New York

Ann Hamilton

Dia Center for the Arts

In a virtually empty space, Ann Hamilton deployed a limited selection of materials with restrained obsessiveness, creating a serene though also profoundly disturbing atmosphere. In tropos, 1993, as with so much of Hamilton’s work, the tension between intellect and intuition, specific perceptions and memories, establishes the conceptual and sensory borders within which the work remains fluid and ambiguous.

The third floor of Dia’s industrial building was turned over to the artist. First, she changed the architectonics of the space, replacing existing windows with panes of textured, translucent, industrial glass, and adjusting the quality and distribution of light to evenly illuminate interior surfaces. Views of the outside world were hazy; attention was directed to the interior. The floor was subtly raised in particular areas by additional layers of concrete, but this was not always visually evident; the changes were so modest that they could only be detected by walking through the space.

In the 6,000-square-foot expanse, Hamilton and a large number of collaborators arranged horse hair collected from stables in China. Like many artists’ projects that require the establishment of spontaneous cottage industries to produce the component parts of the installations, tropos began at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia and continued on site at Dia. Long hairs from manes and tails were sewn on fabric borders. These handmade pelts were then methodically placed in layers and glued to the gallery floor, evoking darkly hued waves undulating across the space.

It is easy to become physically entangled in the drifts of hair. The currents and colors create a disquieting disjunction between a visual and a kinesthetic perception of space. Things seem off-kilter. Which sense—sight or touch—can the viewer trust? Are changes in grade merely illusory or are they actual?

The sole props placed in the sea of horse hair are a small table and chair. At different times during the installation a woman sits quietly, seemingly transfixed as she burns out the text of a hook line by line with a soldering iron. Lightly charred incisions are the only traces of this monotonous erasure of language. At the same time that written language is ignited and devoured, sounds dimly resonate in different areas of the space. The sounds are of a man reading. Having suffered a stroke that left him with aphasia, his halting speech is held together by the discomfiting rhythm of long, labored hesitations and incomplete or invented words. Since aphasia impairs the individual’s use of words as symbols, the silent expanses between a thought and its utterance become records of the physical work required to construct and claim meaning.

Often generated from memories, moments, or gestures, Hamilton’s prodigious projects encompass the community of participants who help to produce the demanding, ephemeral installations. But inevitably, the installations return to the singularity of experience, which occurs both before and beyond language, always skirting the categorical. Hamilton’s work mediates between the poles of experience—between the structures of thought and physical sensation.

Patricia C. Phillips