Ann Hamiltonby Peter Cho
Ann Hamilton is an American artist whose work deals with the inscribing of place. Trained as a weaver, she focuses on the materiality of her work, choosing from a wide vocabulary of elements: fabric, mechanical, organic, mineral, animal. She creates works which are site specific, often spending days in and among the site before planning the work. Her installation works often include the human body, a live “attendant” who performs a repetitive task within the space. Hamilton believes her work should resist easy classification and identification. Though Hamilton’s work is not generally “interactive” by a strict technological definition of the word (as in, the viewer acts materially, the work reacts materially), examining her work may prove useful for media art and interactive art practitioners.
Born in 1956 in Lima, Ohio, Hamilton studied literature and geology at St. Lawrence University, then trained in weaving and textile design at the University of Kansas. She spent several years at The Banff Centre for the Arts following her undergraduate education, where she became exposed to the work of various guest artists and writers. She earned an MFA from Yale in 1985, where, through a series of installation “tableaux,” she developed the use of human figures, or “attendants,” who live among and interact with elements within a space. Hamilton taught at UC Santa Barbara for six years following graduation and moved back to Columbus, Ohio, where she has lived ever since. In the past twenty years, she has had over 30 one-person exhibitions. Hamilton received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1993 and represented the United States with her installation myein at the Venice Biennale in 2000.
Ann Hamilton’s work draws from a number of influences, among these different movements and genres: avant garde, surrealism and conceptual art, performance art, feminism, to name a few. Hamilton’s work in installation draws from a history of influences, beginning in the late 1950s with Allan Kaprow’s environment-based works, and continuing in the 60s and 70s with Happenings and Fluxus events, large-scale Earthworks pieces, and “whole house” reclamations, such as the feminist collective project Womanhouse. Though Hamilton does not make use of the proscenium arch, including viewers within the space of her installation pieces, her interest in using living human figures within the work suggests influences from the theater. The use of repetitive and ritualized gestures and spoken fragments suggests particularly works of Robert Wilson (who was a visiting artist when she was at Yale) and Meredith Monk. Hamilton’s dislocation of elements and their meanings relates also to the ambiguity of works by Marcel Duchamp and Robert Smithson.
A complete description of Hamilton’s installation, photography, and video work would prove too daunting of a task for this report. Even a list of the diverse elements she has used in her works could fill the alloted 400 words for this section: flour, pennies, honey, flowers, peacocks, gravel, mollusk shells, tennis ball machines, sod, pigeons, foghorns, toothpicks, candlesticks, horsehair, soap, human teeth, to name a few. I will discuss three of Hamilton’s projects which, though not representative of her entire body of work, should prove useful to a discussion of interactive environments.
In 1991, Hamilton was one of eighteen artists asked to create a site specific work in Charleston. Hamilton chose as her site a large, empty warehouse, where she created indigo blue. On a 17-by-24-foot steel platform, she piled 14,000 pounds of folded, used blue work uniforms. Working at a table, with back to the mound, was a seated figure, who erased texts from historical military manuals line by line. Hanging on one wall in the office overlooking the garage space were sixty sacks of soybeans, which sprouted and grew, then rotted over the course of the exhibition. She chose indigo as a material in response to the site, since it embodies a complex history of loss, eclipsed by cotton as the king crop of the local economy. The concept of loss was also suggested by the embroidered names on the used work clothes since the uniforms came from people who were laid off or companies which went out of business.
In tropos, 1994, Hamilton covered the floor of a 8000-square-foot gallery in New York with sewn pelts of horsehair. In one corner of the space, an attendant singed lines of text from a book with an electric burin. The sounds of an aphasic voice played from speakers along the perimeter of the space. In this piece, the visitors’ movements were tracked so that the audio switched from speaker to speaker, leading the visitor through the space. The title refers to the Greek root for the English word “tropism,” meaning the turning or curving movement or growth in positive or negative response to a source of stimulation such as light, heat, or gravity.
