Transcript for Ann Hamilton — Making, and the Spaces We Share

February 13, 2014

Ann Hamilton: I think one of the questions that is behind a lot of the things I’m working on is where is it that we can gather and kind of be alone together? And, you know, there’s so much, as we all know, us/them. And you know, what are the circumstances for "we," that I can enjoy the pleasure of something I’m seeing here, knowing that I’m also sharing that with a person next to me. And there’s an interesting kind of intimacy with this total stranger that the situation makes possible. And, that can change our whole day.

[Music: "Seven League Boots" by Zoe Keating]

Krista Tippett, host: Ann Hamilton uses her hands to create vast art projects that transport the spaces they inhabit. They engage every human sense and bring modern people alone, together. Her creations are literally astounding: 42 giant wooden swings that pull on a white, silk curtain; an 80-foot concrete tower with a staircase that resembles a double helix. But they’re also poetic and intimate: a wooden meditation boat in Laos; a pinhole camera placed inside the mouth, merging sight and voice and making photographs with every opening and closing.  

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

Ann Hamilton prefers to be called a "maker" rather than an artist. She also teaches, at Ohio State University. I spoke with her before a live audience at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Ms. Tippett: Ann, I, you know, you have — we haven’t met before.  In fact, we’re just now meeting.

Ms. Hamilton: This is live ...

Ms. Tippett: Literally laying eyes on each other.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: But you’ve come up in the show. You and your work have been discussed. And, it’s been really thrilling these last days to immerse in your work, in your writing, and your thinking. And, I’m probably going to look at my notes more than I usually do because your language is so precise, and original, and beautiful.

Ms. Hamilton: Oh, thank you.

Ms. Tippett: And I want to really work with the way you put words together. So, let’s just leap in. So you were born in, is it Lima or Lima, Ohio?

Ms. Hamilton: Lima.

Ms. Tippett: Lima, Ohio.  And you grew up in Columbus.  And, I wonder if you would just, you know, I think a lot of people speak of you as a spiritual artist, or an artist who is in the realm of spirituality.  I don’t — I have to say, I don’t really see you claiming that word so often.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Hamilton: I mean, I think that word makes me very nervous, because I don’t actually know exactly what it means.  And I think that it’s a word that is, for a lot of people, very loaded, and it means very particular things.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Hamilton: And, so, you know, I think artists are slippery, that we want to not be categorized.  Right.

Ms. Tippett: But so, if I ask you about, you know, what was the spiritual background of your childhood, in the best, you know, the best connotations you could fill that word with.  What do you think of?

Ms. Hamilton: Love. I’m a Calvinist, I think. And, you know, I certainly grew up going to church with my family, but you know, it’s hard to know sometimes what parts of that you absorb.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Hamilton: I remember my grandmother saying, well, just take the parts you like and don’t worry about the rest of it.

[laughter from audience]

Ms. Tippett: I don’t think she was a very good Calvinist by the sound of it.

[laughter from audience]

Ms. Hamilton: And, but also, I think, growing up where, you know, you worked hard, and labor was its own reward, and you took care of people that you loved, and I grew up in a very tight family. Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: So, here’s something you said. I think I’m putting some words together. But, you talk about the tactile experience of words and the tactile experience of things as a space we’re always straddling. And I’d love for you to talk about what you mean by that. And again, like, trace, you know, where that awareness, how and when and where that arose in you.

Ms. Hamilton: I think I know.

[laughter from audience]

Ms. Hamilton: I was very close with my grandmother. And you know, I have really distinct bodily memories of sitting next to her on the couch. You know, when you’re little and you kind of get in that space under her arm and her arms were full. And, we would knit, or needlepoint, and she would read. And I think there’s something about the rhythm of the hands being busy and then your body falls open to absorb and concentrate on what you’re listening to, but not completely, because you have two concentrations. And then from that, that sort of cultivates a kind of attention. That is the rhythm of those two things together. So the unfolding of the voice in space, and then the material accreting under your hand, and they have really different satisfactions. You know, you can see the material, and...

Ms. Tippett: And she was actually making — she was a maker.

Ms. Hamilton: She was a maker.

Ms. Tippett: And she was making sweaters...

Ms. Hamilton: Sweaters.

Ms. Tippett: She was making things you wore.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah, or we were needlepointing, or I — all those lap things.  The...

[laughter from audience]

Ms. Hamilton: Making by hand, and that was tremendously comforting.

Ms. Tippett: You also said this lovely thing that textiles are the first house of the body.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: The first, what do you say? The first — the body’s first...

Ms. Hamilton: Architecture.

