ANN HAMILTON

INTERVIEW WITH ANN HAMILTON

By Maria Porges

Ann Hamilton. The work that I’m doing while I’m here, which is not necessarily related to the ~~ hall project, is incredibly influenced by the walks I take, by the ritual almost of like getting up everyday and going out for a couple hours. And the sort of observation of very small things that occurs when you walk the same place again and again, the light changes, and the seasons are changing and the weather’s changing. I think that it hasn’t made me want to do work outside because this landscape is already the art. But in terms of inside/outside, I think the thing is that as I walk this landscape, it comes back into the work, that’s ultimately created for the inside.

Maria Porges. You use a lot of organic materials.

AH. Residue.

MP. Residue of various different kinds.

AH. Or things that have transgressed that border or that division are really interesting to me. I think fundamentally the way that we orient ourselves in the world, or at least I do, is always about acknowledging that edge, or acknowledging that division, and in some ways a desire to break that down. I don’t know if that follows from the landscape, but…

MP. I think it does.

AH. The mess hall is such a different sort of project. The first thing I did was decide that I needed to be blank and just be in this landscape, be in this pl~,Jl.e part of this institution and the community here, and let the directionme project would take follow from that time, instead of coming in with th”ese preconceived ideas about what a food place….8f eleee should become. First I researched a lot of the military history. So much of the focus of some of that was on the military history and the kind of role of the individual in a military structure. And it’s obviously really affected by the batteries that are all built in this landscape, which I think give it a real strange sense of inertia. You live with that presence all the time. I had inertia in myself with the project, like kind of getting started with it. And then I decided that there’s already been so much acknowledgement of the overt sort of military history. I’m much more interested in something that ties you to those things that maybe endure in a timespan that’s much longer. And so I started reading about sea cultures, and I got
to meet Alice Waters, who’s wonderful, and talk about like sustainable agriculture. And I felt liKe I wanted them to steer this project toward sensibility towards producing and preparing and eating food that came out of that aspect of the landscape, and not necessarily the social structure of the military.

MP. The military presence here is like a skin, and the body beneath it was really of more interest to you.

AH. Much more interest. This place is not about recreating a model. But still it can contain a sensibility by building into it systems for use that have a certain ethic. At least there are things that are built into the very functional aspects of creating a kitchen space that invite certain activities that do have that. I feel like the real need for this mess hall project is that this building really needs a heart, that it needs a place where people are comfortable and people can gather, and it’s warm, and it’s intimate. Hopefully what that does is it supports the kind of conversation I think this place is really about, which is sort of those invisible, unplanned encounters, when you’re going to get coffee, when you sit down and chat. And the level of conversation is really where any sort of collaboration of community, I think, gets started. And yet that space doesn’t
necessarily exist at the Headlands yet. You know, because the meeting rooms are, they’re really wonderful but they’re formal. You know, you don’t curl up in the corner. And so it seemed like an opportunity for
me to take that dissatisfaction that I was beginning to have with the installations.

MP. I noticed that actually there are two things that brings up. I’m really interested myself in knowledge, what we know and what we think.

AH. There’s usually a huge gap between the two.

MP. Absolutely. And between what we learn through so-called rational thought and what we learn through senses, through our experience. Your work has always seemed to me to be about sense experience in a very literal kind of way. And that’s what people miss about the feel of the materials, the smell of them.

AH. Right. Weill think that’s why in some of this work that’s coming up, too, I’m presenting surfaces, whether it’s the raw fleece or the grass, and then putting glass over it and then blocking that, to talk about that inability to have certain sensory experiences.

MP. What’s preventing it in the general sense?

AH. I think for me what prevents it is the way that we experience the world is so dominated by language. But even myself, in my own process unless I can name something and know in my own perverse logic or rationale why this material here, why this one’s there, why this space is this way, that I somehow can’t allow it. So my own process plays out the same predicament that I go through in making the piece. And I think that the more that we can trust the kind of intelligent, the kind of information that comes through our senses, which I think is mistakenly called sort of intuitive,and it’s not. It’s like this nebulous, formless thing. And we’re uncomfortable with anything that’s formless, which goes back to the whole border, or inside/outside thing, anything that crosses that. I mean if you just think about bodily substances, like saliva, or tears, or anything that crosses those borders and is formless, is something we’re really very uncomfortable with. And sensory experience often falls in that formless category. You can’t contain a smell.

M P. It’s not quantifiable.

AH. Exactly. And it’s just for me, that if I can keep my analytical mind busy long enough, or occupied over here when I’m working, I feel like there’s a chance for that other information to work through.·

MP. It’s like distracting yourself so you can work. Do you have language phobia?

