A hammer- Project 2: The Subverted Object

“The utility of any artefact presumably depends on how well it performs a specific function. Apart from its utility, it may be emblematic of a way of life involving powerful emotional commitments.” -Project Brief


In the investigation of objects and subverting its meaning, I was assigned the hammer. The hammer was a convenient tool being a hand held tool, purchasing it was easy as well, priced at $6.95. In my research, I found out many details regarding its origin and historical value, mostly its value as an emblem for the Soviet Union, presumably due to its labour-esque origins. I characterised the hammer as a tool that fixes items by using nails, also a tool that can destroy due to its heavy and strong exterior. I chose to investigate the latter for a dynamic approach and narration.

The below sketches are some exercises assigned to explore on some ways we can expand our vision of the objects, such as personifying the hammer in different situations.

Personifying the Hammer
Removal, Replacement and Redefinition

We also had a take on the removal, replacement and redefinition techniques, where we (quite literally) removed, replaced and redefined parts of the hammer.

The sketches below are a few concepts I envisioned in investigating the traits of the hammer under Task 1:Denotation. I wanted to investigate the duality of the hammer as previously stated, how it is both a fixer and a destroyer. In the sketches below, I wanted to highlight the contrast between the hammer’s heaviness with paper’s lightness. Also, how the hammer is a sturdy object compared to the items it fixes.

Artist References

In the process of brainstorming for Task 2: Connotation, I wanted to approach it with a performance element due to the dynamism of the Hammer. The element of movement with the hammer is inborn and cannot be replaced. As stated, I wanted to investigate the idea of healing and the first artist I thought of with both elements would be Joseph Beuys. In Beuys’s work, he takes on a shamanistic role as he “performs” a healing ritual for the audience. In “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare”, he uses objects like honey and felt, items symbolically linked to healing, and interacts with a dead hare. This process hints of resurrection and communication with a spiritual side of Beuys. The ludicrous attempt of talking to the dead hare is as ridiculous as a hammer being a healing tool and that references to the Dada artists we researched for under this project brief. In Beuys’s work, he attempts to talk to the dead hare and even teaches the hare, creating a ridiculous narrative that builds up a fantastical meaning for the objects (Felt and Honey).

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare 1965

After consultation, I decided to eliminate the mysticism side that is inherent in Beuys’s work as there is a gap in the conceptualisation between the object and its subverted meaning. I decided to explore on the idea of the hammer being an actual healing tool by enhancing its medical effects, such as it being a plaster cast. This subverts the hammers meaning as the hammer is inherently a tool to fix wooden or inanimate objects, and not human beings. The subversion is the change of the subject matter that it interacts with. Under this, I decided to explore on Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy, an installation work that features a clinical pharmacy that takes on the theme of mortality, healing and consumerism (a little bit on mysticism).

Pharmacy 1992

Referencing to Hirst’s works, I wanted to recreate the clinical environment to enhance the meaning of my object, in his case- medicines. In Hirst’s Pharmacy, he investigates mortality as the flies fly into the bug zapper and dies, in an apparent healing environment (pharmacy). He uses the conical flask filled with coloured water to represent mystical elements, redirected by the almighty entity (bug zapper), looking over the pharmacy of healing powers. There is an overall hint of sound element due to the visual implications that come with a bug zapper, a characteristic I want to achieve in my work with the hammer.

Clinic Sketch
Clinic Sketch


Task 1: Denotation

In Task 1, I wanted to feature the visual symbolism of the hammer. This meant that I wanted to bring out the physical qualities inherent with the hammer through the pictorial narration, e.g. weight, sturdiness, metallic exterior. For example in shot 1, I contrasted the heaviness associated with the hammer by placing it in a wide shot of flying paper. As you look down the series, the photographs become less apparent in movements, a trait apparent in a moving hammer (action to static).

Shot 1: Heavy-Light

In shot 2, I wanted to represent the power of a moving hammer compared to a still subject, hence I chose this image. The shot also links up to Task 2: Connotation through a unspoken narrative of the model’s legs being healed by the hammer.

Shot 2: Action-Static

In shot 3, I wanted to play with the audience’s visual symbolism of the hammer. In common understanding, we all know that a hammer is a relatively heavy object to hold. I played with this concept by taking a shot of the hammer “floating” with balloons. This references to Magritte’s work in Treachery of Images where the object’s visual quality hints of its supposed presence, how a curved wooden object in the shape of a pipe is or isn’t a pipe, as represented in Magritte’s work. In my work, I wanted the audience to know the hammer’s quality just by looking at it and understanding that paradox of quality, heaviness versus light-weight. However, by tilting the photograph in different orientation, the quality and focus changes. The first photograph highlights the lightness of the balloon as “floating” is its inherent background, then the audience’s visual focus moves to the hammer, and then questions why the hammer is floating. In the second shot, the hammer and balloons are facing down, this environment belongs to the hammer as the objects are pulled down by gravity, hinting of weight. The visual focus stands with the hammer due to its stronger visual weight.

