Art written in the language of the senses

Artist Ann Hamilton, representing the U.S. at the 48th Venice Biennale, offers up everything from smoke to mirrors

July 11, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

NEW YORK -- Turkey carcasses. Flour. Soot. Old wool coats. Meat-eating beetles. Pennies. A pocketful of honey. Wax. Canaries. Eucalyptus leaves.

These are elements in the worlds that artist Ann Hamilton invents. She uses unusual materials to create sculptural environments that are simultaneously cerebral and sensory. Her installations are almost always site specific. They often include plants or animals or a person doing a repetitive, hypnotic task. And they wrestle with the questions: How do we know what we know? How does language affect what we know?

"We live in a culture that privileges something that can be stated in language over other kinds of experiences. This is what I think about," Hamilton says. "Can you have a thought without language? Isn't thinking [in words] how you think it through?"

Hamilton is representing the United States at the 48th Venice Biennale, a sort of world's fair for contemporary art that this year features 102 artists sent by 58 countries. Her installation, called "myein," will be on view at the U.S. Pavilion through Nov. 7.

"We thought that she exemplified many of the best parts of contemporary art making," says Katy Kline, director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine and co-curator of the Venice installation. "She is deeply informed, but she never lets intellectual baggage come before the visual and visceral impact of the installations."

Instantly accessible

At 42, Hamilton has an international reputation. Her projects have appeared in the Miami Art Museum, Musee D'Art Contemporain De Montreal, the Van Abbe Museum in the Netherlands and the Tate Gallery in England, among others. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim, and in 1993, a so-called "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. However, though it inspires reams of scholarly text, her art remains instantly accessible.

Hamilton asks her viewers to step outside the typical patterns of experiencing art. Entering one of her projects is like going to a play at which the audience is invited to sit on stage. You become part of the installation.

In one -- "tropos," a 1993 installation at New York's Dia Center for the Arts -- Hamilton remodeled the gallery's floor so that it undulated like the gentle swell of a wave. She covered it with a carpet woven from horse hair, then placed a single table in the room's center. A woman sat before it on a stool. Using a tiny tool, she burned the words out of a book, line by line. As the slightly acrid smoke drifted away; the words metaphorically hung in the air.

"I don't know anyone who reads more than she does. Science, history, poetry, everything. So her ideas spring from an enormous range of sources," says Harry Philbrick, director of the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Connecticut. "Her work is almost like a novel. She weaves together so many strands that all circle around a body of ideas that finally come together. It's poetic."

One evening -- several weeks before the grand opening in June of her Venice installation -- Hamilton was in New York, drinking tea and fretting over whether she'll be able to complete her project in time. "I'm kind of thinking that I should leave it very spare. But then you think, 'How much is enough?' 'How much is too much?' " she says. "It has to work. It just has to. I was up all night last night worrying about it."

A compact person, with close-cropped hair and friendly blue eyes, Hamilton's conversations range from highly intellectual discussions of her latest readings in philosophy to retellings of her 4-year-old's favorite storybook. There is a striking sense of openness about her.

She was born in Lima, Ohio, and studied textile design at the University of Kansas and sculpture at Yale University. Much of her work is infused with a Puritan sensibility that labor is necessary and good. And there is nearly always a relationship between interior and exterior.

When not traveling to and from installations, Hamilton lives with her husband, a sculptor, in Columbus, not far from where she was born. She rejuvenates herself through her closeness to her family and, lately, with daily runs with her dog. And she reads: poetry, philosophy, social and political history, texts on ecology and ethics.

"The reading doesn't directly flow into the idea [that forms each installation]. The reading is part of the atmosphere that I work out of as much as the space is the atmosphere that I work in response to," she says. "I'm reading not for the larger argument of a text, but for the way that something is written. The way two words sit side by side and touch in a particular way so that you go: AHA!"

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