A Conversation with Anthony Hawley

at Vox Populi Gallery

Showing through May 31


By Christa DiMarco


Anthony Hawley’s (1977- ) first iteration of his long-term project Passenger is on view at Vox Populi Gallery through May 31st.  Passenger is a multi-media installation, including film, drawings, paintings, and the passenger seat of a 1985 Nissan Pulsar NX. Hawley began the project by purchasing the Nissan and considering how its instruction manual—a guide that is supposed to let us know about this thing—relates to the object.

Standing in Hawley’s exhibition space, I was met with a language I could not comprehend, a narrative from which I could draw no conclusions, and text that did not reveal meaning. Language is typically an underlying guide; however, in this work, it keeps me from reaching a resolution. In one corner, ink-jet-print drawings of the owner’s manual from which he created collages appear in a row. On the opposite wall, a video with a domineering man reading the owner’s manual in German (subtitled in English) and two curious young girls who attempt to repair the broken-down Nissan perform an incongruous, and somewhat humorous, narrative. These components revolve around the Nissan’s passenger seat. Placed in the center of the room aglow with a green and red light, the seat (like Jesus’s hand gesture in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment)sets in motion a call-and-response performance between the manual’s instructions and their application.


Hawley’s approach is complicated because he considers directive language, which lets us know what things are and how we are to use them, mediated through film and imagery. Among diagrammatic renderings, a German read of the manual, and the car itself, Passenger is an environment of descriptive hyperbole. Theorist Roland Barthes noted that when we encounter an object, a narrative description arrives with it. The description is not mimetic; it carries the notions of the writer (or artist), so we translate an object’s meaning through his or her lens. Reality, for Barthes, is an effect, a result of language that constructs meaning. Although surrounded with ephemera that should let us know what Passenger’scar is, Hawley leaves direct reference to the car absent.


With Barthes’s idea of the reality effect in mind, I sat down to talk to Hawley, curious about his thoughts on language and meaning.


For Hawley, Passenger’s impetus began when thinking about a tourist’s guide, or an anti-guide that causes you to remain outside of an experience.  While on a trip to Italy in 2000, he and his wife were traveling through a small town where his great-grandfather came from, but the entire town was closed, shutters latched, and they could not find anyone. They then noticed the townspeople in the distance, lead by musicians and carrying a funeral casket. The mourning townspeople filed passed him and his wife without noticing them at all. For Hawley it was like “being outside of the codes of everyday life.” And the “sense of estrangement,” where you think you know what is happening but you do not, was interesting to him.


The project took on former versions, but in the summer of 2013 he bought the Nissan Pulsar NX in Maine and drove from his hometown of Newburyport, Massachusetts to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he lives. Initially, he wanted to transform the car—cut it in half, perhaps—but then considered the meaning the car carries and that which we project on to it and left it intact. The car is “a vessel, a passageway itself,” through which ideas flow. And it became apparent that it was what the car “contained in terms of different histories, imaginary histories, buried histories, things forgotten but also…things that will have happened” that complicated its sense of object-hood.


Hawley explained that he has a personal connection to the Nissan’s history—his dad had one too. He recalled a vivid memory driving home from the arcade (after having played the then-new Aliens arcade game) on a hot summer night in 1986 and listening to Van Halen’s “Panama.” He also finds the Nissan emblematic of the 1980s: the Reagan Era, the Cold War, and space exploration. “The car itself,” he said, “is vaguely sci-fi and kind of clunky,” an inexpensive car which “signals [a] rupture” of the utopic ideals of that time.


His associations, however, do not rely on a sense of nostalgia but compel me to consider how I think I know what things are. In listening to Hawley talk about the Nissan’s personal and cultural associations, I learn about the car through his description, not by looking at or riding in the Nissan. The installation does not, for instance, convey what the car is like to drive, how the seat feels or how the radio sounds. I learn about the car through the manual, the drawings, and the narrative. Hawley translates the elements that comprise its meaning and provides an idiosyncratic description, omitting the car.


The Nissan in Passenger is postponed in the same way Barthes considered the object to be an encounter ofits meaning, not the thing itself. The manual, for example, is an integral part of the car’s narrative description. Passenger is, Hawley noted, “as much about the manual as it is about the car.” In the film the man reads the manual in a booming, god-like voice that seemingly “roots you in the real world,” while the video’s surreal imagery enacts a narrative with no conclusive end. Through this juxtaposition, Hawley comments on the idea that we feel in control because we can follow the manual’s steps to solve a problem, but the imagery does not have a sense of purpose, making the manual’s steadfast tone seem ridiculous.


Passenger suggests the absurdity of understanding the car through oblique means: the manual, the diagrams, the seat. Passenger’s components are supposed to resolve an absolute—yes, this is what the car is—but the thing itself is ultimately halted because we never meet the Nissan. We experience an amplified version of its reality effect through light, sound, and imagery. The installation’s elements, though, cannot authenticate the car.

“We,” Barthes wrote, “are the real.” We construct it. When I search to know about the car, the object itself disintegrates, and I find its meaning mediated through Hawley. In this way, the relationship between language and the object is dependent on Hawley’s perspective, on the narrative description he constructs. Hawley conveys an inherent part of the car’s meaning through his associations. The object, then, is in some ways an encounter with Hawley, and a portrait of the artist surfaces through his notions of the Nissan.



Christa is a PhD candidate in art history at Temple University, Tyler School of Art; she is writing her dissertation on Vincent van Gogh’s Paris-period imagery. She is also an assistant professor at the University of the Arts, where she teaches writing and art history.