Ann Hamilton’s the common sense • the animals
When you look at 17th- and 18th-century engravings of cabinets of curiosities, those encyclopedic collections of flora, fauna, exotica, and other objects — precursors to modern natural history museums — they often depict specimens suspended from ceilings, arranged salon-style along the walls. Those historic cabinets are one frame of reference for the common SENSE • the animals, artist Ann Hamilton’s installation in SITE 20 Years/20 Shows: Summer. Adorning the walls reserved for Hamilton’s project are printed scans of cane toads, spotted kiwis, blacktail deer, pigeons, peacocks, woodpeckers, starlings, lynxes, and a host of other creatures. But the animals are not represented in their entirety, as whole specimens. Rather, the viewer only sees a part of each, such as a wing, a paw, or a soft underbelly. “My interest in this project started when I was doing a tour of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington and I saw some of the animal skins being prepared,” Hamilton told Pasatiempo. She noticed how the extremities of certain specimens in the museum’s collection were remarkably similar to the hands of human beings. “I was doing a lot of reading about animal/human relationships and touch and how touch is the sense that’s common to all creatures,” she said.
Each digital scan in the common SENSE was made using older-model scanners, resulting in ghostly captures where the most detailed, in-focus elements are those animal parts that were in direct contact with the scanner plate, while the parts that were not in direct contact are faded and blurred. “We laid the animals on these flatbed scanners that are really early generation,” said Hamilton, who did a residency at the museum in order to have access to their biological specimens. “What I like about that is that the color is a little wonky, but also they have a very shallow depth of field. This imaging process almost makes touch visible. I worked with the collection managers and had free access to their study collection.”
Hamilton’s previous SITE installation was part of the art venue’s inaugural exhibit in 1995, which involved positioning a railroad car on the tracks that run alongside the building. The common SENSE is also an ambitious undertaking, as a small army of volunteers is necessary to collate all the material. Multiples of each scanned image are printed on newsprint and made into thick pads of varying sizes. The pads are affixed to the walls. Visitors can tear off a sheet from each pad and take them home. “It’s an offering,” she said. “You can take one of every image and you’ll start to see the pads being depleted. They’re set as high as people can reach. The idea is that, eventually, you could have places where there’s no image and when it’s gone, you can’t remember what was there.”
But Hamilton’s project isn’t about the extinction of species per se, so much as it’s about the depletion of the environment that surrounds us. In some cases, Hamilton scanned the entire undersides of the animal specimens but split the image into two parts. “That’s partly because it feels increasingly like everything is fragmented. The environment is fragmented. We experience things increasingly in parts and not in wholes.”
The project suggests that, as consumers, the more we take, the more we also lose. “It’s the complication of the nature of exchange,” Hamilton said. “It’s about all the complications of touch and also all the complications of a gift. It’s not meant to be a finger-wagging thing. It’s more meant to be about the ways in which we touch the world.”
Vocalists from the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Singers Program serenade the animals to piano accompaniment every Friday at 5:45 p.m., through August 28. Hamilton, along with the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery director Sylvia Wolf, discusses her work in “My Life in Art” at the Armory for the Arts Theater (1050 Old Pecos Trail) on Saturday, July 18, at 11 a.m. The talk is $10, with discounts available. Tickets can be purchased online at www.sitesantafe.org or at the door.
Ann Hamilton: the common SENSE (detail)
Peacock 6; commissioned by the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington; digital scans of a specimen from the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture Ornithology Collection; courtesy the artist; left, Hamilton and volunteers installing the common SENSE; photo by Kate Russell, courtesy SITE Santa Fe.