Artist Tim Hawkinson floats an idea at Getty

Special to The Times

Tim Hawkinson’s jury-rigged homemade aesthetic could scarcely be more antithetical to the J. Paul Getty Museum’s modernist, geometrically precise Richard Meier campus and the gilded, pristine masterpieces on view there.

Yet Hawkinson’s “Uberorgan,” a fully functioning but rudimentary self-playing musical instrument made up of enormous polyethylene balloons that dangle from the ceiling, will make its West Coast debut Tuesday in the Getty’s glass, steel and travertine entrance hall. For six months, it will float above visitors and moan out its one-octave score in five-minute bursts, every hour on the hour.

The “Uberorgan” will be exhibited along with four new works commissioned from Hawkinson -- a life-size sculpture of a bat, a large clay sculpture of a brontosaurus, a monumental photo-collage of an octopus, and an ink wash painting of a dragon -- called “Zoopsia” and inspired by the hallucinations experienced by alcoholics during withdrawal from heavy drinking. These are the first in a planned series of commissions of contemporary art designed to allow the Getty, whose collection, with the exception of photography and sculpture, stops at 1900, to participate in ongoing artistic production.

“Exhibitions like this one allow us to put our own collections in a new light and make explicit the links between historical and current artistic practice,” said Getty Director Michael Brand.

According to Peggy Fogelman, assistant director for education and interpretive programs and the organizer of the exhibition, Hawkinson was chosen as the first artist in the series because he is based in Los Angeles and because the Getty would have “the privilege” of premiering the “Uberorgan” on the West Coast, a sculpture that Fogelman calls “a major work by a major artist.”


When the museum’s preparators and conservators began opening the 17 crates containing the “Uberorgan,” they knew they were in for a new experience. Crates usually arrive at the Getty filled with “beautiful, historical works of art,” said Fogelman. “Everyone wears gloves, we document every item.” Hawkinson’s crates contained nuts, bolts, frayed yellow rope, PVC pipe and air compressors. “It was hysterical dumping out a box of screws and photographing them,” Fogelman said. “They’re the same screws that you can buy at Home Depot.”

One object photographed as it was gingerly removed was a paintball gun Hawkinson had used in previous installations to mark a spot on the ceiling where he wanted to tether the balloons. Paintball guns are emphatically not part of the Getty’s installation protocol. Besides, Hawkinson could not improvise as he had during the original 2000 installation at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass.

Michael Mitchell, Getty lead preparator for special exhibitions, said details had to be worked out in advance and approved by the L.A. Department of Building and Safety. The city mandated myriad restrictions, leaving only 27 points where 2-inch eye bolts could be welded onto the building’s superstructure to anchor the work.

Hawkinson, Mitchell and a crew of four to seven staff members worked mostly at night for nearly two weeks to install a somewhat reduced version of the original sculpture. The artist chose six of the original 12 balloons -- a “feeder” balloon and five “satellites” -- partially inflated them and manipulated them into shape by cinching their orange fishnet casing. Using a rope and pulley, each 75-pound balloon was then lofted into place and tied to one or more of the eye bolts near the 55-foot ceiling by workers using a bucket lift. A new steel cable was attached as a backup. The satellite balloons were connected to the feeder balloon by translucent tubing, and the feeder to a hidden air compressor, which inflates them with 1,500 cubic feet per minute of air pressure.

On occasion, Hawkinson had to convene the crew and give a lesson on his homemade techniques. Mitchell and his staff strive for perfection, but Hawkinson deliberately avoids that quality. “We were about to hang one of the balloons,” Hawkinson said during the installation, “and one of the preps said, ‘You better take that piece of tape off that’s stuck to the netting.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? We’re going to leave the tape on.’ The balloons pick up these little attachments, dust has crept into the seams. It has gathered this nice patina that plays well off the beautiful pristine building.”

Once the entire structure is afloat, the crew attaches 12 horns made of cardboard tubing covered in aluminum foil and representing the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. These attach to the balloons via a reed assembly made up of polycarbonate sheets inside plastic cookie jars. Next the organ is attached to a homemade electronic console that reads a 250-foot-long hand-painted score of dots and dashes that passes over light-sensitive switches as it runs through a floor-to-ceiling system of rollers. The switches cue the opening and closing of a valve, allowing air to pass through the reed assembly and blow the horns.

The final act of preparation -- scheduled for just before the opening -- will be to “tune” the organ so that the hymns, pop classics, improvisational melodies and excerpts from “Swan Lake” and “Sailor’s Hornpipe” will be somewhat recognizable as they are slowed and compressed to fit into a single octave. “I’ll go around with my Casio keyboard and hit A and try to get it to sound like A,” Hawkinson said. The effect is something like a foghorn.

Despite the obvious contrasts between its found materials and the Getty’s polish, “Uberorgan” is not out of place in its temporary home. “Tim’s work is very sophisticated in its engagement with art history,” Fogelman said. “The exploration of organic form, spatial relationships, human anatomy and the natural world, as well as an interest in art and science -- these are elements of Tim’s work that run through all of our collections.” And the translucent, buoyant sculpture glows in the natural light of the sun-filled rotunda.


Tim Hawkinson

What: “Zoopsia: New Works by Tim Hawkinson” and “Uberorgan”

Where: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, L.A.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Mondays.

When: Tuesday through Sept. 9

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 440-7300;