“Everywhere and nowhere” – Robert Ayers in conversation with Ann Hamilton
I’m happy to admit that Ann Hamilton is one of my favorite artists. And, as of this moment, she is the first artist to be represented twice in that long list of interviews in the left sidebar of this page. Ms Hamilton is one of the most intelligent and inquisitive individuals I have ever met, but her work is as intriguing physically as it is intellectually stimulating. And this is true whether she is making large-scale installations, or exquisitely crafted objects that you can pick up in your fingers. No matter how well I have come to know her work, or how long I have been looking at it, I have never found her predictable. In fact the reverse is true: every encounter with a new Hamilton piece brings with it the pleasure of surprise, and the sense that she has made an unexpected move. The latest such experience was discovering human carriage, installed in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum as part of “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989,” which, when I wrote about it here I called “one of the most remarkable pieces of site-specific art ever created.”
Ms Hamilton’s formal description of human carriage reads “Installation of cloth, wire, bells, books, string, pipe, pulleys, pages, cable, gravity, air, and sound,” and the Guggenheim describes its working thus: “Hamilton devises a mechanism that traverses the entire Guggenheim balustrade, taking the form of a white silk ‘bell carriage’ with Tibetan bells attached inside. As the cage spirals down along the balustrade, the purifying bells ring, awakening viewers. The mechanism is hoisted back up to a post at the uppermost Rotunda Level 6, where an attendant exchanges weights composed of thousands of cut-up books that counter the pulley system that propels the mechanism itself.” That about describes it I suppose, but it doesn’t begin to suggest what a beautiful, evocative work this is. All I can say is, if you’re in New York City before the show closes April 19, go and see it!
Ann Hamilton’s work is also on exhibition at Gemini at Joni Moisant Weyl, and this Thursday, March 19, the gallery is hosting a reception and book signing for the new catalog of Ms Hamilton’s Gemini projects that has been written by Joan Simon. (Joan Simon also collaborated with Ann Hamilton on the wonderful little book An Inventory of Objects published by Gregory R. Miller in 2006, which was the starting point for the ARTINFO interview mentioned above. If you don’t already own it, you can buy it here: Ann Hamilton: An Inventory of Objects)
I spoke to Ms Hamilton almost a month after “The Third Mind” opened (she’d been working in Laos in the interim) but I began by recalling the very beginning of the show.
Ann, can you tell me first of all about the physical installation of human carriage? On the day “The Third Mind” opened I remember you were still there trying to get it just right.
I had such a great time making this piece, but it wasn’t an easy piece to make, believe me. My engineer Marty Chafkin, who has been so central to all of this happening, is still there now, fine-tuning it. We understood the principal of it and we’d tested it, but until you run it full-scale it’s very theoretical. If we’d been able to build a full-scale model of the Guggenheim and test it, it would have been different. But we had to do a lot of fine tuning to get the weight, the momentum, and the balance of it right. It’s all dependent on gravity. The bell carriage follows the angle of the parapet wall as it comes down, but it has to take a steep descent to begin with and then it has to be able to maintain enough momentum to get around the parts where the descent levels out.
I’m struck by how it brings out one of the central themes of “The Third Mind” which is about attaching importance to even the slightest of experiences.
In some ways it’s a huge piece, and in other ways it’s almost not there at all. It’s everywhere and nowhere. The sound of the bell, and the movement, and the way that it works in the space, all this means that the piece is never in any one place, but when it’s working it’s in all places at once. That quality is really what the piece is, for me.
It’s important that it’s a live piece. Every time the bell carriage goes down, it goes down a little bit differently. So it’s not only live in the sense that there’s a person at the top who is the piece’s attendant and timekeeper and monitor and care giver and all of the other things that you could call her. It’s live in that it really is different every single time: the bell rings a little bit differently, and no route is ever quite the same. It’s almost like you were studying turbulence or temperature changes. In a beautiful way it not only makes time present, it also makes all of those differences register.
Tell me about that person who operates the piece from the top of the ramp. Is it always the same person? How closely did you instruct her?
There are three women who work up there. The main attendant is Audra Wolowiec who is working full time – that’s a lot of hours. The other two attendants are Heather Willems and Shanti Grumbine. We spent the whole final installation week together, and I stayed on for four days after the opening, and we were all learning it together. You’re making this thing, but you have to learn what it is. For the first couple of weeks of the show we talked a lot about it and emailed back and forth quite a bit. We had a lot of conversation about solving really practical things: should the books accumulate, or should they not accumulate? Is there a rhythm to them coming back up? That sort of thing. Each of them has been finding their way to inhabit it, and to listen to it, and to find their own rhythm with it. That has been part of the piece for me. For example, Heather was working at the opening and we were sending the bell carriage down the pipe the minute it came back up. There came to be an expectation of its performance and we came to understand that it was too frequent and it needed to come without demand or expectation! Also, we didn’t want it to seem that the intention of the cycle is to transfer all of the books at the top to the bottom. It’s goal is more one of attention than of moving the stacks of books. But of course we are such a goal-oriented culture!
You also refer to the attendant as “The Reader”. Why is that?
She’s called “The Reader” partly because of the history of the project: I was originally working with the bibliography of the show, and thinking that I might sit in the space and read all the books in the bibliography during the exhibition. So there would literally be a reader present. I soon realized that I didn’t just want to read, the piece is still trying to materialize one of the phenomena of reading. So while they’re not literally reading, they deploy a system that stands in for the experience of reading.
What happens when you read? So often we read out of context, or misread things, and I started wondering how you could trace the influence of a particular line or section of text as it passes through all the other things you’re reading and being influenced by. How do you account for an influence that comes through a process that changes you forever but doesn’t leave a physical trace? When something is a cultural influence that is everywhere and nowhere, how do you speak to the experience of that influence?
And this is why you use the books, obviously. Why are they cut into pieces?
Initially we were working with these indigo-dyed texts that we were going to tie to the bell carriage, so that lines of text would actually pass through the show, but that was much too literal. We all read pretty eclectically and across subjects, and what happens when you slice through a book is almost analogous to what happens when you read things. There’s something that you take away from that particular slice-through of a work that becomes a catalyst for a thought, an experience, or a perception. So I thought if we took all these cross-sections of all these different books it would suggest how reading accumulates in us. It’s the collectivity of these bodies of knowledge in book form that become the counter-weights for the bells: the silence of reading and the weight of the books meets the sound and the lightness of the bells. It’s like the trade-off between what we know through language and what we know through our tactile, sensory experience.
And there are also tiny strips of paper in with the books as well.
That’s really important, because they’re the lines of text that fall out from the books. It seems to me that influence happens by things falling out of what you’re reading, and falling into your attention.
The catalog calls human carriage a “response” to the rest of “The Third Mind”. Can you explain that?
Everything I make is a response to a situation, so this is a response, but it didn’t really start out that way. When I made my first visit to Alexandra [Munroe - the show’s curator] a couple of years ago, she suggested I use one of the rooms in another part of the building to make an installation, but I didn’t want to be in an enclosed room, because I didn’t want to be isolated. So very early on the project came to be about my response to the history and influence of translated texts which were central to a cultural transmission that had been a major influence on visual artists, and also my response to the the architecture and its absorption of that history. One of the qualities I find brilliant is how it renders your body totally active because you can never really settle into level planes and perpendicular relationships. If you think about it, human carriage has no physical form until it literally meets the building.