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Ann Hamilton, Book Weights



Written by Jilliam Cofskey

Ann Hamilton Book Weights

Ann Hamilton

book weights tt (human carriage), 2009-2010

Archival Inkjet Print

Ann Hamilton’s deceptively simple print book weights tt offers viewers an opportunity to explore a new method of reading. book weights tt is a large-scale print showing the cross-sections of fore edges and square edges of different books that have been cut apart and rejoined. Ann Hamilton stitched the book sections together based on a color palette of various golden yellows, oranges, greens, and reds, which are striking against a dark background. Prior to being severed apart, the various books used by Hamilton were Asian texts on philosophy and religion found in a landfill and in a library at Kenyon College. Hamilton actually created an entire series of the book sculptures by cutting them into tiny sections with a paper cutter, or guillotine, and rejoining them with a similar binding process to the making of a textile or book. The original form depicted in book weights tt is a visual metaphor for how meanings can be misconstrued as they are translated across cultures. 

In the exhibition catalog for book weights, the final product of the book sculptures is explained as a part of Ann Hamilton’s larger installation, human carriage

Still hinged at the spine, but now free to fan out, move, and be combined in new forms, these fragments [of the guillotined books] are layered, with spines glued to cheesecloth backing to create a ring-shaped object or collar that retains the language and references of a book...Structurally, strings between the cheesecloth and spine provide a “handle” or “tie” that mimics that way book fragments were constructed as counterweights within the museum installation.

Picture taking a hardback book by its front and back cover, and bending them opposite directions until they almost touch. The pages fan out in an arc, still attached to the spine but pointing in all directions. This is the shape Hamilton mimics with each book weights object. 

The aesthetic of the print in Confronting Greatness is something like a quilt, excepting its reflective quality as a photographic scan. It’s a curious approach to a book, which is of course typically opened and read and not solely appreciated for its exterior aesthetic value. With book weights tt, the text contained in the books is missing from view, and the aesthetics of color take the place of the potential meanings contained within. Hamilton’s book quilts, as I think of them, each combine fragments of inaccessible meaning and present them as eye-catching experiments in color theory. 

To understand book weights tt as an individual work, it is important to understand the context of its creation as a part of a larger exhibition, titled human carriage. The exhibition was installed in the rotunda of the Guggenheim in 2009 as a part of their larger exhibition, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989. human carriage functioned as a combination of text, textile, sound and exchange performance that amalgamated to form a work of massive, dynamic sculpture descending parallel to the pathways of museum goers. 

On the top floor, an attendant lifted stacks of dismembered and rejoined books onto a carriage connected to a single pipe running down the length of the rotunda. As gravity pulls the carriage down, two Tibetan cymbal bells chime from their place on the carriage. Once the carriage reaches the bottom of the structure and the books are cast out, the attendant uses a pulley system to retrieve it and the process is repeated. “We started out thinking how a word or a phrase might literally be carried down the ramp by the bell carriage,” says Hamilton in her conversation with Jan Garden Castro. “Our attempts were based in textiles.” Hamilton describes the process in her acknowledgements after the exhibition’s installation, saying that it is a visual and auditory depiction of how information flows across cultures, through various hands and languages. The movement of the performative sculpture functions as a metaphor for the making of books, which is an inherently collaborative process. 

Another layer of this work is the relationship between reading and sound as connected by the body. For those who experience sound, the visual perception of text translates that text into a sound that is heard in the brain, and understood in an auditory way that bypasses the actual ear. As Joan Simon explains, “To experience a Hamilton installation is not only to find oneself amid strange and wondrous assemblages, with all senses on alert, but also to find oneself alone, lost inside one’s own head, experiencing the kind of ‘internal vortexes’ that Hamilton has spoken of so often, a sense of not only swimming in thought but also being lost in it.” These “internal vortexes” are the separation between each sense the viewer’s body uses to absorb the work itself.