Ms. Tippett: ...extension.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah. It’s like, you know, it’s that question, but like, how do we know things? And that we grow up or we’re educated in a world that ascribes a lot of value to those things that we can say or name. And, but they’re all these hundreds of ways that we know things, through our skin, which is the largest organ of our body. And, so, you know, my firsthand is that textile hand, and text and textiles are woven always, experientially for me. And then, I think that when I first started making things out of cloth, it was like it was another skin. So I was thinking about it as an animate surface, and thinking about it as something that both covers and reveals. And, it’s...

Ms. Tippett: And you also draw this notion of threads, that there’s threads of sewing, and threads of ideas.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Lines of speech.

Ms. Hamilton: Right.

Ms. Tippett: And the weaving that happens with both words and substances like that.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah, and that’s ancient. That is like the origins are in those — the thread pulled from the body in so many cultures or this — something across space and time. You know, when you’re reading a book, you’re immersed, and you’re both inside that book, and you’re far away in the world that it might take you to.

Ms. Tippett: I feel like there’s something, you know, as you said, this is ancient, right? That we take in things through our body and it’s working with our hands, and that it’s not all just verbal, but...

Ms. Hamilton: Right.

Ms. Tippett: I don’t know, I said to somebody recently, I’m trying to think who it was, it’s another interview. I feel like Descartes has a lot to answer for.  I think it was Eve Ensler, because she’s also so much about knowing our bodies, and inhabiting our bodies and actually how...

Ms. Hamilton: Trusting that knowledge.

Ms. Tippett: We got away from that in western civilization. We made everything very cerebral, including spirituality.

Ms. Hamilton: Right.

Ms. Tippett: And as you said, I mean, these, I don’t know, the image of your grandmother with her — with the needlepoint, and the knitting sweaters, it’s an old art. It feels like a lost art. But it’s humanizing when we rediscover these things.

Ms. Hamilton: Mm-hmm. Yeah, you know, it’s interesting, because I teach in a university, and I think about where’s the place in that kind of educational institution for embodied knowledge?

Ms. Tippett: Embodied knowledge. I love that phrase.

Ms. Hamilton: Yes. And how do we cultivate that? And how do we trust it? I think that’s a big thing. How do we listen to it? That I think sometimes we’re very busy giving what we know away, because we think it doesn’t have any authority, or like, it’s almost like we give our experiences away, because we don’t know how to trust...

Ms. Tippett: What do you mean? What do you mean that we give them away?

Ms. Hamilton: I’m thinking as an artist.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Hamilton: That, when you’re making something, you don’t know what it is for a really long time.  So, you have to kind of cultivate the space around you, where you can trust the thing that you can’t name.  And, if you feel a little bit insecure, or somebody questions you, or you need to know what it is, then what happens is you give that thing that you’re trying to listen to away,  and so how do you kind of cultivate a space that allows you to dwell in that — not knowing, really.  That is actually really smart.  And can become really articulate.  But, you know, like the thread has to come out, and it comes out at its own pace.

[Music: "The Best Paper Airplane Ever" by Lullatone]

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts with the artist Ann Hamilton.

Ms. Tippett: Ann, I think it’s so important just to note that what you’re describing, which in some ways you receive through this lineage, I feel, of your grandmother, right, and then you’ve run with it as an artist.

Ms. Hamilton: Right.

Ms. Tippett: But, cutting edge, you know, science is now showing us that all these things that we’ve tried to talk about come in through our bodies first.

Ms. Hamilton: Right.  Right.

Ms. Tippett: Including, I mean, the darkside, right?  Trauma, but also our whole experience, our whole experience of the world is never just mental or verbal.

Ms. Hamilton: Right.  Right.  

Ms. Tippett: Also what strikes me as you're talking about an experience where we kind of rediscover our wholeness, right?  But there’s also this social aspect.  I mean, you said, it’s across space and time, but it’s also in, you know, in the threads of a garment, or in the words that make a story, or a book.  It’s also our connection to everyone else.

Ms. Hamilton: Right.  Well, and it’s like, like in a — to go back to the knitting, like in the knitted structure, you can take a sweater, or a sock, and you can see each loop up and around and slip through, and up and around and over.  And, so, in that whole that has become, it never loses all the parts that constitute it.  And so I think that that’s also been, you know, a part of, I don’t know, structuring the work in some way, where every act of it is in some way transparently present in the material.  And that you can see that.

Ms. Tippett: Even as you can see the hole, you can see the...

Ms. Hamilton: Even as you can see the hole, you can see all the parts and, that we, you go back and forth between those.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, so much to talk about.  I want, something you kind...

