Ann Hamilton’s “the common S E N S E” is of Universal Beauty

Posted on October 15, 2014, 3:04 pm
19 mins


Ann Hamilton’s building-wide exhibition the common S E N S E at The Henry Gallery is low in spectacle, high in nourishment. There are no gorgeous artifacts to crowd around, to squeeze toward for a quick cellphone photo before passing on to the next. There is no pressure, no haste, no dictated path, no obligations that canon artworks bring. At first glance, most objects on display are indistinct—neat stacks of paper on wooden dowels, vitrines containing old books, jackets and taxidermied animals—and yet everything is unique, inviting viewers to explore individually, in ways that may change with multiple visits. Through this, Hamilton’s work fosters empathy and curiosity—the very soul of art.

The material elements of the common S E N S E are drawn from the Burke Museum, the special collections of the University of Washington, and the Henry’s own costume, textile and photography collections. Little of this is typically found in a fine arts setting, nor are the stacks of printed material throughout the museum. These are sourced from a Tumblr page,, through which one can submit selections to be printed and added to the exhibition. These printouts will deplete as people take them; other submissions will take their place. Only a few key texts will be replenished, but these are not given special attention in the displays.

The unifying concept here is the idea of touch, including “intellectual and emotional recognition.” Alterity, epistemology and philosophies of science, art and language are all part of the inquiry. Those who are enthusiastic about these subjects may shortly achieve an exhausted bliss. Those who are less familiar with these concepts will experience them through pure experience, not technical jargon.

By making these fundamental but abstract—often dogmatic—topics into something more subtle and relatable, Hamilton accomplishes what so many institutions unsuccessfully attempt. It is worth addressing the idea of institutional art before delving into how Hamilton’s work heals it.

Photo by Chona Kasinger, courtesy of Henry Art Gallery.

Photo by Chona Kasinger, courtesy of Henry Art Gallery.

Reviving the Institution

We may sometimes discount how much the public dialog about art is shaped by institutions, be they shrines to canon masterpieces, repositories of less renowned work, or venues for contemporary experimentation. And though these institutions may feign an aloof, quasi-religious impartiality in their stated mission, they are all swayed by market and political forces—from governments to lobbies down to the personal connections of their trustees.

The very birth of the museum can be traced to imperialism. Wunderkammern, curios and national treasuries in Europe glutted with the spoils of trade and conquest formed the basis for the first galleries, offering microcosms of the known world and evidence of the breadth and supremacy of empire in the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, institutional art became a way for plutocrats and autocrats to “give culture back to the people”—at least a convenient form of it, housed in temples to the builders’ wealth.

Some envisioned art as a new, secular form of religion, at once humanist and elitist. This vision failed because it incorrectly presumed its own novelty, for art predates religion and markets. It succeeded instead at portraying art—even folk art—as an exclusive, courtly form of expression. Beholden to elite patrons, such institutions still often embody economic largesse and a preservation of the status quo. They may be necessary as stewards of the past, but by their nature are often poor at correcting our shared path toward a more humane future.

One exhibition cannot fix this, but what a brilliant re-invigoration of the institution is the common S E N S E! Its disparate objects and specimens together reference proto-museum curios, but rather than offering a specious microcosm it becomes a fluid catalog of ideas and phenomena. Neither empire nor man is the locus, but rather the very desire for union—an antidote to the rational narcissism of modernity, which privileges analysis over synthesis and knowing over feeling. Even the increasing divide between art and science is closed by the common S E N S E, as their common origin is examined: the means by which make ourselves and our world understood.

If we could but do away with the admission fees, what a truly universal place it would be. It is the sort of exhibition and treatment that could and should be repeated with variations peculiar to each space, so perhaps others will be able to provide that level of access to the public.

A Lit and Lilting Gallery

Illustration of The Death and Burial of Cock Robin

The Death and Burial of Cock Robin. London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1876. Historical Children’s Literature Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

The Henry’s own space has been newly revived in a way: The skylights in one gallery had been shut since 2001, but are now open. In that gallery, 21 mechanized bullroarers are fitted overhead on motorized poles. The distinct whiffing of bullroarers has been heard on virtually every continent since the paleolithic era, to gather people in ritual on common ground. Combined with modern machinery, these ancient noisemakers seem sentient and avian; the motorized poles propel them spinning up and gravity brings them spinning back down. They were constructed in collaboration with The UW Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DX Arts) and Olson Kundig Architects, and can be programmed to move in different patterns—flocking and undulating as if of a unified mind.

The light, airy, vertical use of the space is a welcome change, as is the introduction of sound into the galleries. In fact, in yet another collaboration with associated institutions, Hamilton has called for choral students from the UW School of Music to walk through the galleries at times, improvising from a short lilting melody. As with so much else in the exhibit, each moment is unique and vital; the vision remains consistent, but the manifestation is always shifting.

Also heard in the galleries will be volunteers reading to objects. These reader-scribes are each given a little kit: a blanket, a board, and two books—one book to read, and another to record. Even the soft and tactile comfort of the blanket is consistent with the theme of touch—and unusual in the context of most museums’ marmoreal coolness.

Guests gather beneath bullroarers in the west gallery. Photo by Chona Kasinger, courtesy of Henry Art Gallery.

Guests gather beneath bullroarers in the west gallery. Photo by Chona Kasinger, courtesy of Henry Art Gallery.

