Several months ago, I began a series about how art is displayed. My first post was about Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss, followed by Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy a few weeks later. Now, I am returning to the series to summarize with Ann Hamilton’s habitus, which was held from September 17 to January 8 in two physical locations in Philadelphia: The Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) and Municipal Pier 9. The FWM, who organized the project with Hamilton, displayed a curated selection of historical objects in their galleries. Municipal Pier 9 housed a site-specific installation, which is what this post focuses on. According to the FWM site, it was held in a third location: online in social media, where it continues to live today.
In light of Women’s History Month (March), International Women’s Day (March 8), the Women’s Strike (March 8, 2017), and #ADayWithoutAWoman organized by the Women’s March, it is timely that this post will be focusing on one of my favorite artists who just so happens to be a woman. Ann Hamilton has created several site-specific installations that inhabit and speak to the history of a specific space, consider making as a form of Creation, and evaluate the poetics of human involvement with objects. Hamilton is also the author of the exhibition I most regret missing: ANN HAMILTON: the event of a thread.
Before I continue with this post, I have re-written the introduction to the previous two posts, and the series, as a reminder of the thread of conversation:
In most art spaces today, be it a museum, gallery, or auction house, you walk into a square, white room. It is climate controlled, clean, and quiet. The works of art hang on the walls or sit on pedestals like fetishes and the viewer gazes upon them like sacred works that have the power to impart knowledge and culture. You are not a part of this space; you are an interloper who tries to understand.
This is not how art was always displayed and it is not how art will always be displayed. Before the mid-1900s art was hung in a manner called “salon style” where it basically wall-papered the surface from floor to ceiling. Tightly hung, the curators of Europe’s great salons would fit as much art as possible on the wall because it was meant to be viewed, judged, and sold. There was no concept of “breathing room” and an artist’s position on the wall was dictated by talent, political maneuvering, and luck. It was something to be fought over and widely discussed.
Lately, I have been seeing a shift, which I have been expecting for years. Moving away from a pure viewing of art, many new exhibitions are site-specific, interactive, and visceral. In my mind, this is the future of art. It speaks to the current culture of boundless information sharing, global communication, and immediate gratification. Viewers inhabit an art space and, through their actions, activate it. The best versions of this utilize a space in a unique way, encourage play, and pull from both history and contemporary culture. I have recently had the pleasure of experiencing three successful iterations of the new art space: Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss, Ann Hamilton’s habitus, and Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy. Each show tackled a different subject, a different space, and a different medium, but each successfully created an exhibition that led to a vivid experience of humans interacting with, and thus giving life to, things. People have been animating objects since the beginning of recorded history, but the interesting aspect of these shows is that they draw attention to this fact and allow an active viewing environment that is based as much on physicality as it is on intellectualism.
Ann Hamilton: habitus. The Fabric Workshop and Museum and Municipal Pier 9, Philadelphia, PA; September 17, 2016 – January 8, 2017
Walking into Municipal Pier 9, you encounter a large, open space. Not quite cavernous, the pier is constructed like any other warehouse: high ceilings, visible rafters, and sparse construction. The walls that jut out into the river are partially open, allowing a cool breeze to pass through the space. Benches are set up along the walls with a few people seated, watching the progress of the installation. The majority of the space is taken up by several large, suspended curtains of white fabric. While they vary in exact size, each curtain is suspended from a circular, wheel-like hoop that is further suspended from the ceiling and attached with a pulley system that allows each sculpture to spin independently of the others. Some stand still, gently rustled by the wind, others are being activated by the audience. Couples, families, and art tourists like me are taking turns pulling on braided ropes, which are attached to the pulleys, which are attached to the curtains, causing them to spin. It takes several moments to understand which ropes activate which curtains, as they are spaced at unregimented distances from their respective curtains, at seeming random. Tugging on one rope, I had to search around for a moment before I noticed a curtain some distance away that had surprised a family standing within it by suddenly spinning.
habitus invokes a sense of playfulness and surprise, and creates an interactive space that makes the art a visceral experience. Everyone is encouraged to touch the art: pull the ropes, ruffle the curtains, stand within the circle of fabric. Through the sporadic relation of ropes to curtains, separate groups are encouraged to interact unexpectedly. There is an undertone of a pleasant, happy murmur with sudden breaks of laughter; each group talks amongst themselves and, at times, between groups of strangers. The entire atmosphere is soft, poetic, and almost nostalgic. The fabric floats outward, shifting based on the strength and quickness of the pull on the rope and the direction of the wind. Portions of the curtains are gathered into folds, creating an imperfect circle, and the rest fall into natural pleats. The use of simple tools, like pulleys and ropes, along with the undyed fabric and unfinished space recalls the industrial era of production: pre-technology and predating the smartphones that are busy takes pictures and selfies for social media. However, instead of creating an atmosphere that is anti-technology, it instead provokes thoughts on the history of technology and the long history that lead to technology as we know it today. It brings to mind the inherent humanness of all production and the fact that, no matter how advanced the technology, it was still produced by people to be used by people. We are always interacting with and inhabiting things, be they simple as the fabric that adorns our bodies or complicated as the miniature computers in our pockets and purses.
Past the swaths of fabric and the swirling interactions with things and people, you enter a more introspective area of the exhibition where the invitation to “please touch” is rescinded. Reels with strings of poems strung along them are projecting onto screens, some running, others preparing for an event later that day. A woman sits at a desk, painstakingly removing stitches of red thread from a piece of fabric. The disorganized and undone strips of material pile up on either side of her arms, resting on the table. Then, there is a mesh fence that restricts access to the farthest recess of the space. This area is inhabited by a lone worker, slowly refining bundles of cotton or wool with the traditional method of brushing it to separate the fibers so they can be spun into thread. The sight of the pile of unrefined material slowing shifting into a growing pile of refined material recalls the circular nature of creation and destruction and reveals the entire process of production from raw material to finished product, backwards. It is almost as if you are watching the destruction of the very fabrics you were just walking through, or rather, you are walking back in time through the production process. In a time where the strong majority of the products we consume are presented to us complete and separate from both their production and the human hand in their production, the reminder of the process of creation is both a novelty and a spectacle.
The wall text at the beginning of the exhibition begins with a quote by Ann Hamilton: “Habitus is the landscape made from letting go and holding on, from reelings and turnings, unravelings and gatherings, spinning and scrolling, continuous and discontinuous threads, in circles and in lines.”
Monumental and unassuming, deliberate and playful, habitus reminds the audience that all products must be produced. They do not spontaneously come into the world, nor are they born; they require the interference and the interaction of people to not only come into being, but to realize any meaning.