San Diego

Ann Hamilton

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego | La Jolla

Despite the lack of an internal device for marking time, a signature element in most of Ann Hamilton’s pieces, her recent installation, entitled between taxonomy and communion managed to exude the esthetic air typical of Hamilton’s art: a sense of transcendent awareness arising from obsessive labor and material repleteness.

For between taxonomy and communion Hamilton used raw wool to cover the floor and walls of a large room with a low ceiling and a single doorway to about waist height. The wool was then covered with rectangular slats of glass joined at their edges with a powerful, flexible silicone adhesive. Seen through the glass, the matted fleece looked something like soiled, compressed clouds. The sensation underfoot was a combination of brittleness and yielding to pressure. Every step felt as if one were treading on thin, fractured ice atop a layer of mud, though without the ooze. The uncertain footing forced visitors to alter their ways of moving, a bodily sensation that amplified the metaphorical force of the situation. The shapeless wool, felt through a glass grid, seemed to express the difficulty we have in identifying with other forms of animal life, a difficulty now known to have global ecological implications.

Just inside the doorway was a big, empty, wrought-iron bird cage. At the far end of the room stood a long, rectangular steel table, its surface caked with red iron oxide and scattered with thousands of human and animal teeth. Looking at some of the teeth, viewers might feel they recognized parts of themselves; other teeth looked like jewelry, archaic tools, or abstract figurines. The array seemed to calibrate degrees of human identification with other animals and with other people, living and deceased: the extracted (or exacavated) tooth is a symbol of pain and thus, potentially, of sympathy.

The plaster lining the doorway to the room was faintly incised with phrases from Aesop’s fables, those tales in which animals symbolize human types and dispositions. Hamilton seems to have wanted her piece to underscore the outlandishness of that symbolism and to evoke the uncertainty of sympathy beyond the bounds of language. Like all of her work, between taxonomy and communion seemed to operate outside the normal cognitive circuits of language, despite its incorporation of words. Labor-intensive and detailed, the installation finally was not thorough or extreme enough to suit the scale of its implied themes or ambitions.

Kenneth Baker