains
left behind by a coffee cup or a can of soda. Elsewhere, the
patterns take the form of smaller grids and sequences that
play off the larger structure of the whole installation. And
then in some places, the chemicals have formed splotches that
look like the kind of deterioration that might happen over
time if a piece of metal were allowed to rust.
Once the chemically treated photographs are exposed to light,
the images begin a slow transformation. When he first exhibited
"Magnetic North" at Works/San Jose earlier this
year, Haynes explains, the copper in the cupric sulfate resulted
in vibrant, electrifying green hues. In the course of a month,
as the photographs got a small amount of sunlight, the greens
gradually turned into "bruised reds and purples, with
the rust colorations maintaining their prominent stains."
In the course of working on "Magnetic North," Haynes
has been able to determine what will happen to the pieces--but
only up to a point. "I'm able to anticipate a general
spectrum of change beginning with the most intense coloration,
[which then] mutes toward purples and reds and comes to some
sort of conclusion with a distressed gray. Within this general
spectrum, I've encountered any number of possibilities that
I had no control over. Sometimes, the intrinsic image fades
entirely within the chemical residues; other times, it emerges
as a ghostly afterimage. What I love about the process is
what a lot of collectors fear: the fact that I have given
permission for my work to change in such a way that it's beyond
my control. Even if the terminal phase of the process results
in an image that totally sucks, I'm really excited by the
fact that the piece decided to have those results and not
The idea, however, is not simply to create something that
will change, but to make something
aesthetically striking and significant while also letting
the work go where it will. "I learn from the process
and try to hone my skills," Haynes says, "so the
photographs will always hold a visual impact, no matter where
they are in the process."
It's easy enough to read "Magnetic North" as a piece
about the human desire for control. But Haynes points out
that the changing nature of the work means that the viewer's
response is also subject--is invited--to change as well. Yet
the work mutates so slowly that we're unable to witness the
transformation, and this in turn serves as a reminder that
we live our lives in the midst of quiet, unnoticeable flux.
"How much do you notice your own face changing when you
wake up in the morning and first look at the mirror?"
Haynes asks. "It's the same face as the day before and
the day before that, in which not much has changed. However,
if you were to then compare your current face with a photograph
of yourself 10 years ago, you'd notice considerable differences."
Haynes captures this slow, subtle transformation in "Magnetic
North" by means of a sound element. Indeed, sound is
essential to his work as an artist. "Okno #1," his
1999 show at the Fugitive Art Center, incorporated shortwave
broadcasts played through a network of speakers arranged throughout
the gallery. The sounds in "Magnetic North" also
include shortwave noise, but rather than functioning as an
aural collage as they did in this older work, they include
feedback loops and field recordings as well, which reflect
Haynes' interest in drones--something he has explored in the
duo Coelacanth with fellow Bay Area musician Loren Chasse.
But, he explains, "My solo recordings tend toward a greater
sense of order, repetition and structure." So while giving
expression to the imperceptibility of change, the sound composition
in "Magnetic North" also suggests that patterns,
both self-imposed and natural, are an innate part of our experience.
One of the questions that Haynes' work poses is whether we're
able to recognize those patterns, and on what scale--whether
we're creating them, coercing them, reacting to them or giving
ourselves over to them.
As with "Okno #1," the speakers and the wires that
connect them are a visual element in the overall installation,
in this case forming "a network of calligraphic lines
counterpointing the rigidity of the photographic grid."
Here too the artist has thought of still another way to manifest
the opposing forces in his work.
But are these forces opposing? Certainly, history can be viewed
as nothing but a record of all the ways that humankind has
attempted to impose its will on the world, on nature. "Magnetic
North" attempts to show us that all those attempts--"the
residues of humanity," as Haynes puts it--are ultimately
subject to and subsumed by something much, much greater: the
very forces of planetary existence, which hold sway over us
even as they too are subject to change. As Haynes notes, "The
true magnetic north in the Arctic is constantly altering its
position ever so slightly."
This installation is the second in Zeitgeist Gallery's "Art
on the Edge" series, which has converted the third floor
of the 12th & Demonbreun Building into an exhibit space.
Inspired by similar projects in New York during the 1970s
and '80s and in London more recently, Zeitgeist is inviting
artists to use this building in the redeveloping Gulch area
as a place to showcase conceptual or experimental work. It
should lend a perfect and subtle irony to "Magnetic North":
These renovated surroundings, which represent the rebirth
of a decaying industrial area, may end up both reaffirming
and attempting to deny the truths Haynes is asking us to grapple
Click here for
the complete interview.