Installation view of Elmgreen & Dragset’s work in NGV Triennial on display from 3 December 2023 – 7 April 2024 at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo: Sean Fennessy<br/>

Hugh Hayden

Donna McColm and Elisa Scarton

Raised in Texas and trained as an architect, Hugh Hayden’s work arises from a deep connection to nature and its materials. Wood is his primary medium, which he saws, sculpts and sands, often combining disparate species of tree to create composite forms that reflect their complex cultural backgrounds. Here, he shares more in an exclusive interview with NGV Magazine.

DONNA McCOLM Hugh, your installation The end, 2022, is one of two works on display as part of NGV Triennial 2023. Tell us what inspired you to make this work.
HUGH HAYDEN I’ve wanted to make this piece for a while. The work features skeleton creatures perched on school desks and chairs in a classroom-like setting. A school desk means acquiring an education. It can represent personal enlightenment, but also upward mobility in society. The skeletons with tree branches coming out of them don’t have any leaves, so they could be any type of deciduous tree or evergreen tree. And skeletons too have no identity. They could be any gender, any religion, any race, any sexuality.

DM These are dodo skeletons, right? What is the significance of this bird in the context of the work?
HH The viewer might not realise it, but yes, I chose to use a dodo skeleton as it’s one of the first animals you learn about that went extinct because of humankind. This work was made right as COVID was ending and so the classroom can also be conflated with some sort of idea of extinction, because a lot of people thought everything would go online. At the NGV, it’s presented on a plinth. The whole thing is an object. In fifty or a hundred years it’s like, this is how humans educated themselves, in this sort of classroom. It’s funny just to show the whole classroom as this thing of the past.

ELISA SCARTON Like a specimen in itself?
HH Yes, so not just the dodo, not just the tree, but the whole means of learning will be a vestige of the past. When The end was first shown at Art Basel, you couldn’t really walk in the installation and you only saw it from one side. At NGV Triennial, you’re seeing it on all four sides. It’s slightly raised. It becomes this other specimen. Hence, the name, The end. What is this the end of? Is this supposed to be a mascot for Greenpeace or some sort of ecological issue? As an artist I’m open for that meaning to be expanded.

DM Do you hope that people might draw a sense of optimism from the work as well?
HH While calling it The end might seem dark and pessimistic, I hope a lot of people will also say, ‘Oh, it’s kind of funny, or comedic, or absurd, or uncanny’. The dodos are animated. There’s a dialogue between them, so that hopefully people don’t just walk through. Hopefully they want to spend some time looking at it, maybe wondering what it’s about.

ES You trained and worked as an architect before you started your art practice. How does that background feed into your work?
HH I am super conscious of the orientation and articulation of space, which can heighten the experience of an artwork. In The end, the desks have a front and a back. Whichever way they face in unison, that’s facing the teacher. As the viewer, if you enter from the front, you’re the teacher, but if you’re entering from the back, you’re a student. It is architectural and spatial, but meaning is also built into how you use that piece of furniture.

DM The dodos appear wild and organic, but there’s a system behind how they’re put together?
HH Yes, although they were articulated differently, they needed to have some system of how they’re put together. And it wasn’t just me. It was a team that included a metal fabricator that made the base of the skeletons and provided us with sketches we could follow to make all the bones to clad it. Then it’s also a flower arrangement, because while the bones are made a certain way, all the branches go in different directions. They can’t interfere with each other, but we also wanted them to have a certain flow. We had to have a plan.

DM At the other end of the spectrum, the second work in NGV Triennial, The Cosby’s, 2020, takes a very industrial process. Can you tell us more?
HH Conceptually I was interested in the idea of America as a melting pot. And I felt that by combining skillets with African masks [by casting the form into the cookware] I could explore the idea of African origins holding together the melting pot that is America. After all, whether you look at the building of America from a construction perspective, an agricultural perspective, or an industry, entertainment, cultural, musical, food and cuisine perspective, Africans were involved in helping create that stew. So, I started collecting these wooden African masks. They’re all hand carved and come from different varying tribes from out in Western Africa. They had different meanings within the tribes for each type of mask, as well as varying levels of authenticity. The Cosby’s is actually made from the most expensive mask I have.

DM Oh, really?
HH Yes, it’s a Dan mask from the Ivory Coast. Within that world of African masks, questions of authenticity and how old they are abound. Initially, I worried about this, but then I decided to lean into it because most people in today’s world are not ‘original’. They’re a replication of something else. Like most Australians are a mix of different things. Just like many Black people, many Americans, are made up of a mix of many things. Even in terms of wood, most people are plywood these days. They’re not an oak tree or a piece of walnut. Their parents are from different places. They’re very far from that original copy or from the birthplace, they’re an amalgamation. The three skillets that make The Cosby’s are the same mask cast into different skillets. They’re different sizes, so that they create a little family, and you can see bits and parts of how they’re connected, but they’re obviously different too. As this series developed, I started taking more liberties, moving away from what the original mask looked like. I started adding my own body parts into them. I would cast my lips, my nose and my ears in silicone, so that the skillets moved further away from the original mask, leaning into this questionable authenticity.

ES And do you have any wishes for those who are seeing your work for the first time in the NGV Triennial?
HH My approach is in working with materials and forms that are ubiquitous or familiar, such as wood or trees, things that people might’ve grown up with their whole life and taken for granted. If I can manipulate how you think about these really ordinary things, I hope maybe I can change what you think about the more conceptual understandings these works are about. It’s fine if you don’t get to that, but by working first with these familiar things, I can maybe find a way in to transform how you think about the larger issues.

Donna McColm is NGV Assistant Director, Curatorial and Audience Engagement.

Elisa Scarton is NGV Senior Editorial Coordinator.

Hugh Hayden is an artist who lives and works in New York. His work questions the stasis of social dynamics and asks the viewer to examine their place within an ever-shifting ecosystem.

See Hugh Hayden’s works as part of NGV Triennial .

The end, 2022, was purchased with funds generously donated by the Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund.
The Cosby’s, 2020, was purchased with funds donated by The Fleischner Family Charitable Foundation, 2022.
Hugh Hayden has been supported by the Elizabeth Summons Grant in Memory of Nicholas Draffin.