For now, the book being read by all the reader-scribes is John Alec Baker’s The Peregrine, an acclaimed non-fiction record of the habits of and ecological communities around peregrine falcons. For one hour, the volunteer will sit by an exhibited object of their choosing and read to it. Passages of particular appeal will be written in the record book, known as the commonplace book. Whereas the printed matter on dowels throughout the galleries can be taken by visitors and is ephemeral, the commonplace books will be humble documents of the interactive and immersive experience of the participants.

The Reciprocity of Loss

Digital scan of macaque specimen

Digital scan of macaque specimen from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Ann Hamilton, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

In another installation, the walls of four rooms are covered with photographs of animal specimens. Most are of the underbellies or hands of the creatures, the places that touch earth, brood and prey. The milky, blurring of Hamilton’s photographic/scanning process gives the animals a numinous quality. They are printed on newspaper, two-sided, and bolted in stacks to the wall. Visitors are invited to tear a sheet away and take it with them. Over time, the room will be depleted and not restocked. Surplus of a few prints may be added, leaving a monoculture where once there was diversity. Like the texts on display, this allows for visitors to leave with a physical memory of the space, but one that causes them to think before taking what is finite and cannot be restored, even when the material (newspaper) is something discarded daily without a thought.

This elegiac quality pervades the exhibition, from its brightest corners to its most obscure cubbies. In a hall and chamber adjoining the bullroarer installation, beneath the central mezzanine, fur and hide garments lie in a gridded cluster of vitrines—almost like caskets—each enclosed by linen panels, which the viewer draws back by hand. You may see reader-scribes among them, speaking to an antique jacket or seal-skin pants in repose. There is a compound absence in each: the lives of the creatures whose bodies became the garment, the human bodies that filled it, all extinguished now. One may take for granted one’s clothes, the human shape, the skin—the tactile membrane of the body that we familiarly treat as the edge of physical being, the gulf between self and other—but this reverent treatment of the objects is deeply healing in an age of unprecedented production and waste.

The reader-scribes who participated during the press preview said that the experience of reading to these objects—a picture of a hummingbird, a girl’s fur jacket—was strangely immersive and emotional. Over the course of an hour, the mere act of reading aloud to the unmoving form gave it a sense of sentience. This is a very human thing, evident in myth and religion (e.g. Pygmalion and Galatea, the veneration of idols and icons as sentient), pop culture (a sex doll in Lars and the Real Girl, Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away) and more nuanced poetry and philosophical explorations, including the writings of Bachelard and the Japanese idea of mono no aware (loosely translated as the “pathos of things”). It is no mere fetishization of objects as sources of power, but as a dear expression of Other, the philosophical Other in which we seek empathy and reconciliation. It is no coincidence that The Peregrine is one man’s intense, poetic, but never solitary experience of other life forms—how they behave in relation to each other and to him.

In the end, this gulf is never crossed, but in some asymptotic way these aesthetic experiences and the mere attempt of crossing bring one ever closer. And if one is touched, one is also touching.

The common S E N S E is thus a place where individual action is required to revive what is deathly—or rather, it becomes inescapably evident that this is always the case. Hamilton has done her part in creating the milieu, bringing a peculiar life to the building itself, but visitors must take it upon themselves to learn its lessons and find mortal empathy in every corner. Even those who look at art all the time may have forgotten this, and those of us who have our own ritual reminders will benefit from the open system Hamilton has prepared for us.

I was almost annoyed when during the preview it was mentioned that there is no order to the exhibition, but only because I loathe exhibitions that treat the subject like a Disneyland ride: a single path dictated, a single narrative, little place for personal exploration and discovery. I was annoyed because so many institutions have accepted this as legitimate curation, to the point that it is worth mentioning when an exhibit shuns this authoritarian approach. The common S E N S E is very far from that. In so many ways, it is a tonic:

Digital scan of peregrine falcon specimen from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Ann Hamilton, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Digital scan of peregrine falcon specimen from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Ann Hamilton, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

It rejects haste: The devoted time of the reader-scribes, the whole layout demands that viewers take their time if they want to get anything out of it.

It rejects spectacle: Even at its most eye-catching, the exhibition demands one look at individual elements, not an all-consuming whole in which awareness is lost. The eye and mind are always searching and active.

It rejects detachment: The call to take from the exhibition—to leave an absence as evidence of one’s having been there—and to inscribe in the commonplace book and to contribute texts via the Tumblr encourages engagement in which one does not merely passively attend. One is encouraged to be truly present. (And that phrase is so overused I shudder to put it that way, but in the spirit of sincerity offered by the exhibition, I will not avoid the phrase when it is perfectly accurate.)

The Artist as Sibyl

One of the first pages I happened upon in the exhibition was a very familiar line of poetry:

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Others will also no doubt recognize it as one of the final lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In that final stanza, it is the only original line by Eliot among many quotes pulled from disparate sources. In the context of a show built from fragments, it is all the more germane.

Perhaps others will remember the epigraph, too, which comes from the Satyricon of Petronius. The Cumaean Sibyl is referenced: the prophetess withered by thousand of years of life without eternal youth, reduced to deathless immobility, suspended as a specimen of both great wisdom and folly for the boys who comes and ask what she wants. (She wants to die.) It was this same Sibyl who offered books of prophecy painted on leaves to King Tarquin, who refused to buy them until she had burned six of the original nine and twice doubled the price of the remainder.

In an exhibition where voices lilt, folios deplete and objects acquire a deathless stillness, the comparison is almost too on the nose. But one of the joys of the common S E N S E is its porousness; the changing content and environment allows for every visit to be unique. Each text can be either a point of entry, or something to be considered in the context of another approach. Again, it is up to the individual…and though once there one should take one’s time, I urge all to go sooner than later…and again…and again.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

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