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Dancing in the dark: Robert Heinecken's "Manifestations of Shiva".

Robert Heinecken (1932-2006) could never decide what to call himself. Early in his career, it was "paraphotographer", and then at the end, as the title for a 35-year retrospective he had in 1999, it became "Robert Heinecken, Photographist". The point was, anything but photographer. In historical perspective, Post-Modernist might have been the best choice, except that this term didn't exist in the 1960s when Heinecken began recycling images from mass media to create his own art form.

Photographer never seemed right to him because his work was typically photography of other people's photographs as reproduced in magazines. Sometimes he didn't take a photograph at all; he just rearranged photographs he'd found in magazines. From 1969 until 1972, for instance, he would insert pages from the risque magazine Penthouse into copies of the news magazines Time or Life, and then he'd surreptitiously place his altered copies back on newsstands so that people purchasing them would find pornographic imagery where they expected serious reportage. This was, of course, his comment on the quality of the journalism in America.

This early project reveals two characteristics of Heinecken's work: his penchant for satire intended not just to amuse, but to disturb, surprise, even shock, and his own obsession with sex. "The most highly developed sensibility I have," Heinecken said, "is sexual, as opposed to intellectual or emotional" (1) The sexuality explicit in his work got him into trouble, especially when he collaged or superimposed pornography on feature stories and advertisements in respectable magazines whose sexual content was strictly implicit. Though he thought of himself as a male feminist (again, at a time when the term had barely come into circulation), he was accused of being a male chauvinist instead--a sexist.

The appeal of Hinduism was the refuge it provided from such accusations that were, Heinecken felt, unjust. He was impressed with the honest approach to physical love in tantric Hinduism. He believed that "the love of sex, the poetry of sex, is so much tied into the Hindu religion, unlike any other religion I know of" (2) This general feeling he had about Hinduism took specific form after he saw Stella Kramrisch's catalogue Manifestations of Shiva, published in conjunction with a 1981 exhibition she curated for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It's possible he saw the exhibition itself because he was just entering his third decade of teaching photography at the University of California, Los Angeles, when the exhibition travelled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the spring of 1982. Even if he did see the exhibition, however, the reproductions (and annotations) in the catalogue may have meant more to him. In this form, as a printed image he could recycle somehow, Shiva blended with all the other sources of inspiration he had found in publications of one kind or another.



His own "Manifestations of Shiva", made from 1989 through 1992 at the rate of one each year, were created by cutting hundreds and hundreds of fragments from spreads in American magazines. Crumpling, folding, and pasting together these excisions, Heinecken formed them into paper bas reliefs larger than life (as befits a mythical being)--composite Shivas based on classical poses of the Indian deity he had seen in Kramrisch's catalogue. The references were quite specific. Heinecken's androgynous "Transvestite Nataraja" (figure 2) was inspired by one or two Chola dynasty bronzes, his "Shiva the Lord Whose Half Is Woman" (figure 1) by Chola dynasty granite sculptures, "Shiva and Parvati (with Ganesha)" (figure 3) by a gilded copper statue from the Malla dynasty of Nepal, and "Shiva Manifesting as a Single Mother" (figure 4) by a Tamil Nadu bronze. (3)



This last Heinecken piece is perhaps a reference to the fact that Shiva is in some manifestations a household god. In her American household, the single mother depicted here retains some of the potent bisexuality associated with Shiva, for after a divorce it is the mother to whom custody of the children is usually granted and who therefore ends up acting as both mother and father to her offspring. Just before the Kramrisch exhibition and catalogue appeared, Heinecken created an artist's book whose title, He:/She:, indicates the depth of his desire for a fusion of the male and female principles. Even in his "Shiva and Parvati", where they remain two separate beings, there are little touches that break down the distinction. The phallus or generative organ that protrudes from the male figure's ripped jeans is encased in what appears to be a lipstick tube, thus making it an ambiguously feminized image with a humorous touch. The effect is enhanced by the fact that the couple is surrounded by an arch not of fire, but of heavily glossed female lips.

Yet in one crucial way, Heinecken's "Shiva Manifesting as a Single Mother" is very unlike the Supreme Guru and Lord of Gnosis whose pose in the original Tamil Nadu bronze she apes. Where he is the Great Yogi, the very essence of self-control, inner calm, and universal wisdom, his female American counterpart as imagined by Heinecken is more agitated than Nataraja in his dance. The need to earn a living, raise her children, and be herself, all at once, drives the single morn to a state of near frenzy. While the figure in the 14th-century bronze floats with perfect equanimity above a row of ancient wise men, Heinecken's beleaguered woman uses her extra arms for multitasking as a consumer, housekeeper, and husband to herself.

Heinecken meant no disrespect. On the contrary, he was celebrating this playful, teasing, openly erotic Indian god so unlike the puritanical one whom monotheistic Americans worship. In this regard, the Shiva series was a departure from most of his other work, whose humour is mordantly dark in nature. Generally, his art shows us the contradictions inherent in American culture, the violence to which the glamour of advertising inures us, the hypocrisies, inequalities, and corruption from which mass media attempt to distract us. His intention was not to debase the great god Shiva; it was to point up the way in which American mass culture itself debases everything it touches. He was imagining how such an exalted supernatural being would be transformed by an American context. (4)

The answer is that the Shiva who perches on mountain tops or hovers above the world under an arch of flames in the Indian sculptures, is made to sit, when Americanized by Heinecken, amidst a heap of trash. From this landfill to which America continually reduces itself, Heinecken extracts the crumpled up pages of old magazines that he recycles into art. In a culture that consumes everything it touches, and then throws it all away, Shiva would be debased, too, were it not for his eternal energy and erotic joy that allows him to triumph in spirit even over America, the Vanquisher of Nations.


(1) 1976 interview with Charles Hagen in James L. Enyeart, ed., Heinecken, The Friends of Photography/Light Gallery, Carmel, California and New York, 1980, p. 110.

(2) Quoted in A.D. Coleman, "I Call It Teaching': Robert Heinecken's Analytical Facture", in Lynne Warren, et al., Robert Heinecken, Photographist: A Thirty-Five Year Retrospective, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1999, p. 7, n. 20. This is what Heinecken made of Hinduism's celebration of the union of the male and female principle, though, as he would have been the first to admit, he was in no sense a scholar of Hindu culture. This was simply his own, highly subjective interpretation of his subject matter, as was all his art work.

(3) See Stella Kramrisch, Manifestations of Shiva, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 1981, pp. 18-19, 106-07, 114-18, and 128-32.

(4) Dr Pratapaditya Pal informs me that Auguste Rodin was the first Western artist to take a serious interest in Shiva Nataraja (and that this prompted Ananda Coomaraswamy to write on the deity for the European and American reader). But what appealed to Rodin, as to all Western artists in the Romantic tradition, was the exoticism of Shiva, whereas Heinecken's interest--and tradition--was almost the opposite. Heinecken was delighted by the idea that Shiva permeates the everyday life of Indian culture; and so his own art mischievously reveals how such an erotic god/goddess would be subverted by the everyday life of American culture.
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Author:Westerbeck, Colin
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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