Joyce Y. Lee reflects on Ann Hamilton’s “near away: Series and Editions”, an exhibit at Goya Contemporary in Baltimore, September 8 – October 31, 2013.
“What I love about the experience and process of reading is being immersed; the falling into the fold between two pages, the being in the completely ‘somewhere else’ that is the book. This ability to simultaneously be both here and far away, to be both inside and outside parallels the condition of being a body; it is no surprise the book is the central artifact of culture.”
- Ann Hamilton
Ann Hamilton is recognized for her work with ephemeral materials such as paper and fabric. She sometimes builds installations that respond to the architectural presence of a site. She is interested in the word—spoken, written, and typed. She is interested in “the completely somewhere else” formed in the engaged reading experience of the book. The act of reading transcends physical embodiment into a far away mental space of imagination.
In 2009, Hamilton participated in an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia 1890-1989. For this exhibition, Hamilton was commissioned to create Human Carriage, a circular track along the spiral atrium. Performers tied book weights to a delicate zip line along the perimeter of the atrium. The book weights flew down with cheesecloth wings, triggering small Tibetan bells. Soft chimes ascended into the atrium, simultaneously residing there and nowhere at once. Mysterious packets of information, these books deposited at the lobby level as symbols of the human communication process. Human Carriage suggested a psychological gesture of transference, a magical mess of interpersonal communication through the printed word. The movements and sounds of Hamilton’s installation represented the act of reading evolving into a complex tangle of information systems.
In her recent exhibition, near away: Series and Editions at Goya Contemporary, we saw traces and residue of Human Carriage. Many of the works at Goya could be seen as remnants and artifacts from this previous exhibition. Hamilton is not quite done with the subject of reading—it’s engagement with the mind and transference into invisible mental spaces. An echo of Hamilton’s mystical chimes, the poetic title of the exhibition reflected a mental state of being simultaneously here and far away in the act of reading.
Near Away, a dynamic work hung in the central gallery at Goya, is a pale pinkish yellow papier-mâché glove hung from the wall with black wire just below eye level. At Goya, the viewer could peer inside into a dusty rosy interior. Next to the glove was a booklet of newsprint suspended with twine. A cross-section of printed pages shredded into strips, this booklet was a gradation of greys, yellows, and crumpled edges. This humble pairing of glove and book begged for human touch; I can still easily imagine sliding my hand into the glove to flip through the pages of the booklet.
Carriage Ed. 4/15 was another object from the Human Carriage exhibition at the Guggenheim and exhibited at Goya, a string of book pages fanned out in a circular form resting under a clear acrylic vitrine. Some of these yellowed pages are dyed red at the edge, contrasting the green fabric lining the bottom of the display case. Under the case, the paper pages were frozen in time like a dried flower of earthly hues, preserved pages in a clear mausoleum. Homage to the near-dead art form of the printing press, the residue of Hamilton’s installation was monumentalized at Goya as a relic. Carriage Ed. 4/15 also spoke to salvaging the precious craft of traditional book making, showcasing the beauty of hand sewn and bound book pages.
Near Away and Carriage Ed. 4/15 fulfilled two roles—both objects became art and artifact. I question the preservation of these props apart from their original use. Despite being beautiful objects, did they stand alone as sculptures? Isolated materials of process or a visual artist’s performance props seem to me more fitting for a museum setting than a gallery like Goya. Yet, these minor works offered unique public access to the development of a remarkable artist’s studio practice.
Similarly, the inclusion of student work provided an intimate perspective on Hamilton’s early experiments with embodiment of materials. Four tiny black-and-white square gelatin-silver photos created from 1984 to 1991 depicted a young Hamilton with “body objects”—a triangular metal duct worn over her head, and individual photographs of three suits made of fishing lures, flashlights, and toothpicks. These artifacts and minor works also might be new acquisition opportunities and pique the interest of local collectors.
My favorite portion of the exhibition was a suite of large inkjet prints that lined the narrow left gallery. Although the work was also from Human Carriage at the Guggenheim, it held it’s own as interesting work. Hamilton originally scanned all the objects before shipping them to the museum, resulting in Book Weights catalogued from dd to zz—chopped up book pages enlarged tenfold on inky black backgrounds. The edges of the pages appeared curved, their perspective possibly distorted by the scanner. The book weights took on new life as ramshackle towers in these prints—transforming beyond mere documentation. A limited palette of elegant whites, greys, yellows, red, and an occasional pop of green paper stacked like bricks atop one another. These prints were almost tactile, illuminating the texture and heft of the newsprint to construct new environments.
Interspersed between the prints, two sculptures protruded from the wall, Chronology and The People’s Republic. Square blocks comprised of the same chopped book pages, these forms illustrated a derivative of the photographed Book Weights. My eye repeatedly tried to draw productive connections between the prints and the sculptures, but the framed prints dwarfed the sculptures—and I wished the sculptures had an equally commanding presence. They felt too illustrative and redundant, a flat demonstration of the scanned book weights.
A repetitive drone of scratching sounds lured me into an alcove space where a dark grainy video played across two little flat screen monitors. Follow depicted the motion of an anonymous pair of hands each drawing a black ring, a strange dark ritual endlessly looped in video. Sheathed in paper gloves circling in opposing directions over and over, the camera tilted and zoomed like a rocking ship in tandem with the circular movement. To me, Follow was the least interesting work in this exhibition because the level of craft and attention to materials fell short of Hamilton’s other handiwork. The low-resolution video seemed repurposed from haphazard footage. The organic swooping gesture of drawing was constrained by the two small screens, and I wondered if the motion might translate better turned flat onto a tabletop, so that the viewer assumed the position of the drawer looking down onto the action.
On the other end of the gallery was a quiet room with seven black-and-white photographic prints pinned casually above the gallery’s flat file drawers. Macro views of black text on fields on white depicted somber words such as TIME, BE, ECHO, NIGHT, and MIND. Inexplicably, I dove in and became an imaginary insect crawling across a giant landscape of foreboding type, the repeated words zooming and fading into the distance. These looming words read like highlighted excerpts of an occluded or coded text. Perhaps these photographs intended to transport viewers to a different mental space of reading and meditation. I conjured Hamilton’s experience as a reader. I felt both present and elsewhere at once. It felt fitting that this series sat apart from the rest of the exhibition, a coda of sorts for the exhibition.
Ann Hamilton has woven a legacy of forms and images that offer a perspective into this invisible experience of reading. Her objects lay latent with dormant movement and action. At Goya, her graceful restraint and linguistic dissection opened forums for understanding the written word. Near away: Series and Editions transferred Hamilton’s deep respect of materials into a mystical illumination of printed culture.
Joyce Yu-Jean Lee is a visual artist who works primarily in video installation, drawing, and photography. She teaches part-time at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and Corcoran College of Art + Design. She can be found cruising Charm City on her trusty bicycle.
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