Shot 3: Heaviness-Light-weight
Change of orientation


Task 2: Connotation

In task 2: Connotation, I wanted to create a narrative of healing, as referenced in Beuy’s work. In shot 1, I chose to represent a motion of the model jumping of the chair, playing to the duality of sturdiness versus vulnerability; the idea of the chair breaking off easily yet it is strong enough to hold a human’s weight. The hammer in this case is used to fixed the broken chair by its wooden handle, a function that it is not supposed to do. This photograph references a plot in comparison to the second shot.

Shot 1: Broken Chair

In the second shot, the hammer is once again used to heal, but this time it is placed on a human being. The narrative becomes more ludicrous as the hammer is not conventionally used to fix a broken bone like a plaster cast. There is an implied paradox as pointed out by Lei during critique as I wanted to reference to Magritte’s style of satire on an object’s identity. The paradox exists between the idea of a hammer healing wood and the hammer being a nursing tool, both of which heals. As pointed out by some of my classmates during critique, the idea of subversion in this theme of woodwork and nursing is questionable. However, the initial plan was to create a silent paradox that is apparent in Magritte’s works that audience will be led to believe because of how similar yet contrasting its functions are. For example in Magritte’s Human Condition, the similar square features of the object allows the audience to question if the subject matter is a window or a canvas, therefore questioning its intentions. In my work, I wanted to use the “healing” tool of inanimate objects (hammer) and juxtapose it into a clinical environment that doesn’t make functional sense.

Shot 2: Healing with a Hammer
The Human Condition 1933

In the last photograph, I wanted to achieve a unity to the series of the healing hammer, therefore I chose a wide shot of the patient-model in the waiting area of the clinic. The wide shot provides a visual culmination to the plot of the healing hammer, the conclusion of the patient being healed. In this photograph, there is an interaction between the patient and the outside world. The lady in camouflaged outfit stares at the patient intently as she tries to stand up. The idea of ridiculousness stands apparent as the woman in camouflage is not exposed to the idea of a healing hammer, and yet this fantastical function only exists within the realms of the patient-model.

Shot 3: Waiting Area


Task 3: Image and Text
Task 3: Text and Image

In my final task, I chose the shot 2 of Task 2 to represent the idea of the healing hammer. This task is inherently an extraction of the reality within the photograph into real life as a pop up sale. The text I chose was the price tag of the supposed healing hammers, sold in the context of plaster cast which are sold by its weight. In the final work, I presented the text in the pairings of red-white and yellow-grey to play with the composition of the photograph. With the price tag of the healing hammer placed on the photograph, there is an assurance in the reality of the photograph, whereby the audience can actually purchase the hammer if they want to, questioning the realism or surrealism of the context. ($6.95 was the actual price of the hammer)


Test Shots
Hammer hitting a wooden plank
Wide shot of Patient in Clinic
Movement of Patient


Patient staring at screen implies time within composition
Patient sitting on a red sofa
Patient waiting to be called

Juxtaposing a heavy hammer to a doctor’s table
Play on voyeurism
Patient interacting with an unknown character
Close up shot of hammer and legs. *would have chosen this shot if not for too many close ups in these series


Learning Point

In this project, I have found difficulty in achieving a balance between an adaptable function and a subverted function as the line of difference is really thin. There are however, many reference artists who provided good pointers to note, such as Duchamp and Magritte’s work.


I also encountered problems in achieving a unity in the narrative since this project only allowed three photographs per series, thus choosing the right photograph was also an important decision that we cannot underestimate.

A surreal, nonsensical dream

Dada was a cultural movement that rose after World War 1, as an outcry against nationalism and violence. It is influenced by many avante-garde movements like Cubism, Expressionism and Constructivism.  It mocked the materialistic conditions of a post-war world, driving away from contemporary focus on aesthetics, and towards purpose and introspection. Dada artists include Marcel Duchamp, Hans Arp and Hannah Hoch

Surrealism is a cultural movement that offshoot from Dada, featuring painting techniques that incites nervousness and illogicality, leaving audiences baffled. Surrealistic works feature elements of dreamscape, sorta fantastical with juxtaposition of different elements in one environment. There will be elements of surprise, jumping out of the convention. Surrealist artists include Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali and Max Ernst.


Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp was renown to be eccentric and loved to challenge the boundaries of art- and he did. He was a pioneer of ready-mades, which was the application of using found objects and changing its functions into aesthetically appreciated artworks. This idea of reducing or relating an object’s function to something else led to many people coining him as a Surrealist artist as well, challenging the frontier of human understanding of object mechanism and sexuality.

