ANN HAMILTON you’re invited
Image above: ©Michael Mercil.
ANDREA BLANCH: I wanted to ask you about your portraits at the ADAA Fair. How did you come to that technique?
ANN HAMILTON: The year after I had done a very large project at the Armory, called “The Event of the Thread,” Carl Solway, a gallerist in Cincinnati, asked me if I would do a booth with him at the ADAA Fair, which was a totally different context and scale than the Armory. I had begun to develop this project a few years earlier and it has an interesting history. It began with a collaboration between Warhol Museum and businesses in Pittsburgh called ‘Factory Direct,’ which joined artists with different companies, manufacturers, and businesses.
I was paired with their material scientist. I was interested in the fact that so much of what they do involves engineering the performance of surfaces; how the tactile interface of the phone works, or how the raincoat you’re wearing sheathes water. One of the researchers put this material called DuraFlex pectin into my hand, a cross between rubber and cloth that is used to hold large volumes of liquid under pressure. It’s tough, but very flexible and thin. When he put it into my hands, I could immediately see my hand through it. When something touches it, that part is in focus and everything else is out of focus. That shallow depth of field was a way to think about making the actual contact of touch visible.
I was thinking that what’s really interesting about their manufacturing is that so much of it is invisible, in a city like Pittsburgh where the steel industry has been such a mark on the landscape. I went out to the Bayer campus and worked with their researchers and asked them to hold up something from their research or something they produced to the surface. It was quite fantastic. In the process, I was looking at how people look through it, and I casually started taking people’s portraits. We didn’t take it much further for a while. When Carl Solway asked me to do this, I was thinking about how it brought forward aspects of the large installation project at the Armory in a different form. One of the relationships that structured the Armory project was this quality of near and far. You might be at a distance from the person on the swing at the other side of the cloth, but you’re actually connected via ropes and pulleys to each other and you could – depending on how it was working – feel the weight of someone at a distance. I was thinking about intimacy in a public space and about how we’re connected across distance. I thought it would be great to do something at an art fair, which is obviously very much about the market. One of the structures we put in place for the project was that everyone who was photographed received an ephemera image of someone else who had been photographed. If you were interested, you could buy your portrait. The majority of them went out as pieces that circulated in the mail. Again, near and far is connected in that sort of structure. A letter is passed by hand and it still comes into your hand. That’s the full circle.
©Ann Hamilton. Courtesy Ann Hamilton Studio and Carl Solway Gallery. (left) Oneeveryone, Vivian, 2014; (right) Oneeveryone, Cynthia, 2015.
[Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13]
ANDREA: Soon after graduate school you made that fabulous porcupine suit. How do you feel about Nick Cave’s “Soundsuits”? Do you feel that you preempted that work?
ANN: I love his work and think he’s taken it to an incredible place. But they come from different influences. The history of encrusting oneself is so old. It’s so much older than the contemporary art world. I think all of us are participating in what happens when you don another skin and how that changes you and the way you’re seen.
ANDREA: I was wondering why you chose a man’s suit. Was it because you could get more quills into it?
ANN: That’s a really good question. At the time that was made, I saw the generic quality of the suit as being – not genderless; it’s a man’s suit – but more androgynous. There was an anonymity and commonness to it. I don’t know if I would have made that decision now, but that’s what I was thinking at the time.
ANDREA: Soon after that, you were quoted saying that making pictures wasn’t what it is about.
ANN: After that project, I was trying to understand the difference between a live tableau or experience, and the image of that. That was at a time when I remember seeing Sandy Skoglund’s work, where things were set up for the camera. I explored a few things in my studio that worked in that way and I realized I was not interested in the picture of the experience — I was interested in the experience. What is the form of making work that allows and invites other people to enter that experience with you? What are the forms of that entry and what does that actually mean?
ANDREA: You’ve always had this affectionate attachment to textiles. For me, that material relates to a very feminine way of expressing yourself. Has being a woman influenced your practice?
ANN: In every way. My experience is as a female body. I think that has everything to do with the work, even if it’s not the subject of work.
ANDREA: What is the connection between your large-scale work and your more intimate photography?
