Hugh Hayden Untangles American Mythology with Overgrown Sculptures and Skewed Installations
Installation view of “The end,” NGV Triennial, Melbourne. Photo by Sean Fennessy. All images shared with permission
In a trio of ongoing exhibitions, Hugh Hayden (previously) tackles American myth-making, unraveling the incomplete and ignored narratives that ground our politics and culture.
For the National Gallery of Victoria Triennial, Hayden installed “The end,” a grade-school classroom complete with wooden desks and a mirrored blackboard. Educational settings are a recurring in the artist’s practice, and he pairs the motif with three dodo skeletons. The flightless birds were native to Mauritius and one of the first species to go extinct because of European hunting and deforestation on the island.
Tying this colonial eradication to academics, Hayden roots out the ways colonialism and its tenets continue to undermine the educational system and highlights the loss inherent within the African diaspora.
“Huff and a Puff” (2023), deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Photo by Mel Taing
“Huff and a Puff” similarly probes historical narratives. Permanently installed at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusettes, the small wooden cabin is a replica of Henry David Thoreau’s home at Walden Pond. Slanted a surreal 20 degrees, the building skews what’s typically thought of as a birthplace of American self-reliance, environmental consciousness, and capitalist critique.
“‘Huff and A Puff’ is about perspective, not only in terms of its physical experience but also conceptually, given that for some people, the world is not so easy to live in,” the artist says. Given its angled construction, the cabin would be uncomfortable, if not impossible, to occupy without bending or contorting one’s body to fit.
And finally, in his first solo show in Los Angeles, Hayden considers “the prosthetics of power,” or the artificial structures that can be weaponized for control and authority. Titled Hughman, the exhibition is entirely hidden behind a row of black bathroom stalls that must be opened to see the works, an act associated with privacy and rife with discrimination given the current proliferation of bathroom bills.
Inside is the artist’s play on an origin story. A twist on the anatomical models found in doctors’ offices, “Eve” is a wooden sculpture of a pregnant body with a baby curled inside. Other works include various types of seating—a director’s chair, school desk, and toilet—made impossible to use by branches jutting out from their sides or their flimsy, bristle construction.