AUSTIN, Texas — Ann Hamilton’s portrait series O N E E V E R Y O N E is based on two ideas: the systematic representation of the individual and the commonality of people in all their manifestations. The bridge between these two ideas is touch, which plays a literal and abstract role in the work.
To date, the series has appeared in several iterations in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, New York, Seattle, and, most recently, here in Austin. Variations occur at each location: in Pittsburgh, she photographed employees from Bayer MaterialScience LLC and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; in Minneapolis, docents, curators, and volunteers from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; and in New York, visitors to the Art Dealers Association of America’s annual art fair. But in each instance, Hamilton’s process remains the same: the subject is photographed standing behind a sheet of Duraflex (a thermoplastic polyurethane membrane) suspended from a curtain. The artist was introduced to Duraflex during a residency at Bayer MaterialScience in 2012, when an employee handed her a sample and suggested she might find the incidental material qualities of the thin plastic membrane intriguing. During each encounter that leads to an image for O N E E V E R Y O N E, Duraflex provides both a barrier and frame because, when standing behind the skin-like film, the subject cannot see the artist and fragments of their body only come into focus when they touch the plastic membrane, while the rest of their form is left an obscured blur. Isolated, the subjects must react solely to the artist’s verbal instructions as to how to position their bodies, allowing their aural sense to supersede their visual one.
Place is central to Hamilton’s practice, and in Austin, she responded to the architectural spaces of the newly established Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), framing this iteration of her project around the belief that human touch is the most essential means of contact and asking how touch can be an expression of care. She photographed over 500 people at 12 locations across the Texan capital over the course of three one-week residencies, resulting in over 21,000 discrete images. Yet during each encounter, the hand of the artist is removed — Hamilton does not take the photographs and she relies on her voice to compose the image. Although the subjects only come into focus when they touch the sheet of Duraflex, their encounter with the artist relies on a connection that privileges sound, or more precisely conversation, over physical contact.
Commissioned by Landmarks (the University of Texas at Austin’s public art program), O N E E V E R Y O N E joins a number of public works across the UT campus by an impressive array of artists, including Michael Ray Charles, Nancy Rubins, and James Turrell. Because parts of the medical school are still under construction, only 14 over-life-size enamel panels have been unveiled in situ and the remaining panels (close to 70 have been produced), which are scheduled to be installed sometime in April, are currently on view along with related objects in an exhibition at the school’s Visual Art Center. Here, inclusion of installation plans and a piece of Duraflex make the display feel like an interactive appendix to the commission, with the artist’s process laid bare alongside the finished work.
Like so many of the artist’s projects, this series manifests in a number of forms: enamel panels, a book, a newspaper, an image library, and a website. Though somewhat disconnected, these different outputs reflect Hamilton’s interest in what she describes as the democracy of art. The 900-page book and newspaper are offered for free to visitors to the VAC exhibition and to students (and, eventually, to patients) at the medical school, while images on the website are available for download at no cost. The possibilities of the afterlife of these components, of how they are handled and used, echo the artist’s recurring interest in touch as a physical sensation and an abstract form of exchange. Hamilton insists that the project is not about photography, even though the largest part of the multi-faceted work is photographic — both digital and printed. This is a puzzling declaration, but it does push us to move beyond the objects that compose her series to focus on the question that is woven through its myriad forms. As a project that foregrounds a repetitive process, the series is necessarily open-ended, and Hamilton is quick to stress that she is uninterested in establishing boundaries or neatly tying up the loose ends, which is why approaching her work with a question is the most rewarding path.
During a week’s worth of public talks last month in Austin, Hamilton often reiterated the importance of empathy and trust to her practice, but she intriguingly admitted that, while she frames her exploration of touch within these safe ideals, contact is also always crisis. Her images, with large expanses of milky soft focus, exude an ethereal (sometimes saccharine) quality, but when returning to Hamilton’s process and her framing question, vulnerability rises as a central concern in the project. Viewing O N E E V E R Y O N E during the current political climate, when promises of affordable healthcare and personal safety are threatened, it is hard not to see these images, constructed through an exchange of trust, as no longer just beautiful, but fragile.
Ann Hamilton’s O N E E V E R Y O N E panels are permanently installed in the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin (1501 Red River Street, Austin, Texas). The accompanying exhibition is on view at the Visual Arts Center (23rd and Trinity Streets, Austin, Texas) through February 24.