Ann Hamilton: O N E E V E R Y O N E
“Let’s be in touch,” we say casually, although to be truly in touch is rare, a prized and intimate experience that cross-wires several systems of perception, emotion, and understanding. These are connections that Ann Hamilton has long explored with great depth and delicacy. In O N E E V E R Y O N E, a series of photo-portraits commissioned by Landmarks for the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin, she illuminates the particular links between touch and vision, contact and caring. Positioning subjects behind a material called Duraflex®, which has been aptly described as looking something like a frosted shower curtain and feeling a little like skin, Hamilton has photographed more than 500 people. Among the material’s properties is that whatever touches the surface from behind is seen, from the front, in sharp focus, while everything else becomes progressively soft; in photographic terms, it creates a very shallow depth of field. To viewers of the resulting portraits, the plastic screen becomes the image surface, a translation that binds visual and tactile perception.
Touch has been key to Hamilton’s work from the outset. Among her earliest works was suitably positioned (1984) a man’s business suit covered in toothpicks, which makes its wearer a human porcupine, and provokes in viewers a distinctly heightened experience of tactile sensitivity. By the end of the 1980s Hamilton had begun to produce the complex, site-related installations that have consumed the majority of her efforts since. For privation and excesses (1989), at Capp Street Project, San Francisco, she had thousands of pennies laid into a field of honey on the gallery’s floor; a woman wringing her hands in a honey-filled felt hat sat at the rear, and behind her, three sheep grazed in a pen: the full-body experience for viewers included activation of the sense of smell. At the Dia Center for the Arts in New York City, tropos (1993–94) included a floor carpeted with horsehair. In myein, conceived for the United States Pavilion in the 48th Venice Biennale (1999), bright red powder drifted over walls marked with Braille; visitors were invited to write with their fingers in the pigment that fell to the floor.
More than once, Hamilton has combined the tactile and the photographic: In abc-video (1994–99), we see a carefully inscribed alphabet slowly erased and then, it seems, rewritten by an inky fingertip. Developed in connection with myein, reflection (1999–2000) is a series of photographs shot in the reflection made by multiple layers of slightly wavy glass, producing images of a figure that appears to be underwater—a precedent for O N E E V E R Y O N E’s blur. Also creating soft-edged images was the small camera Hamilton placed inside her mouth for face to face (2001), which made the artist into a kind of pinhole apparatus—opening her lips exposed the film—and transposed her (silenced) mouth into a speaking eye.
The Duraflex® sheet behind which subjects stood during photo-shoots for O N E E V E R Y O N E prevented them from seeing the camera, and although they heard Hamilton’s voice directing them, they felt themselves to be in a private space. The process creates “a quality of interiority,” the artist said in a public conversation with UT Austin’s Jack Risley, a valuable condition at a moment when, she continued, “the notion of private images and private space is changing.” As Hamilton told me, trust—with respect to the camera, and the artist—was another big issue in the process of creating these images. As it happens, trust is also essential to a relationship the subjects shared: all are members of the extended medical community in Austin, whether as care providers, administrators, or patients. Photo-shoots were open to all and held at community health clinics, a student union, university campuses, a children’s hospital, a retirement community, and elsewhere. “Touch and human recognition is the core of medicine,” Hamilton commented to Risley; to me, she noted a similarity between the way the subjects address themselves to her camera and the way patients are seen by a doctor. In both cases, she said, “You offer yourself up.”
Typically for Hamilton’s work, O N E E V E R Y O N E is a project with several components. Primary is an image library containing more than 20,000 photographs of roughly 530 people. Installed at the Medical Center are a few dozen that have been printed on enameled porcelain panels, which are lustrous (they are finished with a thin layer of glass) and softly white—like trays for medical instruments, as Hamilton points out. Whether at slightly over life-size or somewhat smaller, the subjects are dignified, even grand, but also muffled—quieted—by the process, which prohibits the preening display so common in the age of social media. And the emphasis on touch is extended by the photographs’ frequent focus on hands at the expense of faces. When the subjects make manual gestures, as they often do, they consolidate the connection between touching and seeing. We see a man cradling a baby; a cross-generation handshake; a flutter of fingers. Choices of physical self-presentation—clothing, ornaments—further acquire, in some portraits, an emblematic force, forming additional accents, as in spoken language, of color, texture, and form.
