Saturday, December 08, 2012

Ann Hamilton's "the event of a thread"

Ann Hamilton's the event of a thread
"the event of a thread"
Yesterday, with the end of the exciting but also exhausting fall academic semester nearly over and no classes or meetings scheduled,  I took a little time to see artist Ann Hamilton's much-heralded participatory installation, "the event of a thread", which is occurring in the Thompson Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory, at Park Avenue and 66th Street, through January 6, 2012. If you are in New York, I would urge you to catch it before it's gone. Some artists create works that can only be described as child-like and reveal the world to us through a perspective we may have lost; others produce artifacts that are childish, and make us wonder what their point is, beyond puerility; and then there is an Ann Hamilton, who, in the event of a thread, can invoke and return to us, via physical and emotional means, some of the wonder and most pleasurable moments of childhood while also pressing us to think carefully and critically about what she's up to.

Ann Hamilton's the event of a thread
The readers and the pigeons
Roberta Smith's some what snarky New York Times review of this installation ("I don’t even know if this is art, participatory theater, a refreshing sociological experiment in how quickly adults will take up childish things, or perhaps a harbinger of the next fitness craze."--is she kidding? In light of Fluxus, Conceptual Art, Performance Art, Relational Aesthetics, she is still asking such a question?) positively highlights its most notable element, the field of giant swings, which suspend from the Armory hall's main roof, and which I can attest are tremendous fun. They are large enough to hold two or three people, and are solid enough that you can really take flight in them without fear, so long as you hold on tightly, of plummeting to the floor.  To quote Hamilton herself: 

"I can remember the feeling of swinging--how hard we would work for those split seconds, flung at furthest extension, just before the inevitable downward and backward pull, when we felt momentarily free of gravity, a little hiccup of suspension when our hands loosened on the chain and our torsos raised off the seat. we were sailing, so inside the motion--time stopped--and then suddenly rushed toward us again. We would line up on the playground and try to touch the sky, alone together."
Inside motion, time stopping, alone together, touching sky--these feelings this installation replicates, multiply. The ever-changing crowd, emptying and filling swings ensure this. But there's more to the exhibit than the vast swing set; each one is linked, by cables, pullies and weights, to a giant white silk curtain that undulates based on the motions of each swing, creating an interdependent system in which each individual participant and all collectively control the motions of the curtain, those "many crossings of the near at hand and the far away" that Hamilton was hoping to produce, "transmission[s]" and connections, but also suggesting figuratively, at least to me on a winter day far warmer than usual, our global climate system. That the curtain itself, from a distance and up close, evokes both cloud and wave, only reinforced this. Smith notes that it echoes the work of Christo and Jean-Claude, which it certainly does, and it also reminded me of Hans Haacke's Blue Sail (1964-65, in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Art) which floated like a dream in space, lifted only by fans and a counter-weight system, at the Ghosts in the Machine show at New York's New Museum this past fall. Like Haacke's piece, the curtain's metaphorical and analogic effects are immediate and enthralling.

Ann Hamilton's the event of a thread
Listening to one of the radios, with the swings and curtain behind me
The swings could have been enough, yet they hover in a larger field of ever-changing bodies, shifting interior light and ambient and projected, amplified sound, as well as a constellation of concepts and practices that Hamilton defines, obliquely but enticingly, in a free newspaper-like document that I'm glad I picked up and glanced at before writing this review.  As she has done with prior installations, this one includes seating figures at a desk, engagement with space and time, and a score.  As you enter the Drill Hall, you approach two announcers, reading from scrolls of text at a table, covered with 42 tiny pigeon cages, some of the birds in them cooing, some sleeping, several look a bit distressed; at the other end of the hall sits a scribe, dutifully writing away whatever he thinks of. All three seated figures wear thick shearling coats over denim worksuits. The announcers, actors from SITI Company, declaim from a collage-text concordance of works by authors ranging from Aristotle to Ann Lauterbach, but there are also portable radios, trussed in twine and brown-paper bags, that broadcast the announcers' declamations. Listening to one for a bit had a hypnotic effect on me. I would not suggest doing so while   swinging and trying to photograph oneself.

Ann Hamilton's the event of a thread
The swings and curtain
As I said, Hamilton provides her thoughts on the installation in the accompanying free newspaper, listing her motivations, intentions, and the projects key concepts. In a series of insightful, dictionary-like entries titled "Regarding...," authors Natalie Shapiro and Harry Reese offer their conceptual readings of each. Reese writes in "Regarding Touch,"

A knife, a watch, a motor, a stylus are able to do the same thing repetitively, the way that our hands begin and complete many different functions while remaining our hands. New hand tools and other mechanical devices have not replaced old hand tools as much as they have coexisted with them. 
Consciousness is not a verbal process and we learn through the fingers and hands in ways we cannot investigate or explain otherwise. From their start, digital technologies have depended upon the tactile environment to validate its generation, transmission, and reception. 
The tactility of visual art refers to what can be touched and let go, but not forgotten. Each sense creates its space. Tactility is not a sense, and although it often involves the sense of touch, it is the common-sense meeting place of all the senses. Constant touch however, is not tactile. Tactility refers to the gap in between an artifact and a medium. Tactility is the space of the resonant interval, what is touched and let go.
Ann Hamilton's the event of a thread
People having fun on the swings
Soundspacetimescape, what we enter, touch, exit and let go of, the complex sensorium everyone present creates and experiences at all times, sometimes with enjoyment and contemplation, but which is sharpened to its constituent elements in the Park Avenue Armory's Drill Hall: these are the events of a thread that Hamilton successfully pulls off. With (y)our help of course. So you must go see it and do you part, having some real fun in the process.

More photos and a video after the jump:

Ann Hamilton's the event of a thread
People relaxing beneath the curtain
Ann Hamilton's the event of a thread
Like peering up into a cloud, or the night sky
Ann Hamilton's the event of a thread
The scribe
Ann Hamilton's the event of a thread
Writing away (the time)
Ann Hamilton's the event of a thread
A phonograph
Ann Hamilton's the event of a thread
People peering through the Lexington Avenue windows

A video

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