Brilliant Return: Interview with Ann Hamilton

Here at Foconow we’ve been on hiatus for a while, but it would not be like us to come back without something amazing to share. A while back Christmas Rene Ivory-Thomas had the opportunity to sit down with internationally known and highly respected creator and visionary, Ann Hamilton. This award winning artist needs little introduction and we are so pleased to present this interview.

CRIT: Thank you for being here. To start with, your work focuses on the word, language and speech. Is there a favorite text that you use, think about, or even just enjoy—one that inspires you?

AH: I don’t know if I have a favorite text; there are many that I love. One person I’ve been in conversation with for a long time—and whose work comes into relation in surprising ways with mine—is a writer and poet who lives on the East Coast, Susan Stewart. She is one of several contemporary writers whose work I feel very close to. Susan is a poet who also has a very broad understanding of theoretical knowledge. My introduction to her writing was by chance in a card catalog search. I was doing a project with a friend while living in California. When searching for the word “longing,” we came across her book On Longing: Narratives on the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection.

CRIT: That’s a fantastic title.

AH: Yes, it is a great title and a fantastic book. It was a gift to me – it gave me a vocabulary for understanding my attraction to books, the page, language, and acts of accumulation. Her writing has helped me articulate my thinking about how the body experiences scale in relationship to collections or accretions of material, and the different immersions in the miniature and the gigantic. The book is one of those I’ve lined and underlined and read multiple times. When I return to it, it still reveals itself to me. It is full of recognitions that open my thinking about my work. When the La Jolla Art Museum asked me who I’d like to invite write for my first exhibition catalogue, I wanted to approach someone whose writing was an influence in my practice. Susan agreed to write, and it became the beginning of an ongoing conversation and friendship. Since then, I’ve made the images for several of her book covers. One of her more recent books is called Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. I have read it three or four times, and each time, I mark and underline with a different color pen. Even though I know it’s not true, it feels like a book that was written for me. In conjunction with a video exhibition at Colgate University, we are hoping to collaborate on a video text work for choral speaking.

CRIT: Do you have anything in your everyday life, a common thread, that you feel comes into your work?

AH: That’s an interesting question. My life is busy, and every week is different. I travel a lot, but within that my life is very domestic. I’m married; we have a son; we have a cat and a dog. Walking the dog everyday is often the only time that I am alone – that I can daydream in an undirected way. Walking allows thoughts to percolate or well to the surface of attention. I am sure that we all make in relation to the place we live, its landscape, weather, and light. If you live somewhere that has a lot of space and sky in it, I think your sense of place grows to meet that.

CRIT: How has your work changed since you’ve been living in Ohio?

AH: It is hard to say – I have now been back for so long. I am from Ohio. I have also lived on the East Coast, in Montreal, and in California, including San Francisco.

CRIT: Do you think your work has changed every time you’ve moved?

AH: No. But I’m not really a studio artist; my work is much more a response to the spaces and places where I work. Those are the bigger influences.

CRIT: Do any of the media or approaches you work with—video, photography, installations, and so on—get you really excited, perhaps even more than the others?

AH: I have, perhaps, an unfortunate appetite for very large spaces. I think in terms of meeting the entire architecture, working to the scale of the space. This is what really excites me. I also like the process of research, of dipping in and out of places and their histories. There is a thread of concerns that runs through and between all of the work, each project focuses on these concerns in its own way.

ghost . . . a border act | 2000   Photo credit: T. Cogil

CRIT: Is there any tool that your work would be incomplete without?

AH: A pencil.

CRIT: That is the second pencil answer I have heard.

AH: Yes, a pencil and a needle. A needle is an amazing thing. I was doing a site visit recently for an upcoming project where the museum is partnering artists with different companies in Pittsburg. I’m collaborating with Bayer Corporation, which focuses on coatings, special polyurethanes, and polymers. They told me about a material they’re developing that makes medical needles more slippery. It is invisible, but has an enormous effect on the experience of using them. As they described the material, I thought about how my site visit is similar. I listen to the situation or space, and my antennae are tuned in to those elements that are not visible but are affecting the experience of being there. The questions that arise in these visits deeply influence what the project becomes. Sometimes I don’t even know why I’m drawn to something. For example, I was touring a former Heinz building, now empty, that was originally built for their employees. It has huge rooms lined with worker lockers and a giant three-story auditorium hall. Walking through, I try to be blank and pay attention to what comes to my attention. It is my cue to examine, listen, and prod out why. Although not obvious at the time, the work will come from this experience. This is where I begin.

CRIT: Your work is often talked about in terms of ephemerality, requiring time and place to experience the work. In our age of technology when art is created specifically for internet viewing, do you think about that kind of accessibility when making your work?

AH: There is always this gap between an experience and its naming or picturing. Documentation is always limited in its depiction of experience. I’ve been wondering how, in an age of technological extension and possibility, can one use all those new forms in ways that have integrity? What happens to the embodied experience and the knowledge we gain only through touching, smelling, and being physically present? In an increasingly visual culture, how do we give value to those things that we can only accrue by doing? We privilege certain forms of knowledge over others. How we pay attention and value other forms of knowledge, knowledge which is embodied, feels like a contemporary challenge.

CRIT: Is there something you’re currently working on or excited about starting that you could share with us?

AH: As I mentioned earlier, I love working in large spaces. Making on this scale usually means collaborating with institutions, and projects come out of an invitation or a conversational process with them. This year (2012), I am working with the Park Avenue Armory in New York. The project is in the Drill Hall, a space that is the size of a city block. Its scale is both terrifying and exhilarating. The Armory has a history of providing care, of exercising state power, and as a place of gathering and camaraderie. At any moment it can be requisitioned and commandeered as a place of emergency. I am thinking about both the congregation and solitary encounter.

