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Review: 'Stylus' starts the conversation at the Pulitzer

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 11, 2010 - “Stylus,” Ann Hamilton’s project at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, seems to ask just one thing: that the visitor approach it with an open mind and without the expectations one brings when viewing conventional artworks.

For “Stylus” is unlike any are you’re likely to have seen before. It’s not a work, per se; it’s not an installation, exactly. It’s not even finished in the traditional sense.

The descriptive term “project” is apt for “Stylus,” because it suggests its ongoing and continually changing nature. It’s an interplay, absorbing contributions from visitors, and generating new forms, sounds and materials as it unfolds through time.  Certainly “Stylus” has themes, the central one being the concept of communication, in all its manifestations: written and spoken language, music and text, experience and memory.

Throughout the Pulitzer, “Stylus” offers opportunities for visitors to engage with myriad forms of communication. A selection of library books is on offer, as is a collection of old vinyl records, which can be played on phonographs in the front gallery (two records can be played simultaneously, creating unexpected juxtapositions of sounds and narratives).

In the Main Gallery, rotating projectors sit atop platform ladders, casting elusive images high on the walls, while sound combinations are transmitted from speakers embedded in the floor. A steel table with a rolling tray and microphone invite the visitor to invent games. Digital player pianos in the Cube Gallery and Lower Gallery emit sounds that are by turn soothing and startling. On the Mezzanine level, a steel table is covered in jumping beans, their sound amplified by microphones, while beneath the table, taxidermy birds hang upside down from wires.

“Stylus” involves evocative objects but is exceedingly spare, relying on sound and suggestion to fill the Pulitzer’s spaces. Like many of Hamilton’s works, “Stylus” is collaborative, involving the constant engagement of viewers as well as the contributions of other artists.

An essential aspect of “Stylus” is the sound that fills the Main Gallery, which has been engineered by the composer/musician Shahrokh Yadegari. Vocal recordings by St. Louis opera singer Elizabeth Zharoff have been combined with sounds generated by Lila, a computerized instrument for composing and performing music invented by Yadegari. Lila loops tracks and generates new sounds, so the soundtrack for “Stylus” is constantly regenerating.

Like the instrument for which it is named — the tool that inscribes a message, or the needle that elicits sound from a record — “Stylus” is a catalyst for communication.

Make the most of the opportunity it offers. Talk to fellow visitors. Ask questions of the gallery attendants, most of whom were intimately involved in the installation of the show. They don’t have answers for everything — that’s not the nature of their job or this project — but they can deepen the engagement with what “Stylus” is: a poetic reflection on the possibilities of human communication.

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

Ivy Cooper, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is the Beacon art critic. 

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