Ms. Hamilton: Can I say something?

Ms. Tippett: Yes.  You can interrupt me any time.

Ms. Hamilton: Can I interrupt you?

Ms. Tippett: This is your conversation.

Ms. Hamilton: I wanted to say partly that, like, I’m a radio person.  I love — I — we don’t have a TV in our house, and it’s not because, oh, I’m not going to have a TV.  It just hasn’t kind of ever arrived much to my son’s chagrin.

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: But, I’ve listened to radio a lot, and so I’ve been listening to your program for a long time and, then the podcasts.  But, in the intimacy of the voice, like, I feel like you’re already my friend.

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: And the voice coming in and being as I drink tea or I work, and the kind of comfort of that, and I think that partly in work, it’s like wanting to keep that kind of intimacy that I experience with a form of radio that is the form you work in.  And at the same time, create an experience that is like everybody, like it’s like a condition that allows many, many people to occupy together.  Even in the — in their kind of aloneness.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Ms. Hamilton: And so, if I think about radio, I think, you know, that someone else is hearing that in the same intimate way.  And so I’m also joined to all those people.  And, there’s something about seeking the quality of that experience that seems very important.

Ms. Tippett: Yes, I think it can be intensely individual and intensely communal at the same time.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah. A friend of mine who’s a wonderful poet, Susan Stewart, said that hearing is how we touch at a distance.  Isn’t that beautiful?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, it is.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.  That’s why we need our poets.  And, so, how, you know, how our, I guess in some ways, for me, what one of the questions is, how do you make the condition for tactile experience which isn’t literally always touching?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Hamilton: But I think that’s also how, like, how I start projects is, in some ways, just to try to listen.  And what is the form of that listening for what something needs to become?  Or to find the question.  Or, you know, listening is obviously a very specific thing in a conversation, but also as a practice, for me, because I respond to spaces, the first architecture maybe is the coat.  But then the next one is this building around us.  And, the felt quality of that already has all this, as you say, information in it.  And so it’s like what is it that is here that maybe asks a question or that can be brought forward...

Ms. Tippett: You’re listening to the space.

Ms. Hamilton: You’re listening.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. It’s also — it’s so true that it’s — I also think listening is something we really have to practice, because our everyday spaces are not set up for listening.  It’s always something you have to create the space...

Ms. Hamilton: It’s like saying now I’m going to listen.

Ms. Tippett: ...to do and the intention to do.

Ms. Hamilton: Or we’re plugged in.  You know.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Hamilton: I — it’s very hard for me to wear headphones at all or sunglasses because then I feel like I’m not where I am, wherever that is.  I’m not here.  And, you know, there’s some filter going on.  But it’s also how do you listen to yourself?  You know, and how do you trust the...

Ms. Tippett: Which we’re also not necessarily good at.  I do want you to tell the story of one of the early, early projects you did.  Maybe a first project when you were a student, about where you had a suit covered in toothpicks, made of which, actually, when you look at the picture, you kind of look like Bigfoot.

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Why was that important for you?  Because you’ve said that that was a really important project.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.  That’s a really great question.  I — so what Krista is describing is a man-suit that I covered with thousands of individual toothpicks that had been painted black with little white tips.  So I made a hide that I could put on.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and it doesn’t, I mean, the photos, I said, it doesn’t look like toothpicks, it looks like...

Ms. Hamilton: It looks like a hair or a spiny...

Ms. Tippett: Spiny, yeah, for...

Ms. Hamilton: Spiny, like porcupine.

Ms. Tippett:  Yes.

Ms. Hamilton: Sort of thing.  And, I was in graduate school then.  And, I was incredibly self-conscious.  You know, you’re really worried about are you — what you — is it good?  There’s a lot of pressure to articulate.  There — you kind of leave behind, I think, when you go to graduate school, a lot of things that you’ve shored up a tiny bit of confidence with.  And so, um...

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: And I had made a project, maybe this is important to know that it was in my first like critique in graduate school, and it was an awful project.  It was really, really bad.  But I had all sorts of words that I could put with, like, why I had done it all.  And I realized that that wasn’t what I really cared about.  And, so I thought, is there a way to take this kind of maybe emotional predicament or the self-consciousness and find a physical form for that?  And in inhabiting it, does it then change my relationship to that fear?  Or to that...

Ms. Tippett: So that suit represented how you felt, which was all spiny and conspicuous.

Ms. Hamilton: Yes.  And...

