Laocoön contained

Eva Hesse - Laocoön, 1966
Plastic tubing, rope, wire, papier-mâché, cloth, paint
130 x 23 1/4 x 23 1/4 in. (330.2 x 59 x 59 cm)

I really enjoyed reading Vaughan's last post about the Hellenistic Laocoön. I loved the brilliant description of its formal properties and it occurred to me that the work is a superb example of an artist (or artists and restorers, in this case) struggling with the contradiction between static mass and dynamic movement that is a feature of much sculpture.

This particular sculpture had a profound influence on Michelangelo, for example. The discovery in the early 16th century of this marble version of what may have been a bronze original prompted an archaeological as well as artistic response. Arms were missing and a debate raged about the correct position of the "restored" limbs. Eventually Michelangelo's interpretation proved to be the most sensible but it was not until the 20th century that the current composition was finally achieved. Rather than being carved from a single block of marble, it appears that the work is made of eight separate sections pieced together like a giant 3D jigsaw.

I was intrigued to discover a more recent response to Laocoön in the form of the sculpture illustrated above by Eva Hesse. It seems that some of the contradictions in the 'original' are further explored by Hesse in this work. A grid-like armature appears to support a tangle of looping forms that weave in and out like limp spaghetti. There is none of the multi-directional energy of the marble sculpture. Gravity causes the drooping forms to sag and bend. Even the tower has been softened by the addition of papier-mâché to the plastic tubing. What is the artist saying about her attitude to the famous tragic priest from antiquity in choosing Laocoön as the title of her sculpture?

The answer may lie in Hesse's attitude to materials:
"I was always aware that I would take order versus chaos, stringy versus mass, huge versus small, and I would try to find the most absurd opposites or extreme opposites. And I was always aware of their absurdity, and also their contradiction formally. And it was always more interesting than making something average, normal, right size, right proportion." -- Eva Hesse
Is Hesse interested in a different kind of tragedy? Why has she chosen such delicate and impermanent materials for this work? What similarities can you see in both sculptures? What kind of language do we need to be able to discuss both works of art? What is it helpful to know beyond what we can see?

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