Ann Hamilton: the event of a thread

Review

of an Exhibition

by Chelsea Kelly

Published on December 22, 2012

  • Description:

    All I was told by colleagues before seeing the Ann Hamilton exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory was the following:

    1) There were swings.
    2) The New York Times review was stellar.
    3) I absolutely had to go during my visit to New York.

    If you haven’t seen the show yet, and you’re reading this before January 6, 2013, I similarly encourage you to visit, without reading my review first. There is something magical about experiencing this show with very little prior knowledge.

    If you’ve already visited, or you are reading after January 6, which means the show has closed (alas!), then please read on for an art museum educator’s thoughts on Ann Hamilton’s powerful exhibition, "the event of a thread.”

    When you enter the dark, echoing Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory, you come first upon a rustic wooden table at which two people in wooly coats are seated, murmuring into old radio microphones, reading from a long scroll. Stacked on the table are wooden crates of pigeons.

    When you tear yourself away from this intriguing sight, you suddenly realize the room is huge—an 85-foot high ceiling, hundreds of feet long. The space feels impossibly big to be in crammed-full New York City. The Hall is divided in half by a long, huge white sheet. On each side hang many swings, plain and built for two. The ropes of the swings are attached to the top of the sheet, and the movement of swinging causes the sheet to billow up and down.

    People of all ages mill around, chatting, taking pictures, pointing, observing. They avoid being hit by swings (there are no safety mechanisms or fences here—swings can go diagonal if you wish, and will rise high as you can propel them). Others sit on black benches that ring the walls; some walk up a hidden staircase to an observation deck. On the ground sit paper bags with speakers in them, which you can pick up, listen to, and move around. Underneath the sheet, a line of people lay on their backs, some stretching their arms towards the white fabric, others dozing on a significant other’s lap.

    On the other side of the Hall, another wooly-coated person, seated at a table, writes freehand on long sheets of paper. Behind her, an old recording device sits in a spotlight; a note explains that it logs a song sung live daily at the exhibition’s close, and re-plays that recording at opening the next morning.

    Deceptively simple—swings, seats, people, sounds—this exhibition is in fact incredibly layered. It is a performance art piece, a participatory exhibition, an opportunity to play, a chance to be quiet or to be loud, to reflect or to nap. You might, like me, go through any number of emotions in this space: nostalgia, delight, awe, worry, calm. You can inflect great change upon the whole operation by sitting on a swing, or you can move to the side and watch.

    I usually find it difficult to take off my museum staff hat when entering an exhibition. But when I walked into this show, I found instead it was hard to consider anything beyond the walls of the Drill Hall. I was terrified for the children dashing between swings, delighted by the grins on adult faces as they swung in dusty beams of light, dazzled by the beauty of an unassuming white cloth, and in awe of the many vantage points to explore the intricacies of this seemingly straightforward space.

    I told a friend that he must go and visit the exhibition; he responded, “what’s it about?” Although I have thought about this exhibition every day since visiting it, I’m still not sure I can answer that question.

    I suspect it would be different for every person. For some, it might be about the tactile power of leaving your mark on a grand endeavor. For others, it might be about acting as a single cog that helps to make a giant machine work. It might be a chance to reflect on how one small movement can change an entire process. It might be about the unavoidable interconnectedness of individual experiences. Perhaps it is about communication, how we deliver and receive information.

    For me personally, it was all of these things, a powerful experience that, although I am now far from New York, is ongoing, bubbling up in my thoughts incessantly—an experience that was both pure fun and also deeply moving.

    As for my response to my friend? I told him the three things my colleagues told me, above, and finished with: “Just go. Trust me.”

    See a video I took at the exhibition, underneath the sheet, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7Art3yl4NA

Latest Comments (1)

thank you Chelsea

by Kathleen Mclean - December 22, 2012

I had similar feelings and experiences. I went with a friend, and stayed after she left, so I got to experience the installation alone and with company. What is it about? I think the pigeons and newspapers and paper bags and window to the street all whispered “city” “New York City”.

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