Ms. Tippett: That’s really interesting.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah, and so, you know, it’s almost like if I can be in it, then it’s like, how does your own vulnerability, like, then become a place of incredible strength and that if you can just occupy that, then there’s a whole lot of knowledge in there.  Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Hmmm… That makes me think of something that’s disconnected, but it was just on my mind.  Somebody I interviewed years ago, Jean Vanier, who created these communities around the world that are centered around people with mental disabilities.

Ms. Hamilton: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: And he talked about the reason he believes that so many of us are so uncomfortable with people with disabilities, that we all walk around, all the time, you know, trying to hide whatever’s wrong with us, or whatever we think is wrong with us, and that the people who have — who carry their, you know, their flaws on the outside are terrifying, because we spend so much energy trying to keep that to ourselves.

Ms. Hamilton: Mm-hmm.  Mm-hmm.  Yeah, and I think, when I first started teaching, my students called it the public humiliation class.

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: And it wasn’t that it was so humiliating.  It was really that, like, I was asking them to do things in public that were about taking a risk.  You know, and that if you can do that, if you can let yourself fail, if you can let yourself be really bad, if you can take the risk...

Ms. Tippett: Or does it look awkward on purpose?

Ms. Hamilton: Look awkward, then you can do a whole lot of other things after that.  Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Something that also is really intriguing to me is how you talk about using time.  Time itself as a process and a material.  Can you say some more about that?

Ms. Hamilton: Well, I think in some ways, I don’t know the best way to say it, but that like everybody, you know, we’re — our lives are really, really busy.  And we’re fragmented in many ways.  And I think that within the work, I try to make time for those things that, in some ways, it’s hard for me to maybe make time for my daily life.  So, in the project last year at the armory, which was a really large project, and it had a whole rhythm to the day, that I was there every day, all day, learning what it was.  And I — was that I understood that it was really important for me to spend all that time to actually come to understand it, and it was interesting to then be joined, I think, by other people in the time there.  I don’t think that really answers your question, but...

Ms. Tippett: Well, but what you’re getting at is how I think so many of us in our lives now we — it’s kind of like we’ve — we receive time as kind of a bully, right?  Yeah.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And it’s all about deadlines. And, which we’re not meeting.

Ms. Hamilton: Never. Or only at the last minute.

Ms. Tippett: And all the things we can’t get to do.  So, we kind of receive time passively.  And of course, the physicists tell us that our whole sense of time is completely illusory — we don’t get it.  We can’t internalize what it really is anyway.  And so what you’re talking about is actually kind of claiming time as a thing that you’re grappling with and also working with.  And actually, I mean, you’re kind of insisting that it be more generous.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah, and I think that in many ways, it’s like how do you let things take the time they actually need?  That — it seems like this whole efficiency thing is really — doesn’t work very well, because in fact, there’s this thinking that’s always going on inside the thing that you’re engaged with and, you’re not really having the experience if you’re rushing off to the next thing, right?  So, even when you’re really, really compressed for time, how do you cultivate just being in the time you have at that moment?  And how do you — how can you just be present, even if it’s like, you know, a few minutes.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.  Which is a spiritual discipline, I think.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah, maybe.

Ms. Tippett: But, but you’re, I mean, it’s a practical discipline, too.

Ms. Hamilton: It’s practical.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Hamilton:  And so how, yeah, how do you kind of push things off as long as possible?  And I think even in my process, like, that I wait as long as possible to say what something’s going to be.  You know, I try to suspend all the possibilities until the very last moment, because I know that what something needs to become needs all of that time.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.  Tell me about your relationship with technology.  I mean, you said you don’t have a TV, but you’ve done digital prints.

Ms. Hamilton: Oh, yeah.  OK.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, but I think you also said some interesting things about, you know, technology amplifying human presence at a distance, which can be, like all of this, it can be dark and light.

Ms. Hamilton: I mean, I think, you know, the incredible thing about technology is it amplifies and extends our reach, the reach of a voice, greater than the reach of one’s touch.  But, and so, I think one of my questions has been, what is the value or, yeah, what is the value or form of making by hand, or making at the pace of the body, when we live in this technologically extended time?  

Ms. Tippett: You could almost say, what was it?  What was this phrase of yours that textiles are the first house of the body, and then you said physical space is the second house, and there’s a way in which these virtual spaces we inhabit are a new — a new piece of architecture for our lives.

Ms. Hamilton: Well, and so partly it’s like so how is that tactile?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Hamilton: You know, and how — where is the — and what’s a nature of the we in that?  And I haven’t really done like an online project particularly, but I spend tons of time on my computer, and I do a ton of research on it.  And what I can find is extraordinary.  And I wouldn’t ever want to lose that.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.  It’s a treasure trove.