Hamilton’s 1999 installation work whitecloth was sited in the Aldrich museum, housed in a structure in Connecticut built in 1783. While many diverse elements were located throughout the two-story space (some of them from Hamilton’s past works) two types of white cloth served to anchor the entire exhibition. The first was on a table near the entrance: a large rectangle of silk kept aloft by air pumped through the legs and emitted from tiny holes in the table’s surface. The second was a handkerchief-size cloth whisked throughout the building along a cable and pulley system, in and out of holes in the walls, floors, and ceilings. A computer-controlled system caused the cloth to dart, creep, stop, and reverse direction through the spaces unpredictably.
Ann Hamilton creates installation spaces which are unfamiliar, elusive, even evasive in meaning. She believes the viewer’s interaction with the work begins with the material: “I think that people are not looking at what something actually is. You have to look at it and think about it materially; describe it, not by projecting meaning onto it, but by describing what it is physically. If you can enter a work that way, it will unfold for you. You have to let the felt relationship between things rise to the surface” (Enright, 1997). She wants the work to resist closure and “easy symbolic interpretation.” The highly chromed pink powder of myein, her piece for the Venice Biennale, is one example: “You can’t read it; it’s not the colour of blood, it isn’t the colour of a flower. I was very comfortable with that because I’m interested in those states.”
Hamilton’s work is often thought of in terms of feminine expression. She uses materials which are often linked to female territories, such as embroidery, hand-stitching, or the kneading of dough. The labor-intensive and detail-filled work also suggests the work ethic of the American midwest.
While visitors of Hamilton’s works enter into the physical space of the installation, they are not asked to contribute or interact in an integral way. They feel alone, partly because of the vast scale of the spaces, and partly because of the distancing effect of the odd smells, sounds, and materials Hamilton uses. Her works are sometimes criticized for her complicated, content-laden approach, resulting triteness or heavy-handedness.
Though not generally interactive in a technical sense of the word (tropos is an exception), Hamilton’s installations do in some cases elicit unexpected direct reactions by the viewers. Hamilton describes a reciprocity in myein: “Do you know that people were writing in the pink powder? They were writing typical graffiti-type stuff; there’s a tradition of graffiti in classical temples. The powder generates this response; it’s this incredible leaking chroma that’s very foreign to the building.” In a 1989 installation at Capp Street Project, Hamilton’s field of over 750,000 pennies unexpectedly encouraged viewers to bring and add their own penny collections to the piece.
One contrast perhaps between Hamilton’s work and some of the work in media art today is that hers is unapologetically beautiful as opposed to, say, unintentially ugly (ie John Klima). Hamilton believes the beauty is an integral aspect of the work: “I know people have seen the beauty of the work as especially problematic. It’s not a problem for me. I want you to want to look at them and beauty has to be a part of that” (Enright).
Ann Hamilton’s installation work represents a dedication to the site which is not often seen in today’s world of the blank-white-box gallery space. This site-specificity informs the actual content and process of the work. Her process of making begins with attention to the site; the form follows later. The spaces are indeed “interactive envrionements” in that they intice the visitor to “interact” through physical motion within the space and mental reflection about the materials and their signification.
Anson, Libby. “Deep Pink Solace: An Interview with Ann Hamilton.” Make, the magazine of women’s art 85 (1999): 16-19.
Art:21. 2003. Ann Hamilton [online]. Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/hamilton)
Enright, Robert. “The Aesthetics of Wonder: An Interview with Ann Hamilton.” Border Crossings 19 no2 (2000): 18-33.
Kuspit, Donald. 2004. Going, Going, Gone [online]. Available from the World Wide Web: (http://www.artnet.com/magazine/features/kuspit/kuspit9-15-99.asp)
Simon, Joan. Ann Hamilton. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 2002.
Simon, Joan. “Ann Hamilton: Inscribing Place.” Art in America 87 no6 (1999): 76-85, 130.