Sunday, October 31, 1999
Columbus artist invites you into her work
And the world accepts the invitation
BY OWEN FINDSEN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
A floor spread with honey and filled with 750,000 pennies; a wall that weeps; a cascade of yellow powder flowing over a wall of Braille text; this is the art of the end of the millennium, according to Ann Hamilton.
Ms. Hamilton, 43, of Columbus, creates state-of-the-art artwork. She was selected to represent the latest in American art at the 48th Venice Biennale this summer, and she is one of 41 artists from 22 countries invited to create end-of-the-century art for Carnegie International 1999/2000 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. The Carnegie International opens Saturday, one day before the Venice Biennale closes next Sunday.
Her art, and the thrust of much new art, is away from the Internet, away from images that can be published in books. It is art that must be experienced live. You don't just look at it. You stand in it and absorb the vibes.
It's pretty accessible art, Ms. Hamilton says. People think it's more difficult than it is.
Still, if you want to experience her installation at Venice, you must travel there, something many art lovers cannot afford to do.
Even with painting, there's nothing that replaces the live experience, she says. Even if you are in Venice you have to also be very willing to suspend yourself into a slower time.
The Venice Biennale is one of the oldest and most prestigious cultural festivals. It fills more than a dozen buildings with exhibitions by scores of artists from all over the world, including a series of pavilions representing various nations. Ms. Hamilton was the single artist selected for the U.S. pavilion, a 1929 neo-classical building.
Ms. Hamilton built a wall of rippling glass in front of the building, giving it a liquid appearance. Inside, she devised a system that sifts a fuchsia-colored powder down the walls.
The intensity of the powder flow changes as people move through the room. The flowing powder reveals bumps on the wall that spell out a poem by Charles Reznikoff in Braille. The artist's voice can be heard reading Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address in international phonetic code.
Literal descriptions tend to dilute the feeling of a work of art, though.
The work has a very poetic structure, Ms. Hamilton says. It's actually (about) the "felt' quality of the relationship between the elements. That's where ... the poetry of the piece exists, and you don't get to that necessarily by naming the objects.
What does it all mean?
For me, the experience of art is you get it or you don't get it, she says.
There are many levels at which you can take something in. My hope is that the work is evocative and open enough that it allows you to enter it, to be willing to enter the relationships of it, (and) that it stays with you.
It's something you take into your own experience. Certainly there is a loose sort of narrative that I structure the abstract relationships of the work (with), but it's not like it's a message you're supposed to get. It's more of an experience in time and in space. It's much more complex than a "get it.'
The fuchsia powder has an evocative quality for her.
You can get a sense of the very smoky quality that kind of both appears and disappears depending on the quality of the light and the flow of the day and how sometimes it's very turbulent and sometimes its hypnotic, she says.
You can almost flow into the rate of its descent and think about that feeling that's actually in your stomach as you watch the physical phenomena and the whole pull of gravity on your body in relationship to the other structure of the piece, which is horizontal. ... (It) has to do with the reading of text and the orientation of the landscape and the horizon and how the vertical orientation is always crossing the horizontal.
Those are very abstract ideas, but they're also very particularly present in the way they join in the work.
We live in a time when we want to consume our experiences really fast. Like "What was that?' "How can we name that?' Everything about this work is in some way counter to the impulse to be consuming our experience.
Back to Ohio
Born in Lima, Ohio, in 1956, Ms. Hamilton grew up in Columbus. She studied textile design at the University of Kansas and received her master's in fine art in sculpture from Yale University. She taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara, from 1985 to 1991 and moved to Columbus in 1992.
I moved back to Columbus because this is where I'm from. When I was teaching in California and traveling for my work, I realized I wanted to be closer to my family, so I left full-time teaching and moved here.
Is it difficult, working out of Columbus?
There are things that are harder working here and things that are easier. I travel a lot. Sometimes I miss a more active peer community. On the other hand I have a 4-year-old son, Emmett, and I want him to be near his grandparents.