Ms. Hamilton: And on the other hand, I’m scissors and glue, and you know, scotch tape, and whatever.  And so it’s more like how do you balance the screen and what it makes possible with — which is often the faraway with the kind of close at hand, and, but, you know, that’s also — there’s a generation that’s growing up thinking inside the technology in a way that, you know, isn’t my generation.

Ms. Tippett: Right, for whom it really is a house in a way that it’s never going to be a house for someone who was 40 when it came along.

Ms. Hamilton: Right.

[Music: "Wonder" by Hauschka]

Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Ann Hamilton through our website, onbeing.org.


I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[Music: "Wonder" by Hauschka]

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: a conversation with the visual artist Ann Hamilton. She calls herself a "maker." She creates visionary installations that engage and surround the senses -- a stonework wall in the middle of Battery Park City in New York, or 50,000 catalogue cards at the San Francisco Main Library, each one annotated with a quote related to the book described on the card.

I met Ann Hamilton as part of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ 2014 exhibit and project called "Sacred." We spoke in front of a live audience there.

Ms. Tippett: Let’s just talk for a few more minutes, and then we’ll open this open up.  There’s so much I want to talk to you about.  Oh, all right, so, tell us about your pinhole camera.

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: So, everybody knows what a pinhole camera is.

Ms. Tippett: No, no, you have to explain it.

Ms. Hamilton: Oh, I do?  OK.

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: So, a pinhole camera, I guess it’s like the radio.  I mean, it’s magic.

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: And, it’s...

Ms. Tippett: OK, it’s crystal clear now.

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: So, it’s a dark box with a tiny, little hole in it.  And the light that goes through that hole makes an image on the back of the box.  And so it’s the first camera.  It’s one of the very earliest way of making an image.  And so, I started a project where I made pinhole cameras that were very small, that would fit inside the cavity of my mouth.  And I started thinking about my mouth as a room.  And, I became interested in thinking about what happens when one sense is displaced to another part of the body.  So, if the sense of sight is joined to the place of voice, what results from that?  

Ms. Tippett: And when I interviewed Meredith Monk, who’s a wonderful, again, vocalist, artist, performance artist, and you’ve done some fabulous work with her.  The project that you did together called Mercy, also had this relationship between the mouth and the hand.  Again, joining those different...

Ms. Hamilton: The first extensions.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.  And she told a story about, you both together saw a story of a father and a son who were both shot at the Israeli-Palestinian border by both sides.  These people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time in a tragic way.  And Meredith talked about how you realized that you can — a hand can hold a trigger, a hand can reach out to touch someone...

Ms. Hamilton: Right.  Right. And we made, I think, at one point in that project, I mean, certainly we were responding politically to - the newspaper comes in every day, and that becomes part of your landscape of response.  What’s happening in the world, and how can your small act, singular act of making have any consequence?  And so, the only thing you can do is think about the consequence of your immediate extension and how you do that.  And so, we made a list, actually, at one point, I think of all the — all the things the hand can do.  And all of the kind of appetites and qualities of what the voice can do.  And that those are actions. And how do we own that?  How do we own that?  Is that partly what you’re, a little bit?

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.  Yeah, it made me think of, I was in Israel for the first time a couple of years ago, and we were going to the Wailing Wall, which, you know, I think I wanted to be overtaken by a sense of mystery and God’s presence, and I was, in fact, I was irritated by the separation of the genders, and it was hot, you know, it was touristy, but, when I — have you been there?  You walk up to the Wall and here’s the thing.  To me, it wasn’t even the prayer that made it incredibly powerful.  It was putting — it was putting my hands on that Wall and thinking of all of the...

Ms. Hamilton: Hands.

Ms. Tippett: ...million, all of the hands.

Ms. Hamilton: Right.  And that you’re joining those.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.  And that felt sacred.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.  Yeah.  I think that’s right. And I think we’re trying to, you know, in many ways, like, trying to find opportunities in which we can have that experience.  And, we can feel our own presence, gesture, whatever, in relationship to that much larger one across time, and space, and cultures, and so, you know, as a artist working in a contemporary context, it’s like how do we — how can we create a circumstance in which those kinds of processes of joining an acknowledgement can occur.

Ms. Tippett: Here’s something you said, also, that is related to this.  The — I just — it’s a beautiful thought and I have to like sit with it.  The body, through physical labor, leaves a transparent presence in material.  And labor is a way of knowing.

Ms. Hamilton: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s, I mean, I’m always going through this museum, attracted to those things where you feel the presence in somewhere or another, or the evidence in the material of the body.  So the worn steps that are in a marble staircase.  The way you feel a handrail when you go up.  That consciously or unconsciously your body is aware of those things.  And I’m just looking at where my attention falls.  And it’s to this odd sort of dispirit category of objects, but in some ways what connects all of them is that there’s some evidence of someone else’s body in that object.  And you know, we’re in a museum that is full of that.

