Sunday, 9 September 2012
Paul Thek - Death of a Hippie
Although Thek began as a painter, he became known later in life for his sculptures and installations. Notable works include Technological Reliquaries (1964-67), a series of wax sculptures of human body parts, and The Tomb, a bright pink pyramid installation or "environment", which was badly damaged in 1981 but is documented in Edwin Klein's black and white photographs. Thek died of AIDS related illness in New York City in 1988, aged 54.
“The Tomb — Death of a Hippie,” became Thek’s most famous, and infamous, piece: it consisted of a full-size cast of his body laid out as if dead, surrounded by sacramental bowls and possible drug paraphernalia, inside a pink wooden pyramid. Readings of the image have been endless: it’s a symbol of the putrefying ideals of the 1960s; it’s a narcissistic joke. Whatever its meaning, the piece now exists only in photographs.
On the outside of the ziggurat, Thek posted a sign that detailed the structure's measurements, medium and fabricator, mocking the literalness of Minimalism while suggesting scientific precision. (The piece is now considered one of the great lost works of the 1960s. The figure disappeared after Thek refused to accept it from a shipping company in 1982, apparently because of damage the piece had incurred in transit.)
When viewing Thek’s work I am reminded of the very last scene in Easy Rider (1969). The Death of the Hippie pre-dates this film by a couple of years but as we hear Roger Mcguinn’s Ballad of Easy Rider play and the senselessness of the crime unfold, they both seem emblematic of the same questions. The plastic corpse of Thek’s remarkably sculpted Hippie is the remnants of his generation; an epitaph to ‘the summer of love’ and all the promise allied with western notions of ‘land of the free’. As Thek and Hujar found artefacts in the Palermo tomb belonging to a past civilization, the artist envisaged what such a tomb would look like from his own time.