Ann Hamilton: a common sense
Image 1 / 5: Eric A. Hegg. Studio portrait of donkey, Dawson, Yukon Territory.
Image 2 / 5: Woman’s evening coat.
Image 3 / 5: New-York: Samuel Wood & Sons, 1818. The Young Child's A, B, C; or, First Book.
Image 4 / 5: Ann Hamilton. Digital scan of specimen from University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture Mammal Collection.
Image 5 / 5: Inupiaq man’s parka.
Ann Hamilton: a common sense is a museum-wide exhibition of newly commissioned works by the internationally renowned artist. Using materials and representations of animals gathered from University of Washington collections, Hamilton has created a set of poetic relationships that invite us to consider the closeness, the distance, and the interdependence between human and non-human animals.
Asking questions about multiple forms of knowledge, Hamilton turned to the University’s sites of knowledge creation and memory—the Henry, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and the University Libraries Special Collections. Fur, feather, and gut garments, as well as scientific specimens and books such as bestiaries and children’s ABC primers from these collections have become the physical threads of her Henry exhibition. Together these materials create an exhibition that the artist describes as an elegiac accounting of the finitude and threatened extinctions we share across species— “a lacrimosa for a future being lost.”
The exhibition title, a common sense, references Greek philosopher Aristotle’s proposition in Historia Animalium that “touch” is the sense common to all species. Long-interested in the qualities of felt experience, Hamilton invites us to consider touch in its tangible and intangible forms: touch as physical contact, as embodied knowing, and as a form of intellectual and emotional recognition. The sonic vibrations emanating from custom-designed mechanized bullroarers (an ancient instrument used to call or signal across distances, and often to gather people together), the texture of newsprint in the hand, words spoken intimately by readers throughout the galleries, and voices singing to the artifacts on view, are among the diverse forms of touch explored by the artist.
We stroke a pet, reach to draw a curtain and feel the fineness of the cotton, touch the hand of another person. We sleep between sheets, stay warm inside silk underwear and wool coats; cloth is the constant tactile companion to our body. Cloth covers our nudity and makes us social. Its surround is an early architecture and its origins are animal: the fleece of sheep, the skin of bear, the spun thread of a silkworm.
Each extension of a hand or paw is toward contact. Contact with the ground, the air, to someone or something outside the self and from this extension one is always touched in return—that is touch’s reciprocal condition and exchange. When we touch we go from being observers to being included; things seen become felt.
In silence or in speech, reading and being read to are other forms of touch. The words of poets and writers stir us and when this happens we may be compelled to note, copy, or underline and often to share that touch by passing the book from hand to hand—by reading out loud—by sharing the page. The distance between author and reader, and reader and reader diminishes as the capacity of words to compel recognition travels from contact to contact, screen to screen, and perhaps from hand to hand.
Ann Hamilton: a common sense continues the museum’s relationship with the artist that began over twenty years ago. In 1992, the Henry commissioned Hamilton to create an installation in the galleries of our original building. For her seminal exhibition accountings, a landmark event in Seattle, the gallery floors were skinned with numbered steel tokens, the walls were licked with candle soot, wax votive heads filled an oversized vitrine, and two hundred canaries flew free. The current project with Hamilton is the result of an invitation in 2009 to consider working with the Henry again, offering all galleries including our 1997 addition designed by Charles Gwathmey. It is a risk and a collaboration the artist and the institution take together, and is in keeping with the Henry’s mission to advance contemporary art, artists, and ideas.
An artist of exceptional distinction, Hamilton has created multi-sensory installations in numerous spaces, including The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. (2003, 1991); The Wanås Foundation, Knislinge, Sweden (2002); The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, St. Louis (2009); and New York’s Park Avenue Armory (2012), among others. Hamilton has been the recipient of many honors including a MacArthur Fellowship, United States Artists Fellowship, NEA Visual Arts Fellowship, Tiffany Foundation Award, and Guggenheim Fellowship. This year, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Hamilton has represented the United States in the 1991 São Paulo Bienal and the 1999 Venice Biennale. In 1992, she established her home and practice in Columbus, Ohio, where she is a Distinguished University Professor of Art at The Ohio State University.
In 2004, Hamilton created the permanent installation LEW Wood Floor for the opening of the Seattle Central Public Library, with raised letters spelling out the first sentences from books in the library’s collection in 11 languages. Most recently, Hamilton was selected from a pool of over 340 applicants for a large-scale, outdoor commission on the new public piers as part of Waterfront Seattle, a city-funded project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with twenty-six acres of new public space, streets, parks, and buildings.