Ms. Tippett: Yes, again, that just is a...

Ms. Hamilton: And there’s recognition, yeah.

Ms. Tippett: ...way to talk about what is so special about a museum.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.  Well, and you fall open to those things.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Ms. Hamilton: And even if you don’t know its history, or you don’t know where it’s from, and you can’t place it in time, there’s still this recognition that is like very strong and that recognition makes you curious.  And makes you fall open.  And when you fall open to it, then your heart falls open, right?  And anything is possible.

Ms. Tippett: So, this place, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has a sacred exhibit now.  And, this conversation we’re having is part of this event, this sacred event.

Ms. Hamilton: Right.

Ms. Tippett: There’s some similarity between the atmosphere of explicitly sacred places and the atmosphere in a museum.  Right?  I mean, how many spaces in this culture do we stand silently and take something in?  And, soak in beauty.  And be in awe of that.

Ms. Hamilton: When I think when you go through the doors, like, when if you go through the doors of a church, you know, you enter that threshold and it’s a different space, and the air is different, and it’s maybe more quiet...

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, time is different, I think, too.

Ms. Hamilton: You’re willing to just sit and be.  And I think that we come needing that a lot to the museums very much so.

Ms. Tippett: Never thought about that before.

Ms. Hamilton: And, I think also as an artist, you know, I’m very, I think one of the questions that is behind a lot of the things I’m working on, is where is it that we can gather and kind of be alone together?  And, you know, there’s so much, as we all know, us/them.  And you know, what are the circumstances for we that I can enjoy the pleasure of something I’m seeing here, knowing that I’m also sharing that with a person next to me.  And there’s an interesting kind of intimacy with this total stranger that the situation makes possible.  And, that that can change our whole day.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. It’s another one of those experiences, like we were talking about radio, I mean, it’s — that it’s communal and individual at the same time.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah, and I think that that alone...

Ms. Tippett: And that art is like that, too.

Ms. Hamilton: That maybe too much together makes us really nervous?

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: But the alone together is something that I think we’re trying to figure out.

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today I’m at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts with the artist Ann Hamilton.

Ms. Tippett: I read something when I was preparing that — it was from the New York Times, 1999, which is another century.  But, I mean, a long time ago, but it was about — it was about an installation you did called Myein.

Ms. Hamilton: I don’t even know how to say it myself.

Ms. Tippett: Good, I didn’t either.

(Laughter)

Ms. Tippett: OK, apparently...

Ms. Hamilton: It’s Greek.

Ms. Tippett: ...the Greek root of the word mystery.  Anyway you said something about — that — well, this is what the Times said, that it was about how we know what we know, and what we blind ourselves to, how the invisible affects us, and how the visible can be veiled, and it’s such a wonderful image.  And we don’t have time to go into it, so we’ll just let it sit there.  But you said, I’m thinking, this is 1999, that I am the American Representative and it’s the eve of the millennium, I want to bring to the surface the questions we should be asking.  I just — that’s so intriguing to me, and I guess, I’m wondering what questions you think we should be asking now, here, in this young tumultuous, you know, amazing century.

Ms. Hamilton: Well, how to be together.  I mean, isn’t that — that seems like the biggest question.  You know, and how to be together.  You know, I think that every project in some ways it forms by maybe feeling that I have the right question for it.  And, everything else is kind of debris until I can kind of get to that.  

Ms. Tippett: Let’s do a little — let’s have a conversation with you.  I don’t know how this is working.  Are there some microphones, I believe?   Oh, back there, all right. Yes.

Audience Member: Many of Krista’s questions and your responses reminded me of a beautiful installation piece of yours that was at MASS MoCA that was in the space that actually looked quite cathedral-like. And then there was a balcony that actually had pews in it of some kind, but I wondered if you could just say more about that piece in the context of this discussion.  And what was it called?

Ms. Hamilton: It was called Corpus. It was — on one, it was a huge, old industrial space where they had once manufactured capacitors, which store energy and then release it.  And it also had been a textile factory, where they had dyed and so, dyed cloth.  And, so...

