I) I Dream of Annie
The setting is a small, cloistered room in a vast Victorian pile, a long-unvisited attic with a dormer window affording a sweeping view of a topiary maze on the grounds below. The air is noisome with the scent of lavender pot-pourri. Two nubile but strait-laced girls are engaged in intense, but of necessity subdued conversation. They whisper intently, seated in such intimate proximity that their delicate, alabaster foreheads just touch. Girlish companions, their long and almost translucent fingers are tenderly interlaced. One girl is Winona Ryder, her black hair elaborately plaited in a strangely architectonic version of pigtails; the other, Uma Thurman, wears her blonde hair in a painfully tight bun. The cawing of a bird startles them and they rush out of their secret chamber, muslin skirts whooshing behind them. Manderlay is shrouded in fog.
II) Feels Just Like a Woman
All right, I confess, Ann Hamilton's Dia installation has nothing to do with the fantasy scenario sketched above - so much the worse. My Ann Hamilton phantasmagoria began last September, when, in my capacity as a blurb-writer for the New Yorker, I was called upon to pen a little fanfare for Hamilton's Tropos, which was to open a few weeks later. As I knew Hamilton's work only in passing, I decided to call Lynne Cooke, Dia's curator, and ask her a few questions about the installation. Based on her comments, I assembled the following blurb, which was prominently featured under a charcoal-type drawing of Hamilton that made her look uncannily like the philosopher Ludwig Wittgen-stein:
Ann Hamilton's installations follow the familiar formula of trying to refocus our attention the complexities of sensory experience, but they often make surprising use of organic material. In Tropos, now at the Dia Center for the Arts, the main ingredient is horsehair - it covers the floor like a bristly sea - and the other-worldliness is enhanced by the faint sounds of a recorded voice.
(The New Yorker, Oct. 19, 1993)
I saw Tropos shortly after it opened, although the actual purpose of my visit was to check out Katharina Fritsch's Rat-King, which I was reviewing for Artforum. But I popped in on Hamilton's installation - and I do mean popped in. I opened the door, stuck my head in, and summarily decided, This is not for me. Lynne Cooke's précis had ignored but one crucial element: a young woman seated at a crummy metal table reading a book. I took her for one of Dia's austere, poker-faced guards-cum-aestheticians, and opted to venture no farther.
Some months later, I agree to review Tropos for frieze. I figure I ought to take another look - you know, actually go inside - and search for whatever subtleties I might have missed. Well, for one, the black-clad guard isn't a guard - she's part of the show! I thought, this is just too much; I felt an aneurysm boiling in my cortex. Cooke writes in her pamphlet accompanying Tropos: 'Stitched together in slowly undulating, often interrupted swirls, this epic "hide" starts to resemble an endlessly surging ground, an oceanic topography. Floating on its swelling eddies is a small metal table and stool where a seated figure meticulously erases the text of an old book. In singeing the printed letters, he or she causes coils of smoke, languorous silhouettes in the muted light, to waft upward then slowly dissolve.' Excuse me, but when I last visited Dia, Ms Fahrenheit 451 was not erasing or singeing the pages of an old book. She was crossing it out with a magic marker, line by line, and smoking.
Somehow, I get the impression that Ann Hamilton isn't a big reader. She certainly does her best to confirm the unfortunate cliché that artists are perforce illiterates. Maybe Duchamp's maxim, 'Stupid like a painter,' ought to be updated for installation art. According to Hamilton, 'You have to trust the things you can't name...you feel through your body, you take in the world through your skin.' Cooke elaborates: Hamilton 'views language as a deeply limited or flawed vehicle for communication since, with the exception of certain forms of poetry, it remains at best an abstraction, at odds with the immediate affectivity of sensate, visceral experience.' Hamilton and Cooke seem to be suggesting a para-verbal sensuality achieved through mindless labour intensiveness - patiently destroying books, or sewing stupid horsehair rugs. Hamilton's art promotes unfortunate stereotypes of feminine sensitivity. It's Beuys for girls. The loss of language is supposed to be redeemed by a recovered depth of feeling. You know, feelings - women are supposed to be good at them. After all, they're nurturers, and they're in touch with their bodily rhythms and natural cycles - the moon, the waves, stuff like that. So they understand sensate, visceral experience, unlike the phallogocentric robots of male cognition. Needless to say, there is something just a little old-fashioned and illiberal about this implicit fetishisation of feminine inarticulateness. The message is, 'Think less, feel more.' Gross.
Which brings me back to my own original fantasy. To my horror, I didn't hear a discreetly feminine psst-psst on Hamilton's 'subliminal' sound-track. Instead, it was a garbled. distorted, awful male voice, making dreadful gurgling noises, sort of like a voice-over refugee from one of Bruce Nauman's or Matthew Barney's videos. If you're so into articulateness and pure sensory experience, why not ditch voices altogether, slip a microdot under your tongue, and stare at a bed of pansies for ten hours.