St. Louis

View of “Ann Hamilton,” 2010.

View of “Ann Hamilton,” 2010.

Ann Hamilton

View of “Ann Hamilton,” 2010.

This past summer Ann Hamilton installed stylus, 2010, a single, institution-spanning, multipart work at the Pulitizer Foundation for the Arts (where it remains on view through January 22). In so doing, she carried on the engagement with the topos of communication—textual, vocal, aural, recorded—that has grounded much of her work. But while stylus has the distinction of being Hamilton’s most interactive project to date, offering viewers multiple points of ingress and opportunities for participation, the resulting exchanges remain profoundly elusive. Interaction is invited, but rewards are deferred; and the connections among the show’s constituent parts and with the viewer are extremely attenuated, such that stylus testifies not so much to the inevitability of human communication but to its precariousness.

One encounters stylus even before entering the Pulitzer’s Tadao Ando–designed building, as every seven and a half minutes, birdcalls, vocal music, and messages (recorded by exhibition visitors) are broadcast from five bell-shaped speakers installed on the institution’s roof. Once inside, all are invited to sign in on a pressure-sensitive tablet—an action that may or may not be immediately associated with the sounds of crashing chords from a distant piano, one of the two electronic Yamaha Disklaviers within the exhibition, activated by this gesture. A second literal reference to stylus’s namesake is offered in the first proper gallery, where the viewer encounters a prominent pillar (the original Greek word from which “stylus” derives denoted both an instrument for writing and the architectural support) onto which a silent video is projected, a figure whose clapping hands meet at the column’s center. Within the same space, on an enormous steel table, a stack of “concordances” is offered for sale; the printed texts change weekly, featuring sentence fragments from newspapers containing words central to Hamilton’s theme—CALL, HEARING, SPEAK, TOUCHING. A selection of library books stands nearby, along with a collection of vintage vinyl records (offering spoken word, more birdsongs, and sound effects—conjuring, for instance, a vacuum cleaner, a roaring crowd, and the clacking of a film projector), played by attendants upon request.

In the main gallery, five platform ladders dominate, each holding a rotating projector that beams video images of text, moving pencils, mouths, and hands high onto the walls. Below, a line of shelves running the length of the gallery’s window wall contains hundreds of cast paper hands that viewers are encouraged to try on (recalling the typewriter-ribbon “gloves” Hamilton used in mattering, 1997). Meanwhile, from the floor vents, hidden speakers emit a blend of operatic vocal and electronic music (collaboratively arranged with Shahrokh Yadegari), and on the staircase landing, ball bearings can be rolled across the tiltable inset of a steel drafting table that is miked. To speak into this microphone is to elicit more sonic action from the Disklaviers, which, as before, can be heard but not seen from their positions in two farther galleries. In turn, to play either piano is to be frequently interrupted by the instruments’ response to other viewers’ remote “commands.”

On the windowed mezzanine level, taxidermy songbirds have been strung from criscrossing wires beneath a steel table spread with hundreds of jumping beans. The surface of this table is miked too, and the action it supports, when amplified, comes through as a hissing sound akin to radio static. As with this element, stylus throughout suggests transmission without reception, a breakdown in fragile lines of communication: Images are projected only to risk disappearing during daylight hours; the sources of sounds are often hard to decipher; the actions of visitors create reactions that are subject to time delay or take place out of sight. Like myein, Hamilton’s dreamlike work for the 1999 Venice Biennale, stylus employs a richly poetic language to portray communication at the threshold of silence, its meaning perpetually slipping away.

Ivy Cooper