ANN: The work has always gone back-and-forth between the very small and close at hand, and the volumetric and very large. The pinhole work became interesting because I thought of the cavity of the mouth as a space, not a thing. Is there some analogue between the cavity of the mouth and architecture? What if the orifice through which verbal language exits becomes an orifice of sight? My work comes from these simple questions. It’s a very associative path. You’re in a process, and you’re finding your questions, and you’re finding your form, and you’re finding a way your form addresses your questions. When I first took those photos, what was really interesting to me was that the apparatus, the mechanism of the camera, is no longer between myself and another person. It’s more of standing face-to face in a way that’s really vulnerable. You’re never supposed to stand in public with your mouth open, right? I thought about it being a record of that moment, that time of standing face-to-face and the act of recognition that passes in that time. The other thing about it that’s important to mention is that I had a plastic container and little film canisters that were made into pinhole cameras that could sit in my mouth. It was something I could travel with, and a way for me to be present with people in different circumstances, to work in a way that wasn’t always dependent on a giant project in a big architectural space. It would be something I would do on the side while working on a big project. It was like sketching.
©Ann Hamilton. Courtesy of the artist. (top) Face to Face - 65, 2001; (middle) Face to Face - 38, 2001; (bottom) Face to Face - 28, 2001.
[Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13]
ANDREA: Did you know all the people you photographed in this series, or were some of them strangers?
ANN: It’s a combination. I didn’t necessarily know the people, but I didn’t just go up to people on the street. I was working in Japan on a labor-intensive project with a lot of people who I didn’t share a language with. At break, I would set up and I would take some pictures. It was a nice way to make contact with someone without really knowing them. Obviously, there’s family; I subjected all of them to this. My son would say, “I hate it when you do these weird things. Now you’re taking pictures with your mouth.” Once, I was at the White House at the end of Clinton’s last term for something Yo-Yo Ma organized on arts and diplomacy. I took my cameras with me because I thought it might be interesting. When Madeleine Albright walked by, I had a camera in my mouth and I said, “Can I take your picture?” and I opened my mouth.
ANDREA: Robert Storr has said in reference to your work, “It makes you feel with the senses and with the mind.” Do you think about how your viewers will respond to your work and what you would like them to take away? Is it a visceral feeling?
ANN: Everyone’s experience is individual and full of different kinds of information. There’s the information we take in through all of our senses and there’s the information that comes in through the written word, through spoken word, and through sound. It’s the ways in which those material elements and phenomena intersect in you that becomes the piece. There isn’t some narrative to get. The work is very physically concrete and on the other hand, its relationships are relational and abstract. They’re about the felt quality of things. We understand things through our experience, in ways we don’t always know how to trust. We have many brains. What I hope is that people will slow down enough and spend time amid the pieces, and that their relations are evocative enough that they carry away an experience that’s really of them. It might be provoked in relationship to the piece. People have asked me, “Am I supposed to get all the links between all these things?” I would say you get them, but you might not get them in an analytical way. Your body gets them.
ANDREA: I’m thinking about your work at the Armory. I hadn’t noticed the birds until later. Can you tell me more about them?
ANN: They’re homing pigeons, so they can always go home. That project started from me thinking of that space, the Park Avenue Armory, as a civic space. I started thinking in my associational path that I want to do something about the intimacy of reading New York City. Maybe one way to read the city is through the animals that have no weight and can occupy the air, traveling from here to there, which is actually how we think. So, they were read to everyday from concordant scrolls, and at the end of the day, they were released, and would fly to a cage where they ate and spent the night. There was a moment when they were free and suspended. The birds stand in for us. We use language to cross a space to communicate with another person, but that does not work with another species. How do we acknowledge another presence and communicate with it in another form? It’s about what we can say and it’s also about what we can’t say, or we can’t know. Sometimes the most compelling things to us are things we can never explain, and the piece is about trying to make a space for that. People stayed for a really long time; they lay under the cloth and took naps. It became a sort of an indoor park. To have an opportunity to work in a space like that, which is really different than a museum or an art gallery, was incredibly thrilling.
ANDREA: Do you do any post-production work? Do you use Photoshop or anything digital in your work?
