Suplex Recap: Ryan Hawk’s Performance at Art League Houston

Photo: Bill Arning

Written by Michael McFadden

The performance began without a word. People were gathered in the lobby of Art League, talking shop and catching up when Ryan Hawk laid on the floor as water trickled down from the ceiling. Surrounded by dark chunks of dyed sponge reminiscent of the goo in his installation Disposal, Hawk spent the majority of an hour laying there completely motionless, like a body on a sidewalk, water dripping on his back.

On its own, the performance piece might have seem detached or overly obscure to audience members not familiar with Hawk’s work or the exhibition that was in the very next room. However, many connections can be drawn between Hawk’s works Repeating Histories, in which a projection of the artist floating in a pool is mirrored in the reflecting pool of the installation, or his sculpture of a catapult that sent him careening through the air in another projection.

Personally, performance art is a pretty foreign concept to me. This is particularly true of durational performances, which seem to be Hawk’s specialty and a rarity in the Houston art scene. I went into the performance not knowing what to expect and assuming people would filter in and out because sitting still for an hour without consistent visual stimulation is no easy feat. Like myself, the rest of the audience seemed unsure of what to do during the performance. The artist wasn’t moving aside from occasional shivers, so what do you do? Is it okay to walk around the artist? Is it rude to get up and leave? How do you know when it’s over? These are questions that many people no doubt asked themselves and that a few asked before the performance began.

Naturally, people did move, but surprisingly a majority of the audience members were only moving to get comfortable or snap shots (or snapchats) of Hawk, the drops pelting his back, and the dried pieces of goop that sent black liquid streaming towards his body. Some of the audience focused on Hawk; their gazes fixed on him, waiting to see what would happen next. Others looked at their phones, read the press release to find out more about what was going on, or watched other members of the audience to see how they were reacting. After a while, I found myself watching the audience watch Hawk (Obviously. How else would I have known what they were doing?), frequently looking back to check in on the artist.

Photo: Max Fields

Certainly this is common with durational performances (right?). People, aside from those like the photographer who frequently moved to get a better angle, assume it’s not okay to interfere or even approach the artist for fear of disrupting the performance, so they sit, nearly as motionless as the artist, and wait. Later on, Hawk told me that it is indeed a common occurrence but also that it doesn’t matter. Typically people are welcome to examine the scene, walk around, capture moments, or even leave as they please. That’s an important note for the future.

After about fifty minutes with only occasional twitches and shivers (a natural reaction when your body is freezing cold), Hawk slowly stood up and walked away. Whether it was time for the performance to end, the water ran out, or the artist couldn’t stand it any longer, it was over. Only, the audience still wasn’t sure. As Hawk walked away, everyone continued to watch, and it wasn’t until curator Max Fields said, “Thank you for coming” that everyone moved into the gallery.

Ryan Hawk performed at Art League Houston on Saturday, February 8, and his pop-up exhibition, curated by Max Fields and Suplex, is on view through February 14. 

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Michael McFadden is the newest member of Suplex and is a freelance writer, grants writer, and content provider. He lives and works in Houston, TX.