Visiting Ann Hamilton’s the common S E N S E at the Henry Art Gallery
I walked into the Henry on a sunny November afternoon expecting to spend a lot of time there. I was waiting for my companion to get out of a meeting, and that gave me an opportunity as rare as the sunny day: enough time to move through an installation slowly, enough time to read everything. Ann Hamilton’s the common S E N S E is incredibly well-suited to an attentive, curious reader. Words and the act of reading words form a kind of fulcrum for the show’s exploration of what it means to touch and what it means to be a human animal in a world of animals.
A staff person handed me a folder made from ivory cardstock, its cover printed with “Readers Reading Readers — A Common Place: A book for the common S E N S E.” Inside, the folder’s spine was printed top to bottom with text from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. The word ANIMAL stood dead center of every line, forming a column of that word. Spreading the folder to see that symmetry had the fascination of dissection, the symmetrical laying out of the word ANIMAL too close to being an actual animal butterflied. Placed inside its pocket was a leaf of newsprint describing the premise of a commonplace book, defining commonplacing as “once a common verb that referred to the process of reading, copying out, and managing selections from one’s books.” It invited me to take the passages on newsprint sheets laid out throughout the galleries and add them to my own book.
Perhaps not incidentally, the first newsprint I encountered that day had a passage from Pablo Neruda’s “The Country Boy.” He describes a childhood exchange of gifts with a stranger, a battered woolen sheep for a pinecone, that informed the rest of his life, “That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together.” Reading this, I was conscious that as a visitor I was also the recipient of gifts, also the consumer of limited presents (moment and material) from the show. These newsprint sheets are worthless, but in this context they seemed precious. It became important to choose slips of paper carefully.
The commonplaces will deplete and be replaced with different others, so the show will change irrevocably as time passes, as readers pass through and collect texts. The passages themselves have been contributed by many individuals via Hamilton’s wonderfully-named Tumblr Readers Reading Readers. As I collected my way through the common S E N S E, the task of collecting fragments of text for my folder guided my movements in each room of the Henry. The folder itself became a symbol of my human vocations of collector and depleter.
For the common S E N S E, the Henry’s rooms feel huge, spare, and insulated from each other. Each seems to house a facet of what it means to be a human reading and to be a human who uses animals. However, a small room to the left of the vestibule has a mini retrospective of Hamilton’s work concerned with sensations of touch and reading — a toothpick suit she made and photographed herself wearing, audio recordings and videos of works concerned with the creation and consumption of texts and images, and textiles (a blanket, a glove) that rework poems by Susan Stewart. The room also has handsome hardcover books discussing Hamilton’s installations and career, I pulled a little wooden stool up to the desk-level shelf they rested on. I spent a long time there alone reading about lignum, her installation with The Wånas Foundation in 2002, that set out to make a venerable Swedish barn into a text that could be read for both its physical presence and its cultural history. Though it feels more turned inward to me than lignum, the common S E N S E seems to reverberate with that earlier work’s concern for cultural artifacts as well as visual, audible, and cultural echoes.
By the time I stopped reading about lignum, I felt very cold and set out into the corridor. Two rooms were open across the hallway from each other, and I ducked into the one on the left. It is painted white, like the other rooms, and is lined with reading-height shelves, which support stacks of newsprint commonplaces. Underneath the shelves hang folded, cream-colored blankets embroidered with two birds holding a cloth between them. Parallel display tables take up the center of the room, and among the animal toys, children’s books, and photographs they show, the significance of the birds stitched onto the blankets becomes apparent.
Several editions of “Who Killed Cock Robin,” ranging from eighteenth century, block printed, pocket versions to lavish, late Victorian picture books, all depict the organization of the murdered robin’s funeral. One of the simplest of these lies open to the emblem of two birds holding a folded cloth at its corners. The rhyme asks, “Who will bear the pall? / We said the Wren, / Both the cock and the hen, / We will bear the pall.” The blankets take on a mournful cast in that light. But I picked one up anyway and wrapped its thick warm wool around my shoulders as I circled the room peering at words, photographs, and taxidermied animals laid out under plexiglass. To walk through the common S E N S E mostly feels like being a mourner and a pallbearer for past life, murdered birds and others, while praying to touch explanations for them and memories of them.
At the end of the hallway with the two rooms lined, nest-like, with blankets come the most grandly funereal rooms in the installation. Scanned images of dead animals from the University of Washington and the Burke Museum’s collections cover the walls from floor to ceiling. The images range from the size of a sheet of notebook paper to the size of large posters. Because the pictures were made by scanning three-dimensional animals with a scanner designed for two dimensions, the animals appear as if through a veil. Only those parts of them that rested directly on the scanner’s glass plate are in focus, the rest of their bodies obscured by a thin foggy distance. This creates perplexing effects, as of the kakapo, the rare ground-dwelling parrot of New Zealand, that appears in its scan to be smiling with its eyes closed, all neck and beak. Or the red deer whose hooves and leg are bonily pressed close to us, but whose face is inaccessible. There are many bodies of birds, cotton balls stuffed in their eyes to preserve the sockets’ circular shapes.
