Words' Worth

Ann Hamilton exhibition comments on the process of reading

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Ann Hamilton’s current exhibition reading at Carl Solway Gallery uses prints, sculptural objects and video to represent reading as a creative rather than a passive act. This exhibition is not one of the multimedia installations for which Hamilton is internationally famous, but nonetheless features some of the artist’s recurring themes and her penchant for discovering new inroads into meaning through experimental systems and re-imagining common objects, in this case books and text.

Hamilton is based in Columbus, Ohio, and teaches at Ohio State University. An Ohio native, Hamilton holds a BFA in textile design from the University of Kansas and an MFA from Yale. She is a MacArthur Fellow and has represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. Her installations have been presented all across the world in prestigious museums, including recent inclusion in The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia 1890-1989, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Her contribution to that exhibition fed directly into the work on view at Solway.

While I was in Columbus recently, I met with Hamilton at her studio to discuss this work and what reading can look like.

We recalled the experimental public reading at the opening reception in which the artist invited volunteers to assist in reading a concordance version of an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson aloud. The words that make up the essay “Circles” had been reorganized alphabetically, and this new presentation had been photographed for a series of archival inkjet prints on view in the exhibition.

The group of readers had stood in a circle and spoke one word at a time. What you noticed was which words repeated: “god, god, god” or “no, no, no, no.”

About the process, Hamilton observes, “It reveals all of these habits of thought which are encoded into something that you might not read when it’s unfolded in its traditional narrative.”

She explains that the reading was meant to explore the question, “What happens when you take that text and make it into this field of voices, so that something you would read in a really singular, solitary, mostly silent manner becomes like a choir structure?

“I’ve been thinking about how what one reads and how one reads is part of a studio practice,” she says. “I’m spending as much time — as many people are — reading as touching materials. The studio is in many places: it’s inside the book; it’s at the flea market; it’s in your kitchen while you’re cooking. I started thinking about how the experience of reading can actually become the material of the work. As much as reading touches you, it’s not very visible. How do you materialize that?”

One solution she reached is in the largest series of prints on display. The images are scans of “book weights” — little sliced up wedges of books that have been bound together into masses of differently colored papers, occasionally gray from a slice running through pages of type. This form was devised for the Guggenheim project, about which a short documentary plays in the gallery. Considering the giant prints are basically of the same type of objects, there is a visual variety that recalled the chorus of different readers at the opening.

“A lot of people helped make those books,” she says. “It was like a hive in here. We had tables everywhere and people gluing. What was interesting was how everybody had a different hand with it and a different sensibility. When you get these book weights finished, they’re like portraits of somebody, like portraits of hand making. When we stacked them on the scanner, they were like little heads.”

This is an apt analogy for how we absorb readings into our consciousness. Each of us take away fragments of what we’ve read, and these get pieced back together as we map our own worldviews.

We tend to take reading for granted as a method for encountering knowledge. It’s not that this work uses the act of reading as its subject matter; rather, what Hamilton has done is to give strange, new form to our understanding of reading, successfully melding it with the artistic impulse.

As an artist who writes, an investigation into the nexus of textual and visual experience is of special interest to me. To even write out my experiences of the art now, I’m implicated in an underlying conceit that reading is seeing.

READING continues at Carl Solway Gallery in the West End through Dec. 23. Go here for show and gallery details.

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