In addition to these porcelain panels, a generous selection of images appears in a wordless book. Published in a run of 10,000 copies and distributed freely on campus, its 900 pages make it thick like the kind of old-fashioned telephone directory it resembles. The thin, pliable, off-white paper of this publication evokes, as does Duraflex®, the tenderness of skin, and further modulates the color and resolution of the photographs. And it binds them into the kind of physical index of connectedness—a phonebook—that has been abandoned in the digital age. An additional component of O N E E V E R Y O N E is this free newspaper in which a selection of the photographs appear alongside contributions by scientists and philosophers, poets and essayists. These essays are also available on the project’s website—a final and crucial component—along with at least one image of each participant, which may be downloaded for free.
These several image vehicles all place the subjects securely in the present, while framing them in several kinds of history. The blur that envelops O N E E V E R Y O N E’s subjects can be associated with a period, in the late nineteenth century, when the still-novel medium of photography was believed, by a surprising number (and range) of people, to be capable of capturing departed spirits; not coincidentally, it was a time when various spiritualists also promised such capture. Historian Tom Gunning writes, “Not only did the darkness needed to protect the sensitized photographic plate from exposure serve as an analogy for the darkness in which mediums held their séances, but photographs could also provide evidence of the existence of spirit beings.” Impinging on the film or the plate’s emulsion, the dead made manifest their otherwise invisible presence. In the present, when more and more of our time is spent staring at images on screens, Gunning continues, “The difference between our daily existence and that of phantoms becomes attenuated.”1 That is to say, we have become the ghosts once thought to be exposed in darkroom-born images; touch, in both cases, is the interface. Related, too, is the healing offered by Franz Anton Mesmer, an eighteenth-century Viennese doctor who, Mark Alice Durant writes, “theorized that magnetism flowed through the universe via the fluidium.” Mesmer believed that a diaphanous medium joined all bodies “in the universal waltz of influence,” which a skilled practitioner—a mesmerist—could channel for medical benefit.2
Hamilton, an avid reader, brought my attention to the writing of cultural theorist and mathematician Brian Rotman (also a contributor to the newspaper), who argues in Becoming Beside Ourselves that both mind and God are ghost effects of the alphabet—immaterial entities brought forth by writing’s capacity to sustain identity over time and space in the absence of the speaker’s body. “Writing, by rescuing speech from oblivion,” Rotman says, “allows utterance to live beyond itself.” But Rotman believes that alphabetic writing is giving way to gestural languages caught in real time by digital technology, which is driven by a dispersed community of meaning. The digitally-enabled “I” is “immersive and gesturo-haptic,” Rotman writes, and “increasingly defined by the networks threading through it.”3 Philosopher Vílem Flusser, too, felt that language born of breath and inscribed in printed words was becoming obsolete. While “the alphabet permits us to stabilize and discipline a transcendence of images that has been won, with effort, through speech,” Flusser wrote, “thinking is not a continuous, discursive process.” Instead, we think in images, which are fluid, and our brains more resemble networked databases than inscribable clay tablets. Writing, Flusser predicted in 1987, is nearing an end.4
Hamilton, too is interested in the fact that we “live in a world of touch-less images” where, paradoxically, pictures can be brought to life and manipulated by a finger placed on a computer screen—“That space of no space,” she calls it. Digital screens (and photographs of all kinds) have played an important role in her work. But she does not altogether share Flusser’s, or Rotman’s, rather drastic vision of a post-bibliophilic future. Just as constant as touch in her work has been the presence of books and other forms of printed matter, which is also central to O N E E V E R Y O N E. Several times, books have entered her work as objects to be altered, as with tiny stones replacing typographic marks, or lines of text being slowly, systematically burnt with a stylus. In her conversation with Jack Risley, Hamilton said, “The book is a beautiful democratic object. It’s portable, it has a rhythm, it’s in your hand. When you fall into a book you’re falling into another world that extends like a landscape even if it’s not literally one. That close at hand and far away, which is how I would characterize reading, is carried always in a book.”