The exchange of information from a physical object to the human brain is the same type of exchange that Hamilton intends to facilitate with the book weights, but it is accomplished via color and shape rather than the use of visible text. In this way, Hamilton’s sculptural textiles are imbued with the implications of human understanding. Hamilton also considers books to be in some ways representative of how human bodies communicate meaning. While she makes no direct reference to women’s bodies, the breadth of interpretation and the concepts of intersectional meaning are clear. Joan Simon, in Ann Hamilton: An Inventory of Objects, says that “...each book serves practically and conceptually as an overall ‘corpus’--a body of information, a given container or figure--that is used in its entirety just as she also addresses the body and its sheltering clothing and architecture.” In the same manner as the book sections in book weights, bodies are an aesthetic composition containing unseeable meanings derived from a range of cultural experiences that differs from person to person, as well as a host of projections cast onto it from the outside world, based solely on external experiences (the cover). 

The way in which Hamilton arrived at making the print series book weights directly correlates to the theme of medium flexibility. Through time, conversation and location changes, Hamilton’s work shifts from multi-story and multi-media sculpture to a two-dimensional print. The actual size of the book sculptures in the print serves as a stark juxtaposition to the size of the print, as the assortment of texts is actually small enough to fit in a single hand. Hamilton is playing with both medium and scale by “translating” book weights through various mediums and methods of viewing. In order to catalog the number of book weights that were being transferred to the gallery space of the Guggenheim as a part of human carriage, Hamilton chose to document them on a high resolution scanner. Once the documentation was in progress, Hamilton and her team realized that a new body of work had been created. The concepts of memory and time are integral to the process of documentation, so the book weights fit perfectly into Hamilton’s cohesively themed body of work, and exemplifies the ways in which media overlap with each other and with the human experience. book weights tt is thus the product both of intention and chance, the body and the world, the mind and the hand. 

The atmosphere experienced as a result of human carriage is intended to be reminiscent of the awareness of Buddhist spiritual practice. Hamilton doesn’t practice Buddhism, but she created human carriage as a metaphor for meditation. The book weights literally represent balance as their descent lifts other components of the sculpture. The sounds, created by Tibetan symbol bells, are those you would hear in a Buddhist monastery during prayers.

Another one of Hamilton’s primary inspirations for the theory behind her work is the book Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (2002), by Susan Stewart. She began reading the work of Stewart in 1989, and Stewart attributes much of the content of the book and its visual representation to Hamilton. One of Stewart’s themes, “The Experience of Beholding,” provides a less technical interpretation of the human carriage exhibition as a whole, and therefore also book weights tt. Stewart discusses the relationship between movement, time and touch and how they are experienced by the body, suggesting, “When we evoke or call our place for sound, we bring ourselves, too, into a certain path. We take our place in time. And when we attribute sound to a voice, we wonder what figures will be made, who speaks and from where--when the voice arrives we learn something, too, about where we stand.” Stewart poetically describes how visualization provides the boundaries for sound. The eye captures a view that identifies the origins of sound, ending its proverbial echo. The identification of the origin of sound additionally allows us to locate ourselves, ending the brain’s constant search for the stability of two points connected by a line. When the museum-goer visually experiences book weights, the potential “sound” of the meaning contained within the text is silenced by its conversion to an aesthetically-based textile. The expression of human carriage, book weights, and specifically book weights tt directly reflects the idea of the viewer being placed in relationship to the maker, or a person communicating meaning. In many ways, the manual labor of creating each book textile mimics the weaving of meaning and collaboration of minds. 

The presence of book weights tt and human carriage in the space of the museum is an example of the progress that has been made since Linda Nochlin published her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists.” (1971) Until the mid-twentieth century, art historical textbooks, galleries, and museums almost exclusively included works created by “genius” men who appeared to somehow have been bestowed with the mysterious “gift” of artistry. While women artists have gained some momentum since then, these types of patriarchal narratives still dominate artistic culture, and sometimes in a more subversive way. Nochlin’s essay ignited a movement of women artists who challenged and are still challenging the hegemony of male artistic “greatness.” Ann Hamilton is one of those artists. 

