Yesterday I went to the Henry Art Gallery to see a new installation, the common SENSE, by artist Ann Hamilton. Typically art openings are great for socializing, and less great for viewing an artist’s work, but in this case I wanted to catch the show right away because it’s going to change radically with the passage of time. (More on that in just a bit.)

According to the artist’s statement, the common SENSE is a reference to touch, a sense common to all species.

“Each extension of a hand or paw is toward contact. Contact with the ground, the air, to someone or something outside the self, and from this extension one is always touched in return—that is touch’s reciprocal condition and exchange. When we touch we go from being observers to being included; things seen become felt.”

What’s interesting is Hamilton’s use of technology to articulate touch. Working with low-resolution flatbed scanners, she created eerie, ghostlike images of animals (specimens from the Burke Museum’s archives). Areas of the animals’ bodies that were not in direct contact with the scanner bed fell into soft focus, lending an impressionistic and poetic air to the portraits. (The shroud of Turin comes to mind.) Printed in multiples on newsprint, the thin sheets are bound in tablets with stainless steel mounts, displayed from floor to ceiling on the gallery walls.


As every gallery-goer knows, touching the art on display is typically forbidden. Fittingly, Hamilton invites visitors to not only touch her art, but to tear it from the walls. Despite the invitation, the act felt like vandalism to me. Was that the intent? The prints, like endangered species in the natural world, are limited in number. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Ironically, taking the work from the walls is simultaneously an act of community and an act of desecration. It will be interesting to see what’s left when the show closes in April, 2015.

Another intriguing aspect to the show is the collectively authored gallery guide (Readers Reading Readers), inspired by a once popular verb “commonplacing,” that referred to the practice of copying well-loved passages from favorite books. Hamilton puts a clever twist on the antiquated practice by inviting people to submit literary fragments (related to touching and being touched) on Tumblr. Like the animal imagery, these fragments are printed on newsprint, stacked adjacent to vitrines where visitors can take a page with the words that touch them.


An excerpt from Robert Bringhurst’s The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology are words that touched me:

“Reading for me is the proof of being at home: a quintessential part of the equation that enables us to reach across the fence between the world and ourselves without destroying what we find. The most basic parts of that equation, surely, are eating and being eaten. Can’t have one without the other. May not seem so in the restaurant or the bookstore, but walking in the forest or sitting by the stream, we know it works both ways: being fed and feeding, reading and being read.”

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