AH. Maybe it seems because we trust language or we give it a certain sort of authority over other experiences, that, then I think we lose a lot. Because if you can’t name it and write it into a sentence or talk it into a sentence, then it’s as if it didn’t exist. And so the experience or something gets denied. And yet I think so much of what we experience escapes language, you know, language can only approximate it and it becomes its own thing then. Do you disagree? You’re a writer.

MP. I like to think that it is possible to experience language in as direct a way as you experience materials. I think that for some people language operates that way and it may be possible for language to be used in that unaffected a way. But our culture has abused it to the extent that I think your instincts are entirely correct. I think it’s a lot easier to fool people. But that’s not just words language, that’s visual language. We have a whole code in which we are enclosed. Any authentic emotional experience is immediately coopted so it’s very difficult to tell what’s real and what isn’t.

AH. Yeah, and I think that’s the thing about the literal in some of the work. I think maybe in my own work a really good example of that is a person with their head in the sand. But when you make that real and you really experience a person with their head in the sand, and the empathetic sense of suffocation I think you have in being present with that image, then perhaps, and maybe it’s grand to say that you make it possible to reinvest things that have become cliched with the meanings that they really do contain. I think that if art can do that allows you to see things that you already know in a more immediate way again, maybe without all the layers of garbage or the layers of experience that have not allowed us to really see or look anymore. And the thing is it’s just such tough stuff to talk about, because I even feel like my own ability to talk about the work, you know, I’m stuck with words that feel inadequate. You get thrown back on words like “feeling.” It’s like this generic, or “sentiment.”

AH. I have this incredible trepidation and this incredible fear of committing myself to print.

MP. Sometimes it’s truly horrifying to see what you said. AH. See, your stuff’s around to haunt you and mine’s not.

MP. Well, but of you what we have instead is a developed mythology. Maybe what you’re doing is telling stories without words. AH. I hope so.

MP. I’m thinking “about the cinematic quality of your work. What I used to love about history epics, movies, was because you got to be in another time and space. So in a sense, your configurations of materials are allowing someone to be inside a particular configuration of sensory experiences.

AH. Film is the greatest. I think that if I started over, if I had any sense of what to do with time, I would probably be making films. But time completely baffles me.

MP. Time and language.

AH. And so I’m stuck in the present tense. But I love Tarkowsky’s films. To me they just, they take you into this place that’s both very painful and really kind of wonderful at the same time. Film is just so amazing, the

way that it can do that. I think the thing that’s worried me, though, in that envelopment in an experience is does it then become like Disneyland, where everything’s sort” of like, there it is, it’s orchestrated. You go in, have this experience and you leave. And so I’ve really had to fight, I think, some of my tendencies to be in a really theatrical, or not wanting them to become like the spectacle that they are. And it’s this uneasy line for me where I want what’s in the piece to not seem so abnormal. And that’s why it’s always been real important to me that everything in a piece be real.

MP. Well the organic nature of a lot of your materials implies that kind of mortality, not to mention the fact that your pieces are temporary. In a sense this mess hall has people in it in that people will be using your work and participating in it. It’ll have a different life than anything. We spoke about this earlier, about this issue of making work which has real meaning in terms of its connectedness with what’s going on in society. We were talking about Group Material who make extremely politically specific work by collecting together everything, media, material, other artists’ work, etc. What kind of role does that sense of contemporaneity have in your work? Your work is very much of this time in the art world.

AH. I feel very self-indulgent in that I feel like I’m just making poems. It feels like there’s so many issues in the world that have real necessity to them. I think one way that artists and myself often look, to people whose work is more overtly political in its information. And yet for me, I think that there’s a politic in my work I think it’s very much a part of the structure of it, which is about the importance of acknowledging, the individual voice, the individual experience, wanting to allow that its place in a world where increasingly the individual voice has no forum.

MP. Bruce Nauman once said that there are two different kinds of political change that you can make through art. One is short range, immediate, people who make work which is applied to very specific social issues, which is valid and necessary. And then there’s work which points towards kind of long-range change, change in consciousness, making human beings different, somehow.

AH. Well, maybe allowing us to be human. I think all of my interests in the animals and all the reading I’ve been doing with the books, the Paul Shepard books, I think that all of that is geared towards the regaining of kind of a lost humanism in a way of looking at the world that’s non-hierarchical, that isn’t looking at the world through human- dominated or human-created systems that perpetrate a certain will on everything that’s
not human.

MP. Sort of like humans as dominant culture.

AH. Yeah, we are, you know. And that’s where I think the interest in living systems, plant systems and in animals is to place these things as equal, and that we’re all equally important.

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