Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ann Hamilton Falls into Reading

"The act of reading leaves no physical mark," remarked Ann Hamilton, who presented the keynote lecture at the College Book Art Association conference at Indiana University, Bloomington. We sat in a deep hall with a tall ceiling and took notes. She stood high up on a stage near a screen. "And what happens when we read?" she asked. We become submerged. "Can you fall into reading without falling into words?"And so she showed us slides of how she reads, the marks she makes in the books, how she uses a different color to underline and circle every time she reads, how eventually, the text takes on symbols and visual patterns. Reading, to her, becomes "an act of drawing."

Through this marking, the trace of the reader is left in the book, the book becomes a landscape that the reader explores. Her books, her landscapes, are not small and intimate, however, they are monumental installations. One is the "Floor of Babel," the threshold to the Seattle Public Library. The low-relief letters in the wood floor spell out the first lines of books in different languages that are in the library's foreign books collection. A similar concept was used in her latest project "Verse" at the William Oxley Thompson Memorial Library, Ohio State University, but with cork floors. The reader feels the words first in the soles of her feet. (I imagine that the soles/souls connection is completely intentional.) Through the feet, from the edges of the body, from the experience, the information goes inward. Eventually, the marks of the reader, the library visitor, will draw on the floor and wear it down. As the words become erased, all the readers will be documented. An exchange.

She wants to confirm the inside and the outside and the exchange between them, she says. She looks at edges, the mouth open and closed. The word "reciprocity" tumbles out. In the past she has put a small camera in her mouth and taken close-up pictures of people with her mouth wide open. Gaze meeting gaze. Reciprocal gaze. "The mouth is the first site of an installation," she says. It is an empty cavity waiting to be filled. With a camera. With words. With song. In one short video, it is filled with smooth stones, blocking language.

In another piece, there is no language but there is potential for it. Can architecture be a throat? For her piece "The Tower," she designed a cement tower with double spiral staircases and variously sized windows, but no door. The visitors must enter via a horizontal window, a portal awkward to enter, but large enough to slip through. The acoustics make the inside ring with sound, which surrounds the callers. The sound emanates from them and then revolves around them. Inside and outside merge again, and again leave no physical mark.

These are only a few examples, and I hope I've got them right. Her vision is clear. Her work is, to use her own words out of context, "connected, but not connected." She continues to explore the concepts that fascinate her. And her excitement for that exploration is both captivating and inspiring.

Ann Hamilton is Professor of Art at Ohio State University and was awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 1993.

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