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton:  And, the — it had once been the room that you’re describing with — there were many mechanisms that were powered by air that were dropping single sheets of white paper to the ground from, like, 30 feet.  And there was a rhythm to that.  Like, that you could hear the air kind of like breath.  And that a piece of paper might draw your attention because it catches the light.  Or a recorded voice raising and lowering from a set of bell-shaped speakers might draw your attention because it pulls you this way in this enormous landscape of this old industrial architecture.  And I think that that actually opened my work up for me a lot and made me perhaps helped me understand and articulate a little bit that the piece is not about defining the nature of that experience, but making a condition within which you can wander around.  And, pay attention to the things that your attention is drawn to.  And, in that grows the project.  

Ms. Tippett: I kept thinking when I was reading about how you approach your work, and objects, and placement, and this word attention, you just used the word attention, of this beautiful definition of prayer by Simone Vey.  Absolutely, unmixed attention is prayer.

Ms. Hamilton: That’s beautiful.  I’ll take that.

(Laughter)

Ms. Tippett: Was there one more question?  I don’t know where the — I can’t see where the microphone is.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah, there’s one right here.

Ms. Tippett: OK. Let’s do one more question.

Audience Member: Well, for so many of us here who are makers, and teachers, and perhaps also parents, I was wondering if you could speak a little bit to how those things inform each other in your life.  And also, how keep the maker part of you alive with enough time and enough nourishment to not feel like you’re always clawing at the small amount of time or space in your head that you have.

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: I sense something.

Audience Member: Tiny bit of desperation, maybe. I don’t know, I’m just saying maybe.

Ms. Hamilton: Well, I think when my son was born, you know, I think I just had to learn how to make differently, that you know, it happens in your kitchen, and that it happens — it just happens differently.  And I think there was a process of trusting that just because you can’t be in whatever studio, whatever you call your studio, doesn’t mean that you’re not having a thought.  Or insight.  Or something.  And I think it’s that if I conceive of them as being separate, then I will be forever frustrated.  But if they’re all one practice, and every project is, and all the projects are one big project, then I think I, you know, not that we don’t feel pressed for time in some ways, but then there’s an anxiousness that I can at least allay a little bit.  And, you know, sometimes the most important thing you need to do is like make the soup.

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: And, in the soup is going to be the project, even though, you know, a kid is sick upstairs.  And that’s why you’re making the soup, or whatever.  And, you know, I learned — and like in teaching, I learn a lot from my students.  And I think that it’s reciprocal.  It’s like everything is reciprocal, and everything feeds everything else.  

Ms. Tippett: You do like this language of being a maker —

Ms. Hamilton: Mm-hmm, very much.

Ms. Tippett: ...as much or maybe more than being called an artist.  And, it’s just occurring to me that that language lends itself to the rest of us, too.  I mean, being an artist is specialized, but it’s thinking about making is something we all do, each in our own ways, including in our family lives.

Ms. Hamilton: And there’s so many forms for making.  I mean, I’ve said this before, but I’d like to say it again.  Is that in, like, I love reading the dictionary.  And, the Oxford English dictionary has, I don’t know many pages devoted to to make, and making, and all of its possibilities.  And I think that’s like making — it’s the same as like making a list of all the materials that exist in the world that you might transform in some way.  It’s like if you make that list and you take the list of every — all the possibilities of what making is, like, that can just keep you busy forever.

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: But it also...

Ms. Tippett: And you never even get around to the making.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah, but it makes you feel, like, it’s like, you see the possibilities.  Like, we get blinded to the possibilities that we actually have.  And I think that’s — so you have these little tricks that you do, you play with yourself to see those.  I — everybody should try that one.

(Laughter)

Ms. Tippett: The list?

Ms. Hamilton: The list, yeah.

Ms. Tippett: I’m also pretty intrigued by the idea of reading the dictionary.  I never thought of that.

Ms. Hamilton: Oh, it’s so beautiful.

(Laughter)

Ms. Tippett: I believe you, I just had never thought of it before.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Well, and it’s because I — it’s just as materials, obviously carry histories of the animal, or the technologies that made them, or where they came from in the earth, that words also carry all of those histories.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And, although that’s not my area, I — there’s a reason certain words work, and it’s because of the histories that they carry for us.  So, lifting that to the surface is of recognition is important.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And so you, now live in Columbus again, is that right?  In Ohio.

Ms. Hamilton: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: And, I don’t know, someplace you were talking about, this is another interview, my life is busy, I travel a lot, but within that, my life is very domestic.  You’re married, you have a son, you have a cat and a dog.  You live in an American neighborhood.  And, as an artist, as a maker, as a professional maker, you know, you’re exotic. (Laughter by Ann) Right? You’re doing things that are very original and out there, and I’m just curious about do you — I wonder how you interact with your neighbors and your ordinary American neighborhood in Ohio.

(Laughter)

Ms. Tippett: Like, not how...

Ms. Hamilton: They don’t think I’m exotic.

