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An installation to be seen, felt, heard ... and contemplated

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 7, 2010 - To appreciate Ann Hamilton, it's important to know that after decades of creating textile art, sculptures and visually stimulating installations, she still is reluctant to take part in an exercise that's as familiar to visual artists as the wine-and-cheese opening reception.

Writing those ubiquitous blurbs that explain the meaning of an artist's work is a chore for Hamilton. She prefers to let the viewing public decide that on its own.

"My goal is to get people to trust their own experience of being here," Hamilton said from the site of her next artistic tour-de-force. "Can you create a situation or a project so compelling that it engages people long enough so they make their own meaning?"

It's a question that will begin to be answered on July 9, when her installation, "Stylus: A project by Ann Hamilton," opens at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Hamilton will be on hand from 5-9 p.m. that evening to take part in an opening reception. The show, created specifically for the Pulitzer, runs through Jan. 22, 2011.

Hamilton's ability to create multimedia installations that encourage art observers to think imaginatively about everyday objects, images and sounds has won her acclaim and is part of what attracted the attention of Matthias Waschek, director of the Pulitzer.

Empty Space in St. Louis

Waschek, who serves as curator of the installation, said he has been impressed not only by Hamilton's work but also her interest in getting to know the place where her project will be on display. An Ohio native, Hamilton taught a course last summer at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University. She has spent several months out of the past three years exploring St. Louis and the Pulitzer -- even before it was apparent that she'd have a six-month run here.

Hamilton's observations about the city: "You can't drive around here and not notice that this is a city that is as full of empty space as it is as full of occupied space," Hamilton said. "And so what is the nature of that space and where are places of public congregation in a city that has a history of space that's been abandoned? This is a question that emerged from [my time] being here and learning about the larger social history."

Hamilton, like artists before her whom the Pulitzer has featured, is grappling with the question of how an institution open for just under a decade can be that place of public congregation. Her installation poses the question: What are the ways in which people communicate and what forces enable or inhibit social contact from taking place?

"If pressed, I would say that this project deals with the raw material of communication," Waschek writes in the introduction to the installation. "Familiar forms of interaction are de-contextualized, then stitched back together into a new, poetic entity that resonates with our most basic experiences. In that sense, Ann's creation is not without parallel to [building designer] Tadao Ando's architecture, which breaks down our perception of nature into building blocks that are reconstituted into an abstract new entity."

Filling Space with Contact

Contact is the operative word when considering the varied elements of the installation. Look no further than the name "Stylus," which calls to mind the Greek word referring to a pointed object -- everything from a needle that touches down on a record player to a pen that draws on a digital screen -- that makes contact with a surface.

Hamilton's installation is filled with objects and images that ask the viewer to think closely about touch. Hands made out of newsprint sit inside cubbies that run the length of the longest wall inside the Pulitzer. Visitors are invited to put on these hands as if they were gloves and make contact with one another.

"It's not literally someone else's hand, but putting on these paper hands is a form of empathy and a form of social space that interests me," Hamilton said.

In the same room are rolling platform ladders holding video projectors that show images of newspaper readers, among other subjects. The video images move across the wall, often disappearing when they approach beams of natural light and then reappearing again moments later.

The installation also includes a steel drawing table equipped with a turntable, touch pad and a microphone, as well as the ability to receive, record and produce sound. Thanks to artistic creativity and technological ingenuity, input from the table feeds into two player pianos, which in turn transmit the sounds, giving voice to what was produced at the table.

While there are plenty of available hands inside the nearby cubbies, the piano can play without any of them.

Upstairs, in a section of the Pulitzer that's doused by natural light, is a table with jumping beans moving on the hard surface.

"In this space, it's where things make contact or intersect that things come alive or come to our perception," Hamilton said. "The jumping beans are made animate by heat and light and they are alive. It's like us -- when we are in conversation that's when we are animate and alive."

Hamilton also keeps in mind the other meaning of stylus -- an architectural column. The one notable pillar inside the Pulitzer runs from the entryway on the ground level to the second-floor space where the jumping beans bathe in sunlight. She has constructed the table upstairs to fit around the column, which draws attention to the building's form.

Downstairs, a projected video of clapping hands plays on the column, as well as on the wall behind it. The hands appear to be applauding your entry to the Pulitzer, unless, that is, they are sending another message altogether. The ambiguity is intentional, as Waschek explains.

The installation is about "connecting or not connecting -- about the ambivalence of connecting," he said.

Filling Space with Sound

Hamilton is asking people to connect with the Pulitzer by leaving a voice message in which they either sing a lullaby, call in a poetic reading or play their favorite horn. The plan is to play back these sounds outside, both during business hours and after, using speakers sitting on the Pulitzer's roof.

Hamilton said she's interested to hear the ways in which people choose to record themselves. Other sounds, such as the crackling jumping beans, are also played as part of the show.

"What Ann is adding is a dimension that we've never had so far, which is sound as part of the installation," Waschek said. "For the duration of the installation it's part of the experience, how sound actually makes you feel and interact with the space," he said.

Added Hamilton: "We have cultural habits of privileging some [senses] over others. But how we hear has to do with how we touch has to do with how we feel has to do with how things look, and the total phenomenology of all the factors that make our experience are what make up these works."

Hamilton's interest in exploring the tactile qualities of material is obvious in everything from the papier-mache hands to news sheets that contain sentences taken from existing articles and scrambled to make a new text that still incorporates the words most commonly used in the original stories.

"I've had a lot of concerns, thoughts, questions about what is the place of hand making in a culture that is full of technological extension, not just on a level of economic exchange but in our daily lives," Hamilton said. "What knowledge do we have from hand making that needs to come forward as we spend more and more time digitally connected? We're all negotiating the divide between the analog and the digital. ... This question of what it means to make by hand now comes forward quite literally in these paper hands."

Learning More

To get a sense for Hamilton's visual style, look at the arresting video introduction featuring hands, ears and other images on the Pulitzer's landing page for the installation. As part of her project, Hamilton will be working throughout the next six months on developing interactive web content on the Pulitzer's installation page.

To get a feel for Hamilton's writing style, which is far more descriptive than explanatory, check out her website. There's little blurb-worthy material, as Wascheck has discovered.

"When we asked Ann to send an artistic statement, what we got was lots of emails with poetic tangential descriptions of what [the installation] would be," he said. "If you look at her work with the analytic eye and say, 'I want to get the substance of this,' you will be frustrated. If you are looking at it with a poetic eye, you'll be richly rewarded."

(Editor's note: Emily Rauh Pulitzer, founder and chairman of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, is a donor to the Beacon.)

Elia Powers is a freelance journalist. 

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