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A Playground for the Soul: Lost in Ann Hamilton’s World

by Jason Andrew on December 14, 2012

The readers at Ann Hamilton’s “the event of a thread” (All photos by Jason Andrew unless otherwise noted)

For those craving a bit of the ephemeral this holiday season, artist Ann Hamilton has hung 42 swings from the wrought-iron trusses at the Park Avenue Armory as part of a new installation the artist titles “the event of a thread.”

Recognized for her visceral, temporal, and intricately crafted works, Hamilton is internationally known for her large-scale, multimedia installations. The title for Hamilton’s work at the Armory is borrowed from that great modern Arachne, Anni Albers, who reflected that all weaving traces back to “the event of a thread.” True to form, Hamilton expands upon a single, simple idea, weaving ropes and pulleys into a grand, kinetic, inspired, multi-layered experience.

Ann Hamilton’s “the event of a thread” (Photo by James Ewin)

At its core, the installation features two fields of suspended swings connected via ropes and pulleys to each other and to a massive white curtain that bisects the 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Each swing has its counterpart on the other side and it is the visitor’s momentum on the swing that activates a rolling undulation of the curtain. The resultant movement brought on by one swing is enhanced when another visitor engages the corresponding swing on the opposite side. The movement of the curtain alone is mesmerizing and the beauty is that the curtain remains in a continual state of flux set in motion by the interaction of visitors.

“I can remember the feeling of swinging,” Hamilton states in a release about the installation, “how hard we would work for those split seconds […] 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 again toward us. We would line up on the playground and try to touch the sky, alone together.”

Completing the installation is a succession of “attendants.” The first, two at a time, wear wool capes and read aloud at an enormous table near the drill hall’s entrance. Reading from a long scroll of text, their voices are broadcast by way of radio receivers packaged in brown paper bags and tied up with twine. The floor is scattered with these bags and visitors are able to carry the voices around with them.

During opening night, a young boy came running through the space yelling, “Look Mom! It’s my sack lunch.” Not just any sack lunch, though: This one spouts historic texts by philosophers (Aristotle, Johann Gottfried Herder, Giambattista Vico), naturalists (Charles Darwin and Ralph Waldo Emerson), an explorer (Captain William Dampier), as well as contemporary authors Susan Stewart and Lewis Hyde. Continuing the theme of transmission, there are 42 homing pigeons housed in cages surrounding the readers’ table.

Speaker sacks at Ann Hamilton’s “the event of a thread”

On the opposite end of the hall is single “attendant/writer” sitting at another desk with a pad of paper. Dressed in a denim coat, they are instructed to inscribe a response not only to the radio transmissions, but also to what they might see reflected in a big mirror installed in front of them. The mirror is connected to the vast rope and pulley system overhead and tilts and nods in sync with the rolling curtain.

The final component happens at the end of each day. A vocalist sings from the balcony, serenading the visitors (as well as the pigeons). Each day’s song is cut with a record lathe, positioned at the far end of the hall. The resulting recording is played back the next morning.

Readers at Ann Hamilton’s “the event of a thread”

“Hamilton’s installation draws together human actions — including speaking, singing, reading and writing — with the poetic potential of physical forces, such as velocity, time, and sound,” notes Kristy Edmunds, consulting artistic director at the Armory. “Weaving together these threads of activity and spatial exploration, Hamilton’s work envelops the visitor with a demonstration of collective identity and interconnectedness.”

Brooklyn artist Audra Wolowiec, who has her own austere practice, has been assisting in Hamilton’s projects since 2009 when she was an attendant in Hamilton’s “human carriage” installation in the rotunda at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. For “the event of a thread,” Wolowiec was invited as the writer at the second desk. Wolowiec had this to say about being inside one of Ann Hamilton’s installations:

“Being a part of an installation by Ann Hamilton is at once immersive and meditative. It is both an interior and exterior experience where you become a conduit, recording what is happening around you but through your own experience. You are asked to think and listen at the same time. It is a lesson in responding — to the work, to the moment, to yourself. [Hamilton] approaches her installations, and more specifically her ‘attendants,’ with an enormous amount of care and generosity — you are being attended to as much as you are attending. It is with a light hand, a sense of space, and a strict openness that creates a overwhelming sense of being present.”

“the event of a thread” literally weaves together Hamilton’s interest in time-based performance, the act of public speaking, and the poetic accumulation of material for which she is best known. It is like a playground for the soul.

Ann Hamilton’s “the event of a thread”

“‘the event of a thread,’” Hamilton writes, “is made of many crossings of the near at hand and far away: it is a body crossing space, is a writer’s hand crossing a sheet of paper, is a voice crossing a room in a paper bag, is a reader crossing with a page and with another reader, is listening crossing with speaking, is an inscription crossing a transmission, is a stylus crossing a groove, is a song crossing species, is the weightlessness of suspension crossing the calling of bell or bellows, is touch being touched in return. It is a flock of birds and a field of swings in motion. It is a particular point in space at an instant of time.”

the event of a thread by Ann Hamilton continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 6, 2013.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/alissagraceguzman Alissa Guzmán

    While I do love this installation, I find her art to be over-thought and overworked. This installation, while impressive at times, seems filled with extraneous details. Give me the silk curtain and the swings and leave it at that!

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