Carol Armstrong and M. Catherine de Zegher, in their book Women Artists at the Millenium, discuss both Hamilton and Nochlin. Nochlin reflects that “There is still resistance to the more radical varieties of the feminist critique in the visual arts, and its practitioners are accused of such sins as neglecting the issue of quality, destroying the canon, scanting the innately visual dimension of the artwork, and reducing art to circumstances of its production…” A critical reading of book weights tt commits precisely those sins. The focus will be almost entirely on the “circumstances of production” surrounding Ann Hamilton’s print book weights tt. The “quality” of the work is not a consideration, as that has been an innately gendered analysis within the discipline of art history. Armstrong, in the preface of Women Artists, questions the usefulness of holding up the category of “women artists” to the standard of the potentially mythical “great artist.” “Is a ‘woman artist’ a woman who happens to be an artist, or the other way around, an artist who happens to be a woman?” Categories become blurry, labels start to seem unnecessary, or in some cases a hindrance to understanding the art historical narrative. 

When it comes specifically to Ann Hamilton, Armstrong and Zegher assert that she is an artist “who might be said to be inventing new media or, to borrow a useful phrase from critic George Baker, ‘occupying a space between mediums.’human carriage is not quite performance, not quite sculpture, but a blend of the two. book weights tt isn’t just a print, it’s a relic of an ephemeral event, a fabric made of meaning. As a part of Confronting Greatness: A Celebration of Women Artists, Hamilton’s book weights tt represents a category of artists who deftly challenge miscommunications that occur when information is passed across the boundaries of cultures and identities, and the ability of artists to communicate meaning across media. 

This work is not explicitly feminist; it does not speak on the subject of women or women artists at all, in fact. This quality is crucial in the decision to include this work in Confronting Greatness. Ann Hamilton is an incredibly talented artist who “happens” to be a woman, visually discussing cross-cultural misunderstandings by obscuring text in multiple ways. To move beyond the categorization of artists as either “artist” (male) or “woman artist,” it is essential to consider work that is not focused on women-ness or femininity, but work that can be considered based on other factors than the gender of the maker. However, Hamilton’s use of mixed media does implicitly confront hegemonic ideas of “greatness.”According to Joan Simon, in her book co-authored with Ann Hamilton, “Hamilton is well known for her use of a wide array of materials: pennies, teeth, fleece, grasses, texts, honey, clothing, candles...some of her most critical materials are intangible: sound and aroma, reading and speaking, memory and its making, light and time.” book weights tt seems strangely separated from Hamilton’s customary multi-sensory exhibitions, but in reality it is a silent derivation that is intended to encourage a meditation on that silence, which is a result of its removal from the auditory experience of human carriage and the elimination of the texts in the books.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Carol M., and M.Catherine de Zegher. Women Artists at the Millennium. MIT Press, 2006. 

Castro, Jan Garden. “Acts of Finding: A Conversation with Ann Hamilton.” Sculpture 29, no. 1 (January 2010): 40–47. 

Hamilton, Ann. Ann Hamilton : Present-Past, 1984-1997. Skira, 1998. 

Hamilton, Ann, and Lynne Cooke. 1995. Ann Hamilton : Tropos, 1993 : October 7, 1993-June 19, 1994, Dia Center for the Arts. Dia Center for the Arts. 

Simon, Joan. Ann Hamilton. Harry N. Abrams, 2002. 

Simon, Joan, and Ann Hamilton. Ann Hamilton : An Inventory of Objects. Gregory R. Miller & Co., 2006. 

Stewart, Susan. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. University of Chicago Press, 2002. 

Hamilton, Ann. Acknowledgments. Ann Hamilton Studio, 2009.