Many of the animal images repeat throughout the three large, high-ceilinged galleries. At first, noticing that is a relief, as if there were not so many dead. But the repetition has weight. As I scanned the densely packed walls, I found my eyes seeking novelty only to find, again, the empty dark eyes of a gray goose or the frozen claws of a fruit bat. Sometimes, it’s a weird sort of puzzle figuring out what dead animal you’re looking at. There is one key that matches the images to the species printed out on computer paper and kept in a podium back near the beginning of the corridor. My companion, who had since caught up, found it on our way out. It is much easier to read through than the walls of the galleries themselves, and after looking at it we turned around to look at the walls with a less mystified eye. But then, that seemed to subvert its effect by making these troubling images easier to talk about, easier to catalogue in my mind.
The animal images, too, are newsprint: thick stacks of copies bolted to the walls. Signs, staff, and Ann Hamilton’s introduction all encourage visitors to tear just one image from the walls to take away, “one that touches you.” Picking an image to take home becomes difficult. It seems wrong just to pick a pretty one. The little birds that look so cute have been sitting, stuffed, in a drawer for decades, perhaps. The sweet Siberian hummingbird that appears to be floating attentively in a smoky pink watercolor is insensible.
I eventually chose a pileated woodpecker with its neck bent so its face turns to the side, its body’s black feathers a solid mass. I found a dead woodpecker in the woods once who looked just like that, its neck broken from slamming into a tree at full flight speed. I felt, then, helpless and fascinated that such an uncommon being, usually seen in glimpses, usually only heard knocking against snags, could be lying there perfectly still, perfectly lifeless. I was a young teenager, and I remember going to get my dad. Then we just looked at it together from a short distance away for a long time, nothing we could do about it. The way that memory tugged at me every time I saw the scan of the dead woodpecker repeated through the gallery made it seem like the right one to take.
Importantly, the installation invites visitors to leave their images in place of the animals they take. A photographer just inside the entryway to the Henry waits with her camera, a stack of release forms, and a screen of translucent membrane. Photographing live people through the membrane mimics the effect of scanning dead animals with a 2D scanner: What is closest is clearest, and a mist seems to obscure what rounds away. I didn’t have my picture taken, but in retrospect, I think I should have. It would have been like signing a guestbook at a funeral or like leaving behind a small offering at a memorial. When speaking about the show at UW Bothell MFA’s Fall Convergence, Hamilton described how the portraits of visitors would eventually accumulate in place of the removed portraits of animals. For now, the obscured portraits of people hang in a sheaf near a shelf of commonplaces in a lower gallery.
One of the lower galleries holds a dense arrangement of metal carts hung with white cotton curtains. They seem like a blending of gurney, lab table, and cradle. Inside each, under plexiglass, rest garments made from animal skin, fur, or gut. These cradles for viewing seem very private because of the alleys created between carts and the high curtains you have to part to peer inside. Sometimes, I looked at them as tenderly as I might have looked at babies in incubators. One of these tender objects was a pair of pants made for a little girl from smooth brown and white fur. Another was a see-through parka made from carefully stitched rows of seal intestine. I judged other garments harshly: Why on earth would anyone want a poor, glass-eyed mink’s head lolling from a muff? How could Coco Chanel look at egrets and decide that their whiskered, white feathers would be striking arranged into capelets for socialites? The heterogenous display of the garments, mixing North American with European, old with quite new, cheaply made with couture, meant that my mind couldn’t get used to any one genre of garment long enough to become inured to its strangeness and animalness. Tags, which lend the space a tinge of clinical, of morgue, hang from each cart and identify the garments by article, species, and the collections they’re borrowed from.
Once we were in the lower galleries, my companion and I were anxious to find Hamilton’s mechanized reinvention of bullroarers that are intended to undergird the installation with undulating sound. But we found them dismantled behind an apologetic sign explaining that the bullroarers are under revision and repair for the time being. Another planned element of sound in the installation are volunteer readers and scribes who read aloud from a book to the animals, anywhere they like in the galleries, and record the words they read in a log, thereby transforming a standard printed text into a shared performance and text that bear individuated marks of people engaged with it.
A wake can be a muted vigil or an animated party. While we were there, no one read aloud. And yet, the silence that evening suited all the quiet, dead animals and the thick pads of words waiting to be collected and read. Henry Art Gallery will show the common S E N S E until April 26th, 2015. Perhaps by then, the walls and shelves along them will have their sheaves of texts depleted entirely, and portraits of humans visiting the show will replace those of the curated animals’ bodies. An overlapping murmur of readers will fill the galleries while a whirring rush of bullroarers sounds underneath their voices.
KATELYN KENDERISH is a poet and MFA student at Western Washington University. She is a poetry editor for the Bellingham Review.