ANN: A lot. About a decade ago, I started working with a very tiny surveillance camera that also had a shallow focus, very much like the pectin membrane material. I attached this little camera to my fingers and would look at something that was fixed, like a photograph, and animate it by the motion of my hand, and it would become dimensional. Then I would work with that digital, really low-resolution file and make prints. You can look at a historic photograph of a crowd where the figures are incredibly tiny, and this little camera finds these gestures and moments that you wouldn’t see otherwise. It’s almost like you’re caressing the photograph. I have thought about it in terms of the act of seeing and the act of touch. It was the same as putting the mechanism of sight in my mouth. It is still a process that I use. I’m working with early generation scanners that most people have thrown away. What I like about them is that they’re so imperfect. They have a really shallow depth of field, so they register contact. What’s interesting about working in this time is that the images that are made are a consequence of the crossing of analog and digital technologies. They’re all shifting very quickly and won’t be there in ten years.
ANDREA: What did you use for your 2005 print stills?
ANN: Those are made using that camera, but I’m actually looking at little tiny wooden sculptures in a history museum in Stockholm. They have all these carved panels from the churches around Sweden that have been collected in their medieval halls. These carved objects tell the story of the Bible. They are something that those people – who might not have been able to read at the time – can recognize. I became really interested in this and used my little camera to animate and coax these things to life. That sounds really corny. I took it as an act of ventriloquism. Again, it’s a relationship of near and far. As I put my camera near the carved opened mouths of one of the figures and then far away, it starts to reanimate. So, it returns this thing that is frozen in time to motion. That interest in live time, and motion, underlies many of my processes. From that, these stills are found. You could never intentionally compose those frames.
ANDREA: I’d like to talk a little bit about the Cortlandt Street Station. When do you think that will be finished?
ANN: I can’t exactly say the opening dates, but it’s about a two and a half, three-year project. I’m in the middle of it right now.
ANDREA: What was your thought process on that?
ANN: The project continues the work I’ve done with texts that emerge from fields of materials. When I made the proposal for Cortlandt Station, I was thinking about an aspirational language; about how the act of carving it and the act of uttering it are actual acts, and how to materialize that. I started wondering what those public documents are that need to be read, need to be remembered, need to be touched, and need to be present here. I’m working with the UN Declaration of Human Rights crossing with the United States Declaration of Independence Preamble. The Declaration of Human Rights is an internationally sanctioned document signed by every country, which, when you think about it now, to have something signed by every country is remarkable. It has been so amazing to read the history of Eleanor Roosevelt and the making of this document and to cross that with a national document. The concordant form doesn’t then give you that document in a right-reading way; it crosses it and makes it rhythmic. The mosaic ground will be made and the letters cut and reset back into the pattern of the material they were cut from in such a way that they’re in slight relief.
ANDREA: People have said about your work that it is “process art.” Would you agree with that?
ANN: I do go through a lot of processes. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. I think it is processes of research and processes of material exploration. In some works, all of that process is evident in what you materially experience, but that’s not always the case. It’s not always accumulative or creative in that way.
ANDREA: It seems like you’ve always been outside of the art world in the sense of not living where the art markets exist. Do you feel that has given you a lot more freedom with your work?
ANN: It probably has. When I made the decision to move back to Ohio, which is where I grew up, I wasn’t consciously putting myself at the margin. I wanted to be closer to my family; I thought if it was good for my life, it would be good for my work. There are things I miss, of course. I love to go to New York to see friends and see work, but there’s something about being in Ohio that allows me to trust the inarticulate things that need to well up — that drive the work. I also think that the economy of living here and my affiliation with the university make a life in art possible. That’s something I talk about with my students. It’s not so much talking about a career, but how a life in art is possible and what it looks like, how you put it together and how you make a practice that is sustainable so that you can keep growing and keep changing, which is so important.
ANDREA: I wanted to close with one thing that Francis Hodgson said about photography. He says, “Photography is the most important medium for the latter part of the 20th century, more important than prose and more important than cinema. Photography is transnational and transcultural… It is not a limited medium. No other medium equals it in its efficient transmission of powerful images, certainly not prose.” He finishes saying, “I see photography as being either a key, or the key to everything else.” How do you feel about this?
ANN: I don’t like making hierarchical statements, like “this is better than this,” or “this is more important than that.” That’s not how I think. I would say that I can be as touched, and moved, and informed, and changed by a line of prose or poetry as I can by a photograph, and I would never want to say that one is better or more than another. It’s not just the media, but also who is using the tool that’s important.
Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13