Ann Hamilton: Sense
November 3 – December 30, 2022
For much of her career, Ann Hamilton has focused on cultivating environments that reorient the attentions of the people inside of them, providing sensual, probing focus to the textures of everyday life. Her landmark exhibitions at the Guggenheim, Park Avenue Armory, and Seattle’s Henry museum often involved carefully orchestrated sounds and smells in addition to live performances and site-specific impositions that transformed galleries into chthonic chambers. But the drawback of installation art is that it does not last. Live canaries, candle-licked walls, floors of struck pennies, and piles of neatly folded clothes make for a sumptuous sensory experience when placed in concert, but transform back into common objects outside of Hamilton’s constellated effect. The problematics of iteration go beyond simple logistics of site-specificity, or even the marketability of conceptual art, to the heart of human attention and its capacity for embodied presence. Still working entirely with everyday objects, Hamilton’s recent work has seemed less interested in exuberant combinations than in quiet contemplation, a way of winnowing a transcendental experience down to its core details.
Hamilton’s solo exhibition Sense, at Portland’s Elizabeth Leach Gallery, finds the artist utilizing these everyday items to increasingly sophisticated ends. Where once the coordinated sensations of a Hamilton exhibition depended on the interaction of so many elements in space, her new work increasingly turns toward making embodied experiences from static imagery alone. Thirty-one large photographic prints made between 2018 and 2022—of leaves, rocks, textiles, and animal “study skins” from natural history museum archives—hang like tapestries throughout the gallery, carefully adorned on metal rods. Printed on tissue-thin Japanese gampi paper, they are light enough to be swayed by a breath—a fragility that inevitably brings attention to one’s distance from them. In a palimpsest of texture, images of these objects are printed at such proximity as to dissociate them into a parade of small details. A study skin of an American golden plover might be seen first as an accumulation of spotted feathers, before cohering into a recognizably avian shape—a startling reversal of the way we usually see. Hamilton photographs these objects using flatbed scanners or handheld scanner wands—two slightly outdated imaging technologies that impart a remarkably shallow depth-of-field. Only the parts of the object that directly touch these scanners slip into their dazzling, myopic focus, while those that bend away even slightly get lost in a greyscale mist. The result is an image that ingeniously approximates touch.
The artist’s ability to develop an intuitive alternative to typical photography, one that naturally corresponds to themes she has previously explored in performance and object arrangement, is the great triumph of Hamilton’s present career. Though technically photographs, Hamilton’s scanner images have little in common with much contemporary photography in that her pictures are non-narrative; rather than unspooling meaning from a specific moment in time, her works instead attempt to capture a specific object in space. Her photographs thus resemble sculpture more than text, and yearn for a similar tactility. Because touch, shared between object and scanner, is the genesis of visualization here, it creates a comingling between these two senses that in turn impacts the sensory circuitry of the viewer.
Images and scans from this series of everyday objects also make up much of Ann Hamilton: Sense, an artist book that will be published by Radius Books in early 2023. A gallery copy holds a significant place in the show—opposite a record player that spins a long take of whistling, played so quietly that its presence only becomes gradually apparent with time. Taking in the book to this subtle melody assists the sensation of complete immersion in reading—a conceptual non-space that Hamilton is deeply interested in delineating and replicating. By paging through Sense, one is also given the chance to see the radical continuity between different threads of Hamilton’s artistic practice, a concordance of projects that, at its core, ponders the relationship between textile and text.
The artist’s incorporation of text as just another material in the book—one that can be found, scrapped, or woven into other contexts—helps to illustrate one of the central components of Hamilton’s aesthetic philosophy, which is further referenced by her pointed fascination with animals: Humans differ from other species only in our ability to make meaning out of abstract thought. We spend much of our time in this world of ideas—more and more of it, actually, as our lives are increasingly taken up by the consumption of media. Using the mediation of her art to instead signal the body, and to gesture to its direct experience within the space that it occupies, Hamilton focuses on our consonance with animals to illustrate a Cartesian point, one so obvious that it’s often taken for granted: Our understanding of the world is never more than the sum of our sensory inputs. We relish visceral pleasure and higher meaning alike when our environments impart sensory inputs in concert—those that build on each other to create complex harmonies. Hamilton’s role as an artist is to be the conductor of this concert, guiding the viewer toward a sensory apotheosis with the instruments of everyday life. She is achieving increasingly symphonic results.