She says she is not trying to isolate herself.
Everyone in their own way has to find a way to give themselves solitude and the kind of solitude necessary to make work. Even living here, it's incessantly frenetic.
Art as installations
In the past 15 years Ms. Hamilton has created 28 installations in nine countries. She represented the United States in the 1991 Sao Paulo Bienale in Brazil. This is the first time that the same solo artist has been selected for two international biennials.
She was selected for the Venice and Sao Paulo exhibitions by the Fund for U.S. Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions, a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States Information Agency, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
It was in 1989, while she was in California that she created privation and excess, one of her strangest pieces, for the Capp Street Project, San Francisco.
A 45- by 32-foot rectangle of the gallery floor was covered with honey, into which were embedded 750,000 pennies. There was also a person sitting on a chair constantly wringing her hands in honey from a felt hat in her lap. Nearby was a pen with three live sheep. Two electric mortars ground up pennies and human teeth.
It probably seems esoteric from the outside, but not from the inside, she says. My background's in textiles, so all that tactile aspect of the work is really indebted to that kind of sensibility.
When I went to graduate school, I went to study sculpture because I knew I was interested in the relationship between things in space.
That was how I thought about things. I wasn't satisfied with the life of the singular object. It was always the relationship between two or more things in a space.
For the 1991 Spoletto Festival at Charleston, S.C., Ms. Hamilton filled an old garage with 14,000 pounds of damp, recycled work clothes, all of them blue to suggest indigo, the region's first cash crop.
Behind the pile of clothes a person sat at a table erasing pages from history books using saliva and a Pink Pearl eraser. Bags filled with soybeans hung, rotting, on the wall. The wet aroma of mold was part of the work.
In newer works, such as those at Venice and at Pittsburgh, the architecture of the space is an element of the art.
What happened is that I went from the body as the object to the architecture as the object and the skin of the architecture being animated. When you walk into it. It's a social space and you're part of its relationship. And that just made a lot of sense to me.
How does one go about inventing such works of art?
It's two different approaches. One is purely physical and intuitive. It's really responding to the space, to being in Venice, to remarking upon the sensations that you experience.
To note that in Venice the primary movement is one of a shifting horizon and you're always stepping off or onto land, off water, onto water. The metaphors spin out of that movement as well as the physical qualities of the space, of identifying the American pavilion, as a civic space, as a space that has architectural forms. It's demonstrative of a political and social ideal.
Wall of tears
Her installation at the Carnegie is so much about the space that it's in an almost empty room.
I'm installing a work that is almost invisible, she says. What I'm doing is refining a piece that I did initially for an installation in Lyon, France.
Working with Baxter Pharmaceuticals, she developed a capillary system that runs behind the walls and then pierces it to make several thousand individual pores in the surface of the wall. And then they tear, one at a time, so you see at different points on the wall a single drop of water collecting on the surface and then running down.
From any distance, she says, the wall looks totally like a white gallery wall.
What I'm interested in is that point where you recognize that the wall is animate and there is this welling up of a liquid, an uncontainable something from the interior.
When a complex installation, like the one in Venice, closes, the art no longer exists.
In some ways it's kind of a relief. There's so much research that goes on, she says. Every piece has this kind of complex interior life that it sort of emerges out of.
It's partly intuitive and partly a research process. They're all alive in a way. They're not static. Every week I have to check in with Venice and ask how is it going.
How does an artist who makes such esoteric work make a living?
I have been very generously supported by grants and teaching and fund-raising for a lot of the projects, but I also do have a few things that sell.
Sometimes I do very small works that embody the kind of thinking that are in the larger works. And there are artifacts from each project that have a resonance on their own.
The Carnegie International 1999/2000 opens at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh next Sunday and continues through March 26. For information call (412) 622-3131.
The body and the object, a catalog and CD-ROM on the work of Ann Hamilton, was published by the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, for her 1996 exhibition. It is available for $45 from the Wexner Center Bookstore at (614) 292-1807.
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