Artist brings Henry Art Gallery to life

Ann Hamilton delves again into the world of animal-human relationships in her upcoming show at the Henry Art Gallery.

People still talk about the 200 canaries that flew free through Henry Art Gallery when installation artist Ann Hamilton, then early in her career, took over the museum with her exhibition, “accountings,” in 1992. Hamilton returns to the Henry next month with “a common sense,” filling a museum now quadruple its former size following a 1997 expansion. Although the installation probes animal-human relations, it will contain no living things—canaries or otherwise. “Hopefully,” quips Hamilton, “there’ll be lots of humans.”

In the 22 years since she first partnered with the Henry, Hamilton has grown to enormous stature in the art world, receiving a MacArthur “genius grant” and a host of other prestigious awards. Last year, visitors flocked to “the event of a thread,” in which she hung swings from the rafters of New York’s Park Avenue Armory. People of all ages swung through the cavernous space as a vast white curtain billowed in time with their rhythm. Some visitors lingered for hours, floating in Hamilton’s temporary world.

“There is no limit to what Ann imagines,” says Henry director Sylvia Wolf, who began brainstorming with Hamilton about the new installation four years ago. “Her practice has evolved to become hugely collaborative, and the results are immersive experiences that engage the viewers’ participation.” Hamilton—who started as a textile artist—has become known for devising ingenious works that seduce the senses while challenging the intellect.

The UW is one of only two universities with which Hamilton, a professor at The Ohio State University, has partnered to create an exhibition of this scale. “The sheer expansiveness of her reach across the University is unprecedented,” says Wolf. In preparing the show, Hamilton has tapped the vast resources of the campus community, from the School of Music to the University Libraries, the School of Art to the Burke Museum and beyond.

Examining animal skins in the Burke’s back rooms, Hamilton was especially moved by a marmot’s articulated paw. “Our structure is not so different,” she says, holding up her hand. “You have that emotional, empathetic call to this thing you can’t cross with language.” She startled Burke staffers by bringing in a “terrible early-generation scanner” to scan the bodies of hundreds of animals, from marmots and beavers to birds and amphibians. The resulting images—rough-edged, slightly blurred—almost reanimate the creatures, capturing them in an eerie hover between life and death.

The scans will appear in “a common sense” on large-format newsprint tablets, with visitors welcome to tear off a sheet and take it away. As with their living counterparts, the rate at which the animal images vanish will depend largely on human choices. “The relationship between what you take and what you leave is partly structuring the different elements of the show,” says Hamilton. “Is it according to need or desire?”

She has also mined the Burke’s ethnographic collection to incorporate traditional clothing in the work: reindeer-skin coats, gutskin jackets, fur-trimmed hoods—“items where the animal is still legible,” as she puts it. The clothing won’t appear on mannequins. Instead, each garment will rest in solitude, lying in a curtained vitrine. Standing before one of these austere enclosures, it’s not hard to imagine a body lying in a casket.

It’s very much Ann’s gift to her audiences to engage with their own sensibilities and their own experiences and hopes and dreams.

Sylvia Wolf, Henry Art Gallery director

This is signature Hamilton territory. Conjuring up poetic beauty, she simultaneously stages an encounter with the most confounding issues of our times. “We all, I think, feel like we’ve woken up and we’re not in the world that maybe we thought we were in,” she says. “There’s this real strong register of that, whether we’re talking about species extinction, the fragmentation of the landscape or the fragmentation of our attention.”

Can an art installation reassemble those fragments? Hamilton and her collaborators are creating a space for that possibility. Throughout the run of “a common sense,” duos from the UW Chorale will visit the garments, pulling back the curtains to quietly serenade them—and the people who once wore them—with lines of poetry that chorale director Giselle Wyers has set to music. Hamilton juxtaposes these intimate encounters with a sense of vastness. Rising from the Henry’s lower level—where temporary walls are coming down and skylights are being uncovered for the first time in 10 years—an evocative hum will envelop the entire building. The source: a field of some 20 mechanical bullroarers that Hamilton is fashioning with the support of Olson Kundig Architects.

An ancient communication device, a bullroarer is a shaped piece of wood, usually six to 24 inches long. Attached to a cord and whirled overhead, it spins on its axis to create a vibrato “roar,” historically used to signal across great distances. Hamilton’s version uses electricity, but the effect is the same. “The museum will be filled with the sound of distance,” she says. Into this sensory surround, Hamilton weaves the act of reading, which she considers “a form of touch.” With a dedicated space for books, blankets and lap boards, visitors will be invited to read softly, addressing the once-living animals on the walls and in the vitrines. The passages that Hamilton chooses will be straightforward, perhaps drawn from books describing the weather, “things the animal knows and responds to but we don’t know so much anymore.” Anyone can sign up for a reading shift. “We want to animate the exhibition with waves of people reading to the objects,” Hamilton explains. She also plans a commonplace book or Tumblr site in which visitors can contribute quotations and snippets from their own reading.

Humming with voices, laced with music, populated by the traces of people and animals that have gone before, “a common sense” will transform the Henry into a laboratory that investigates our unique place in time. “It will be quite heavy in here,” Hamilton muses. “I think there’s something very elegiac about it.” Museum director Wolf, on the other hand, refrains from speculation. “It’s very much Ann’s gift to her audiences to engage with their own sensibilities and their own experiences and hopes and dreams,” she says. “It’s quite magical.”