PRINT September 1998

World Report

Ann Hamilton

TALK TO PEOPLE ABOUT the way installation artist ANN HAMILTON transforms empty spaces and their first response is usually to gasp—and then wax poetic. Many are still raving about her 1991 installation for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, North Carolina, in which heaps of blue—denim work shirts sat stacked on tables in an abandoned factory. As in all of her work, Hamilton addressed issues of memory and loss—quietly conjuring images of both a once-thriving industrial economy and those patient determined women who, through the repetitive act of ironing, mirrored their husbands’ labors.

Now the artist-archeologist has a tough assignment ahead. Hamilton has been selected to represent the US at the next Venice Biennale—only the third woman to do so, following Jenny Holzer in 1990 and Louise Bourgeois in 1993. The challenge for Hamilton is coining up with something for the American Pavilion, a sort of miniature Monticello built in 1930. “It may be the ugliest building in Venice,” says New York architect Michael Costantin, echoing the sentiment of many. “It sort of makes you embarrassed to be an American.”

Hamilton won’t go that far. “I have been to the building a couple of times,” said the artist during a recent phone interview. “I’m thinking about the history of that architecture and the way it embodies an ideology. I’m just beginning my research. The first thing I did was get the new biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx. I am also planning to visit the University of Virginia and Monticello. Then, I’m going to Venice for a couple of days to really try to absorb the architecture and see where it can be pushed and prodded and how to bring something out that isn’t obvious.”

At the moment, the opening date of the biennale is uncertain. The show may happen in 1999, as originally scheduled, or the Italian government may postpone it until the year 2000. In the meantime, HARALD SZEEMANN, best known for curating the 1971 Documenta, has been named biennale director. The remaining twenty-six countries represented by pavilions will release the names of their artists over the coming months.

So how does one become an installation artist? For Hamilton, who won a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship in 1993, the journey began with an interest in textiles, which led her to take up sculpture. She attended three colleges, St. Lawrence University, Ohio State, and the University of Kansas, to obtain her undergraduate degree, and she holds an MFA in sculpture from Yale. Today, she lives with her husband Michael and their three-and-a-half-year-old son, Emmett, in Columbus, Ohio, not far from where she grew up. She’s represented in New York by Sean Kelly Gallery.

Before tackling Venice, Hamilton has other commissions to complete, including one for the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut, scheduled for January 1999, a project at Kenyon College next spring, and, more immediately, a collaboration with choreographer Meg Stuart, an American now living in Brussels, tentatively scheduled for this fall.

Although there has always been a performance element in Hamilton’s installations, this collaboration, she admits, has been difficult. “I’m much more interested in experiences where you cannot stand outside them,” says Hamilton, “but have to be immersed. That’s not what the stage is about.”

William Harris