Talking Conservation with Ann Hamilton

By Rebecca Sutton
Big billowy sheets hanging from ceiling in front of table with crates on it

Ann Hamilton's installation the event of a thread at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. Photo by flickr user AFS-USA Intercultural Programs

Last year, we had the honor of speaking with artist and 1993 NEA Visual Arts Fellow Ann Hamilton for an NEA Arts article on the challenges of preserving ephemeral artwork. Hamilton is perhaps best-known for her large-scale, site-specific installations. Grand in scope and rich in sensory detail, these installations often include organic or live elements, making them particularly challenging to conserve or even remount. For example, palimpsest, which is now part of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden collection, includes beeswax tiles, frail yellow paper, a head of cabbage, and live snails. The event of a thread, which was installed at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in December 2012 to January 2013, included undulating fabric cascades, giant swings, a flock of pigeons, and live readings of prepared text.

The questions we discussed with Hamilton were: what happens once these works are taken down? How does she feel they live on? And in the case of pieces acquired by museums, how has the conservation process affected the way she views the work? Below are excerpts from our conversation.

NEA: Can you talk about the relationship between the original pieces that you create and other iterations that might come out during subsequent installations or conservation processes?

ANN HAMILTON: You always have a change of context. It’s not just remaking something from the parts. The original form had to do with a particular architectural frame, but also a contextual frame. So that’s always an interesting part of it. I very rarely recreate an installation. Often the conditions are so specific, even though the vocabulary can migrate or change and travel with me in some way. In other ways, when you go to reset a piece, you realize the light was coming from the north, and it lined up with this entranceway there, and you walked through this way. You don’t realize until you go to shift the piece how much all the contingencies create a context for the work. So there’s that part of it, as well as then physically what happens [to the actual piece]. As an artist, you have to go into a role and rethink it.

NEA: Has your work with conservationists changed the way you think about or approach your work?

HAMILTON: No, not really. So much of my work is ultimately project- and context-based. The pieces from some things get saved. I still have all the parts from the Armory project—will that ever find another home? We’ve had several conversations, but I don’t know. Then pretty soon, maybe you just want to do a new piece because of all the effort it takes to actually rethink something. They’re not made to load in and out the way a theatrical production is. The budgets that I work with are such that we can’t always be building or fabricating things with longevity in mind. So then the decision when you dismantle it is should we save this? Because if it’s ever going to be redone again, it probably needs to be remade.

Maybe because I’m at a point when I’m getting a little older, [I’m asking] what should survive? Is it this memory? What are the material artifacts? All these questions of course are tied up with my practice as an artist, because they are live things. They aren’t theater, and they’re not performance, but they really have live time within them. Many of my motivations as an artist have to do with how is this space made animate? How is it in motion? How does it draw attention to all that it’s teaching in any particular situation in time? A museum’s work is to preserve things in a physical state, and make them alive by the way things continue to get re-shown and re-curated and put in different contexts. So how does work that’s about change and not having really firm, form edges considered within a museum collection? Those are things I’m still trying to figure out.

NEA: You mentioned that artwork comes alive when it is shown, rather than when it’s stored in a vault or basement. In a way, that almost seems to give even paintings or sculptures the same iterative quality we’re talking about.

HAMILTON: Historic works are animated when they’re out on exhibition. The act of seeing them is what makes them alive in time, because you’re always viewing from the time that you’re in. I think that’s such a dilemma for institutions—what a slim number of works they can actually show from the collection. That becomes a question for so many people who collect, or artists who donate, or whoever. You know, will this ever see the light of day? The other part of that is when someone commits to collect your work, or take it into a collection, they are committing to taking care of it. Having worked with Gwynne [Ryan, chief conservator at the Hirshhorn] and on another project with Madeleine Grynsztejn at SFMOMA, the weight of the institutional commitment to really take care of a work—I realized how enormous it is. How much care is given to it, and how much thought. As an artist, I don’t think you always understand how much a work is asking. It’s asking a lot sometimes—and it’s worth it a lot sometimes.

NEA: Does it give you a sense of peace at all knowing that the pieces that you have that are in museums are going to be taken care of in this very meticulous way?

HAMILTON: Yes, I think so. Because the Hirshhorn does have several works, I have been really appreciative of them calling and asking me about my intentions. You don’t understand how much you know about why a piece needs to be the way it is. So someone’s asking you questions as they confront putting it up again or preserving it or conserving it. I think in that sense, I can still kind of be making this piece with them as they explore putting it up again. I’m very interested in that back and forth.

NEA: You mentioned that your works are live things. How do you view the life cycles of your pieces?

HAMILTON: It’s all the conversations that lead into making a project, the actual process of developing it, and putting it up and then. So for me, that piece is then the whole process of being there [at the installation] and closing it—it’s a whole life. Sometimes it’s very hard to separate the life that a project has in your mind and the part that’s in public. Because of course, your relationship is to all those parts.

NEA: If a person has a favorite painting at a certain museum, they know they can go and visit it over and over again if they wanted. How do you think the ephemeral quality of your work affects viewers?

HAMILTON: I don’t know. Now, everybody has their phone photographs.

NEA: Right, that’s true.

HAMILTON: I think that it’s like the same way you have a memory of reading a book that particularly affected you. You aren’t necessarily going back and re-reading that book. Now you know, What’s different than the installation, is that book is still available obviously to be read. But I’m thinking more about how a book you read lives in you. Maybe that’s how some of the work exists.

NEA: That’s a great analogy. And as you mentioned about camera phones, we’re all conserving the piece for ourselves in a way. It’s changed this notion of ephemera.

HAMILTON: Yes. Obviously the Armory was a very public piece, and I still run into people who I don’t know, [and they say,] “I still have my pictures on my phone of my kid on that swing,” or whatever. It does have this life. Even I have a lot of ambivalence about what can actually be re-made and what can’t, and should resources be put into preserving it. As long as we’re on the Armory, obviously it’s this ginormous space, and the scale of it is essential to how it worked. It was more like an indoor park or something. So if that was there all the time to go visit, would it work? I don’t think so. I think part of it is that it’s this particular moment—it was the end of the year, it was the year of Sandy, which had traumatized the city in so many ways. So a piece also touches you because of all those circumstances that aren’t there physically.

NEA: Is it ever painful for you to see your installations come down?

HAMILTON: It’s just always amazing how quickly they come down. <laughs> I don’t know that it’s painful; that would be dramatic. There are some times you wish it had a little longer. What motivates that feeling I think is that when something’s on exhibit, it’s also like it’s being shared. It’s having a life because it’s being made social and it’s being made sharable. That’s the part that actually makes a work alive.

So what’s a circumstance that allows that to be extended? Does the focus go into trying to raise money to make a film during the whole process? I didn’t have the resources to hire a film crew to be part of that whole [Armory] project. In retrospect—even when it was going on—I thought, oh my God, someone should be filming this. It was amazing. The conversations with the writers, and the readers from the city, and what was going on with the pigeons—there was just so much life. [Filming] is what actually gives a work a longer life. For a lot of contemporary art, maybe that’s the way it lives on; that it doesn’t live on in physical form. But as you know, that’s a whole other production, and so often beyond the means of the circumstance.

Read our full piece on the challenges of conserving contemporary art.