(Laughter)

Ms. Tippett: Right.  But how do you — do you think about talking to them about, you know, like, something, like, the exhibit you’re doing at the armory or the tower in California or the meditation boat in Laos.  I mean, or wading through paper and, you know, about how that is connected to this very common longing, you know, that’s come through again and again.  Or just, you know, who are we now, and what are we to each other?

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah.  Well, I’m really lucky to live someplace where my neighbors are friends.  You know, and I’ve been there now a long time.  You know, I’ve been there since the early ‘90s.  And, so for instance, down the street are two friends who are both singers.  And although their day jobs are different than that, you know, when I started to work on the armory, I talked to them a lot about voice.  And I go hear them.  And I learn from them.  And they help me trust what I’m doing.  And, they contribute to it, a lot.  And I had the most amazing conversation a few nights ago with my neighbor who has just moved in who’s a sophomore, and has moved from China to go to school at OSU, where I teach.  And he had been to an art event at the Wexner Center.  And it had been a music video — music concert with live mixing of video.  And he — it was such an intense experience for him, he didn’t know what to do with it.

Ms. Tippett: The video?

Ms. Hamilton: The experience of the performance.  And so he came next door, it was like 11:00 at night, and he came over to bring me my cat back, who goes and lives in his house when we’re out and it’s cold out.  And he came over and he wanted to — we talked for probably two hours about how he felt.  And he didn’t know what to call this thing.  And he said, it made me feel things I didn’t know how to process.  And it was really scary.  And —

Ms. Tippett: It was the effect that this art was having.

Ms. Hamilton: And is this new — is this the new art? And it — he kept talking about how it felt on his skin.

Ms. Tippett: How the experience of watching felt on his skin?

Ms. Hamilton: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: He was speaking your language.

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: Yes.  And so he’s a new neighbor. Yeah.

(Laughter)

Ms. Hamilton: And, you know, I think that I know when you look at the projects when they’re finished, or from afar, you know, they look sometimes enormous, and they are in enormous spaces or they happened over a long period of time.  But it’s really one tiny little step after another. And it’s an associational process.  And pretty soon, you know, they arrive like a sweater being knitted into this larger thing.  And, it’s just — it’s — there’s something actually kind of very practical about it, and very mundane, and really, you know, ordinary. I mean, I’m a — it’s like there’s a pragmatism in it that I think is really part of how I get there.  And on the other hand, I love huge volumes of space, like, being in a gigantic space is something that, you know, it’s like you feel it here.  And so, on the one hand, there’s this really practical step, step, step.  And on the other hand, it’s like (gasp) it’s like wanting to fling yourself into something that’s gigantic and will absorb you. And it’s kind of scary.

Ms. Tippett: Even transcendent in a way that it — then it transcends all those pragmatic steps along the way.

Ms. Hamilton: And, together, too, yeah.

Ms. Tippett: OK. Ann Hamilton, thank you.

Ms. Hamilton: Thank you.

Ms. Tippett: It’s been really delightful. Thanks everyone for coming.

(Applause)

[Music: "Marazion" by The Echelon Effect]

Ms. Tippett: Ann Hamilton is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Art at Ohio State University.


To listen again or share this show with Ann Hamilton, go to our website onbeing.org. There we’ve also posted images and video of some of her work. And you can follow everything we do through our weekly email newsletter. Just click the newsletter link to subscribe on any page at onbeing.org

On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mikel Elcessor, Mariah Helgeson, Mary Sue Hannan, and Joshua Rae.

Special thanks this week to Elizabeth Armstrong, Susan Jacobsen, Nicole Soukup, and Brian Tighe at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Also, Nicole Rome and Nicole Gibbs from Ann Hamilton’s studio.

[On Being Extra]

Ms. Tippett: My recent conversation with the physicist Brian Greene settled with the musician Eliza Moore in an unusual way. She was at the gym listening to the podcast. She was struck--as I was, as many were — by his concept that there may be no such thing as free will. And as she was puzzling over that thought, her iPod skipped to one of her own songs.

[Music: "Anointed" by Eliza Moore]

Eliza Moore: “All of a sudden I was hearing my voice from a few years ago saying what I really felt about this subject. That yeah, no, I don’t really think that there is control but I do actually believe in something bigger, um, than math even though I do believe that math is also very magical (laughs) and poetic but um, I think there was a moment of coming back to my own voice and own intuition.

Ms. Tippett: Hear all of the song “Anointed,” which we think is lovely whether there is free will or not, at onbeing.org.

Voices on the Radio

is a visual artist and self-described maker. She is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Art at Ohio State University.