Jo Hormuth

at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery

A clepsydra is a water clock: a device for measuring time by marking the gradual flow of liquids through a small opening. And Clepsydras–an installation by Jo Hormuth at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery–is an economical yet stimulating piece that marks the passage of time with objects that speak of the body. Forty phallic-shaped gourds painted gray are mounted approximately five feet from the floor in a horizontal line that stretches across three walls of a gallery room. Several feet below each gourd, near the floor, is mounted a clear six-inch drumhead. A very small hole has been pierced at the base of each gourd, and at the start of each day the gourds are filled with water. The drops hit the drumheads and fill the room with the sound of irregular beating.

Reminiscent of the work of the late Eva Hesse, whose sculpture was often composed of abstract biomorphic forms, this piece combines repeated shapes with some degree of irregularity to suggest the alienation of each component from the others. Though the phallic forms are all the same color and have been given the same placement, they are varied in shape and size. The variety of sounds produced–some louder, some softer, some quick, some slow–suggests a mysterious hierarchy. It seems the components are producing a nearly inaudible dialogue of competition, from which the viewer is excluded. The naturally produced sound also enlivens the work, giving it an animation that saves the piece from sterility.

Because the imagery is so obviously phallic, it’s difficult to experience the work without bringing to it contemporary ideas of “maleness.” Writers such as Robert Bly have recently brought attention to men’s emotional alienation, arguing that the industrial revolution created conformity and competition among men and deadened the spiritual aspects of masculinity. Seminars that engage men in such tribal rituals as drum beating attempt to restore some of what society’s demands have depleted. By making noise and having fun Clepsydras plays–with some irony and humor–into such issues. But it also illustrates the competition within conformity in which men are likely to engage as functionaries in our society.

The biomorphic shapes in Clepsydras also make it seem something of a human hourglass. Each morning the gourds are filled with water, and while the gallery is open the beating is constant. But gradually, as the water flows out of them, the beating slows. By the end of each day the gourds have been emptied. Hormuth gives us her take on mortality, speaking to the fears and perceptions of our bodies as systematized vessels through which life flows. To see ourselves as containers activated by what we consume is troubling. As surely as the earth’s rotation marks each passing day, our bodies are structured to run down and die. The drab piece’s institutional gray–like the color of offices–is a grim reminder of how our society perpetuates conformity to ensure participation on many levels, and the costs of that participation. There’s a sort of melancholy in the recognition of that aspect of our being.

Clepsydras allows for a number of interpretations while it also stimulates the senses. In its simultaneous animation and restraint, the work enables us to contemplate the connection between our spiritual and physical selves and the difficulties of balancing our different needs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Hodges.