The democracy of art is perhaps Hamilton’s central principle, and is clearly reflected in O N E E V E R Y O N E’s remarkable openness—its enormous range of participants; the free distribution of its newspaper, and of its book, which Hamilton hopes will “circulate throughout the community, hand to hand”; the public availability of its website. An internationally celebrated artist, honored with a MacArthur fellowship in 1993 and the National Medal of the Arts in 2015 (among many other awards), and with installations at major museums and public spaces around the world, she has had a wary relationship with the art market. Her choice of living and working in Columbus, Ohio, where she grew up—she was born in Lima, Ohio, in 1956—reflects a wariness of art’s commercial capitals. Engaging with local communities is a through-line in her installations, which bring together people from disparate disciplines as contributors, fabricators, performers, participants, and viewers; many of these terms become fluid in her work. Among the several installations to have involved expanses of billowing and swirling fabric (Hamilton’s BFA, from the University of Kansas at Lawrence, in 1979, was in textile design; she also received an MFA in sculpture from Yale, in 1985) are two that required the audience to help set the cloth in motion. By pumping swings suspended from the vaulting ceiling of the great drill hall in New York’s Park Avenue Armory (the event of a thread, 2012–13), audience members caused a giant curtain to move up and down; by pulling on ropes, viewers at an open-air pier in Philadelphia set in motion enormous swirling skirts, which were also animated by wind, and even by the movement of passersby (habitus, 2016).
Woven fabric is a social metaphor as well as a physical material in Hamilton’s installations. The stuff of shelter and privacy, communion and solitude, it also evokes an interweaving of knowledge and skills. Though not a traditional textile, Duraflex® is a protective material; produced by Bayer MaterialScience, it came to Hamilton’s attention as the result of a project undertaken for an exhibition called Factory Direct, at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, that wove together artists and local industry. That collaborative effort is deepened by O N E E V E R Y O N E’s commitment to the extended community of the Dell Medical Center. Along with the writing of Rotman, Hamilton drew me to John Berger’s book-length essay, A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor, which considers with great sympathy the relationships forged between a particularly thoughtful, generous physician in rural England and his patients. A highly developed sense of touch, and an equal ability to see his patients clearly, as whole beings rather than aggregated physical parts—while at the same time understanding them to be inextricably connected to their town and its culture—was central to his quietly heroic practice. Hamilton’s O N E E V E R Y O N E represents a similar devotion.
1. Tom Gunning, “Ghosts, Photography, and the Modern Body,” in The Disembodied Spirit (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 2003), 10, 18.
2. Mark Alice Durant, “Adrift in the Fluidium,” in Blur of the Otherworldly: Contemporary Art, Technology, and the Paranormal (Baltimore: UMBC Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture, 2006), 67.
3. Brian Rotman, Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 122, 8.
4. Vílem Flusser, Does Writing Have a Future?, trans. Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 31, 144.
Ann Hamilton: stylus. Texts by Ann Hamilton, Matthias Waschek and Steven Henry Madoff. St. Louis, Missouri: The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 2012.
Ann Hamilton: whitecloth. Essay by Nancy Princenthal, poem by Ann Lauterbach. Ridgefield, Connecticut: The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, 1999.
RECTO/VERSO: video by Ann Hamilton. Texts by Susan Stewart and Linn Underhill. Hamilton, New York: Colgate University and Picker & Clifford Gallery, 2013.
Simon, Joan. Ann Hamilton: An Inventory of Objects. New York: Gregory Miller, 2006.
Simon, Joan. Ann Hamilton. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002.
Nancy Princenthal’s book Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art received the 2016 PEN America award for biography. A former senior editor of Art in America, she has also contributed essays to Artforum, Parkett, the Village Voice, and the New York Times, as well as to monographs on numerous contemporary artists. Based in Brooklyn, she is currently on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York.