CRIT: You often have human performers in your work. Why is that specifically important to you?

AH: There’s been a slow shift over time in how attendants are part of the work. At the beginning, I and the other performers were somewhat inanimate, giving the installations a tableau-like quality. Then I wanted to bring forward the process of making and its particular kind of energy into the ongoing life of the work. I found that when this is present and the relationships fall into place, the piece is animate. My understanding of this is still unfolding. When you’re that person sitting on the wall, or reading, or burning the books away, you are placed in a particular relationship to time. If you sit for two or four hours engaged in an action, the experience is shaped by the serendipitous coincidences taking place around you and how those align with or give meaning to what you are doing. The engagement is just another way to allow oneself to be present. My question is how to make that space for someone else to enter or occupy. Can the individual subjective experience that I am having be a social and shared one? Some of my recent projects have explored this in an uncomfortable or awkward way, and I’m interested in how this might influence the project at the Armory. I’ve been thinking about people speaking together, and wondering how I can choreograph or conduct it in a way that allows the participants to feel unselfconscious, much in the same way that jumping on a swing takes a sense of openness. When you’re inside the piece, I think something happens to make you part of a relationship with a living work. Your experience is very different; you’re participating, although not in a push-button way, and you’re no longer outside looking in. This idea is playing out in a recent series of scripted readings with groups. I do not attend church or go to political rallies, but I am very interested in the circumstances and experience of congregational assembly. My work often pushes me to do things I am uncomfortable doing. Although I do it in other forms, I am not comfortable structuring, leading, or conducting a large group performance, but realize if I am going to really explore this, I need to find out what conducting might come to mean for me.

CRIT: Some have said that your works have a meditative aura to them. You mentioned that you don’t go to church, but does religion ever come into your creation or inspiration?

AH: When you cross that threshold into a sanctuary, temple, or sacred place, you leave the space of the street and walk into one of quiet and contemplation. My work can be that, but it is also often more unsettling than it is calm. The viewer or visitor doesn’t always understand his or her relation to the parts. This can be very uncomfortable. I think perhaps the photographs give the appearance of a peaceful feeling. A friend of mine recently said that the work may look one way, but inside, it feels entirely different. I don’t formally practice or participate in a religion, but I do feel sympathy with the Buddhist practice and tenets. I worked in Laos to build a walking meditation boat, and on one of the trips, I went with a group of lay nuns from a local Lao community. It moved me deeply to be there, and to connect with these women without sharing the local language.  I think we all share a desire to join to something larger than ourselves. Spiritual practice can provide a conversation about ethics that is often missing from art education. I think a lot about the agency of our actions and the responsibility we have as makers, and the consequences that has for one’s practice. It’s interesting that we use the word “practice” to describe how we make art, which comes  from and inherits the legacy of both religious and utopian practices, among other things. How you make is how you want to be in the world.

Meditation Boat | 2005-2009        Photo credit: Thibault Jeanson

CRIT: It’s always evolving?

AH: As an artist, you circle inside your questions. They in turn circle around you. They never change and they never get answered. But they do open up a little, and every once in a while you understand something. You find a form that allows you to look at it differently. The institution or condition of art allows us to occupy and have different kinds of experiences. I am interested in how or if it is possible living in a fragmented culture full of divisions to become many voices speaking and listening together. Perhaps it is a question of democracy. Perhaps my interest in congregational assembly – in the work making a place to be alone together – is linked to my background in weaving. The structure of textiles is a whole made up of individual parts. Perhaps speaking is another form of making a cloth.

CRIT: A woven text. You’ve been making and inspiring people for a long time. Your work makes people excited, especially young people who are looking for inspiration and space to move forward.

AH: That is wonderful to hear – thank you…but, no matter how much work you have under your belt, you still have to occupy that place where you don’t know what you’re doing, and all of the issues of trust and insecurity that go with that. Every time I start a new project, I am uncomfortable. I have to find a way to trust and research my intuitions about what something needs to become. Because I have a history of working, I can recognize this long stage and trust that in time the project will reveal itself. It isn’t that different in my mid-fifties than it is for a young artist and where they are in the history of their work. You still have to make this place where you can sit in your own questions and be comfortable and trust not knowing what something is. I don’t think that ever goes away.

CRIT: Do you see anything emerging from young artists that you are excited by or even inspired by?

AH: I am interested in a lot of social practice work. There are a lot of collectives and people trying to make a circumstance for their own practice. Many younger artists are using material as a means for thinking through tactile processes that are very conceptual. There is perhaps a new value on making by hand and at the scale of the body. For all the technological extensions that we occupy, we are visceral bodies and express ourselves through materials. Not to give names, but I find the intersection of these two things interesting.

CRIT: Lastly, do you have a motto?

AH: A motto? Well, maybe “we can” or something? (Laughs) No, I don’t have a motto, but maybe I should. Every once and a while people say things and I think, “that would make a great t-shirt.”

CRIT: Sometimes mottos can be limiting…

AH: Well, here’s something. My husband, Michael Mercil, is an artist, and we were talking about the circumstance of making art in an academic institution. He came up with this line, which I thought would make a good t-shirt: “We insist on articulation but demand to be dumbstruck.”

CRIT: That’s perfect.

AH: Isn’t that great? I think that’s where we live.

All images are from Ann Hamilton’s website, please click on the image or the link below for more work and information about Ann Hamilton as well as more information about the images of the projects we’ve shown here. Special thanks to all those who made this happen.


  1. Wonderful interview. Leads me to want to meet Amm Hamilton and see more of her work.
    Mike Major, Sculptor

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