Q&A with Ann Hamilton

Ann Hamilton visits the construction site for the new George Warren Brown School of Social Work building.

Acclaimed installation artist discusses form, material, & Art on Campus

Posted by Liam Otten August 29, 2014

Ann Hamilton creates large-scale sensory environments of striking beauty and visceral impact. Over the last three decades, the Ohio-based artist has installed work at museums, galleries, and alternative spaces around the world.

In 2010, Hamilton served as the inaugural Arthur L. and Sheila Prensky Island Press Visiting Artist in WUSTL's Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. There she worked with Island Press, the School's collaborative printmaking workshop, and also enlisted dozens of students to fabricate elements for stylus, her solo exhibition at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts that year.

Now Hamilton has been selected by the University's Art on Campus program to create an original, site-specific work for the new George Warren Brown School of Social Work building, scheduled to open in July 2015. We sat down to discuss the project, the evolution of her practice, and the pragmatics of public commissions.

You're known for immersive sculptural installations, but your undergraduate work was in textile design. How has that shaped your practice?

The processes and felt qualities of cloth are still very present in my work. Though I'm not literally weaving, the metaphors of cloth—as the first architecture of the body, as covering that both reveals and conceals—underlie so much of what I do.

Early projects like indigo blue (1991) and tropos (1994)—in which attendants methodically erase or burn lines of text—emphasize the rigor of the performance. Recent installations, such as stylus or the event of a thread (2012), feel much more open and participatory. Has your approach changed over time?

The early works were structured like tableaux—people sitting in a landscape, engaged in a task. These projects respond to spatial or architectural conditions and social context. I worked to meet the edges of the space, sometimes covering the entire surface of the floor with material. From the beginning, I addressed the entirety of the architecture.

But as I had opportunities to work at larger scales—on multiple floors, or throughout entire buildings—I was able to think more about sequencing and progression. How does something unfold in time and space? How do you invite people inside a process?

I liken it to reading. A book is a physical object, but its experience unfolds across the space of the page and in time. It may mark us intellectually and move us emotionally, but it does not necessarily leave a material trace.

You've created installations in museums and cultural institutions but also in a Swedish barn, an auto repair shop, a former Japanese munitions building, even on the Mekong River. Is there a particular quality that draws you to a space?

I'm usually invited, so I don't choose my sites so much as they choose me! But I think I've done some of my best work in spaces that have a former function, where there is a social history.

What is common to these spaces is natural light. This wasn't something that occurred to me early on, but looking back, I can see projects are often oriented around the presence of windows or views to the outside. It is interesting to recognize this pattern in the work over time.

Talk about your use of materials. Your work seems primarily concerned with time and sensory perception, but there are some recurring motifs—cloth, thread and sewing, books and letters, tables and chairs…

All really old things.

Exactly. Do you begin with a palette of materials, so to speak, or do you search for tools that will achieve certain effects?

Every time you start a project you think you're doing something completely new, but inevitably one has material habits—and form habits—that structure the response. Looking back, I certainly can see a vocabulary, a shared sensibility, but it's tuned and shaped by the circumstances it meets. When you're working on a piece, you're always moving toward something you can't quite yet imagine, but you do so with the materials and processes you understand.

How does your approach to a public commission differ from your approach to a temporary installation?

Certainly there are practical, pragmatic issues. A temporary piece might include a performance (or even live pigeons!). You're not going to do that in a permanent piece.

The circumstance of most public art is that the building calendar, by necessity, is way ahead of you. So you need to understand where the project is, where you can still integrate something, and what the structure can accommodate—or be changed to accommodate.

You're still in the concept phase of the Brown School commission. So, without committing you to specifics, what are your impressions so far?

My background is not in social work, but I grew up reading about Jane Addams, Hull House, civic social services.... I'm very interested in the history of the field and how it became an academic discipline. More abstractly, I've been thinking about the culture of care—about how we recognize its need and extend care as individuals to each other.

The architects [Moore Ruble Yudell] have been great. They've been wonderfully supportive and proactive about analyzing my proposals and providing information and feedback. You should interview them. How do they feel about having an artist in their building?

A new building seems to offer a blank canvas. But as any painter could tell you, sometimes there's nothing more intimidating than a blank canvas…

My work is process responsive, and with an existing site, there is a lot of history and form to respond to. But the response is not only to an architectural form: it is also to conversation, social context, the felt impression of a place. It may be a circumstance or a sensory impression. What does walking around this place make me think about? What does the space need? What are its tensions or contradictions?

I feel like I'm the goldfish—I grow to fit the size of the bowl.

You once wrote "All tables inherit the history of their use." That's a lovely idea, and a nice metaphor for working on a university campus.

That's right. The university contains a palpable sense of generational succession. You're here now, but someone else will be here when you're gone. How does that recognition change your present?