David Hammons b. 1943
Phat Free 1995, 1999
Working with the detritus of African American life, David Hammons addresses black history, African culture, racism, and poverty with a compassion and complexity unrivaled in contemporary practice. With cunning wordplay and biting sarcasm, he transforms found objects often culled from the streets of New York—these include basketball hoops, chicken wings, dirt, and dreadlock clippings—into powerful symbols that challenge stereotypes and confront issues of race. Street culture provides the artist not only with source material but also with a primary audience: Hammons often creates installations and stages performances on corners and vacant lots, notoriously shunning most of the art world’s galleries and museums. The artist has said, “I think I spend 85 percent of my time on the streets as opposed to in the studio. So when I go to the studio, I expect to regurgitate these experiences of the street. All of the things that I see socially—the social conditions of racism—come out like a sweat.”

Phat Free begins with several minutes of darkness overlaid with an unidentifiable loud, metallic sound. As the video image is revealed, a man—Hammons himself—appears dressed in a long coat, felt hat, and sneakers, kicking a metal bucket down a deserted city sidewalk late at night. The work was shot in 1995 to document Hammons’s late-night performance and edited into an independent video work four years later. At first seemingly violent, the noise evolves into an almost musical rhythm that is synchronized with the protagonist’s methodical movements. The title elaborates this musical allusion, conjuring both the streetwise lyricism of rap and hip-hop and the improvisational nature of jazz.

The video’s rough, grainy texture communicates the harsh reality of life on the streets and also evokes the early performance videos of Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, and others. In and of itself, the action of kicking the bucket suggests the man’s potentially unfortunate fate. At once jarring and poetic, Hammons’s simple gesture becomes an act of symphonic proportion, a compelling metaphor for one kind of contemporary black urban experience.

David Hammons in UbuWeb Papers