In his works like the Bicycle Wheel (1913), he uses found object like a bicycle wheel mounted on a kitchen stool to make a statement on the human condition, which is a broad and brief understanding of human life interacting with the environment. The movement of the bicycle wheel is perceptually halted by the mount, stripping away the functions of a typical bicycle wheel. The kinetic movement of the wheel is also suggestive of Duchamp’s interest in investigating human sexuality. This “suggested” kinetic energy contrasts with the static appearance of the stool, creating a dynamic composition.

Also in the Fountain, he signs the initial R.Mutt (which is not his initials), and terms it as an artwork. This artwork is a classic Dada work until today, mocking high art with a common household item that collects waste. The name R.Mutt is suggestive of the many personas Duchamp takes on, even a cartoon character that he liked as a child. He satirically places an urinal that is supposedly meant to be placed in a toilet and enhances its status into a priceless artwork.

Fountain 1917
Bicycle Wheel 1951













Rene Magritte

Rene Magritte

Rene Magritte is one of the most celebrated Surrealist artists, known for his heavy use of symbols and paradoxical composition. Magritte was known to play with the functions and meaning of objects, creating the paradox by going against the fundamentals of identity. This in turn leads to the displacement of symbols, replacing it altogether with the play of words, which supposedly pairs with the appearance.

In works like “The Treachery of Images”, Magritte tries to distant the relationship between visual and text. In this attempt of depicting a visual paradox, he paints a illustrative smoking pipe. However, the text says “This is not a pipe”. This composition is a visual irony as on one hand, the painting is of a pipe and the text says otherwise. However, on the other hand, the painting really isn’t a pipe, and the text is correct. The visual dilemma intrigues the audience and is the intentions of Magritte.

In works like “The Human Condition”, Magritte questions the reality, or specifically the space within the canvas (quite literally). The painting depicts a painting by the window, tilted on an easel. The intentions of the painting is to make the audience question whether the easel is holding a painting and the painting mimics the environment outside, or whether the easel is holding a transparent screen showing the scenery outside. Magritte leaves the audience confused with what they are seeing, questioning the intentions and identity of an easel, since inherently people would think that it holds a painting, and not a supposed transparent screen.

Treachery of Images 1929
The Human Condition 1933


Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali

Dali was infamous for being eccentric, even when he was a child, this oddity led to him being bullied by his peers and father. He was heavily influenced by his childhood encounters, battling themes of abuse and death (His brother and mother). Dali was influenced by Metaphysics and Cubism, also Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis of the mind and imageries. These brought him to the abstraction of the subconscious, painting sceneries that are fantastical and amorphous. Dali’s work can generally be categorised into: investigation of a man’s subconscious and environment, sexual symbolism and energy, and symbolic imageries. This would lead to Dali being a prominent Surrealist artist of his generation, but in 1934, a political argument led to his expulsion.

The Persistence of Memory 1931

This work parallels to Dali’s reputation as it is one of his most notable works. The iconic symbolism of the melting clock in this work depicts the “Melting of time” quite literally. It is Dali’s play between the mind’s ingrown perspective of object identity and its assumed characteristics. In this case, the clocks which supposedly solid objects are melting like cheese under the sun. This action warps reality and makes the audience question the environment that Dali had painted, challenging its validity and the audiences’ understanding of the mind. Taking a closer look, one would see a cluster of ants roaming around on one of the clocks, this idea links up to Dali’s obsession with the idea of mortality. This is a subtle hint of mortality as the ants look like they are in frenzy, feeding off the flesh of “time”. Through this painting, Dali brings the audience into a fantasy that he had conjured, playing with the power of the free mind.


Hannah Hoch

Hannah Hoch was one of the few female Dada artist of her time, taking on themes like gender stereotypes, political issues and androgyny. She was one of the first artists who dwelled into photomontage, taking existing photographs and use it to her advantage. The act of combining photographs from different sources draws an link to many sources, referencing to the Surrealist ways of playing with object symbolism. Hoch uses found elements and elevate it into the statuses of higher art, very  much similar to Duchamp. She also investigated the idea of “New Woman”, challenging the norms of gender stereotype.

In works like the Dada Puppen, it was a clear indicator of Hoch’s affiliation to Dada, ahead of her contemporaries. She was heavily influenced by figures like Hugo Ball, drawing relations to the costume Ball wore for one of his performances.

In “Heads of State”, Hoch used a newspaper photograph of then German president Friedrich Ebert and Ministry of Defence Gustav Noske and showed them in their bathing suits, posing in front of a decorated background. The background is embroidered and floral, contrasting to the serious tone of the politicians in the collage. This work serves as a satire, mocking the German politicians, ridiculing them by juxtaposing them in front of a comical context. The embroidery patterns  serve to highlight the woman’s role in society, which is the “housewife”, and by placing the German politicians in the context serves strip them off their masculinity.

Heads of State