Friday, January 4, 2013

Curtain Call: Ann Hamilton at the Armory

Ann Hamilton's new exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory is an exercise in wonder.  The enormous space, built in the 19th century for the National Guard, is bisected by an enormous curtain, which pulsates like the sea in a calm storm. 

Visitors who sit (or lie) under the curtain are treated to an etherial, kinematic abstraction.

And then there are swings.  Lot's of swings.  Made for adults, big enough for pairs.  
Irresistible at any age.

At a crucial juncture, the lights dim, signaling that something important will happen.

The visitors stop swinging.

All the while, something mysterious has been taking place at the front of the grand room.  Two actors with microphones read, in a Brechtian monotone, the text of carefully selected books.  When I was there for a Whitney sponsored opening, the choices were Susan Stewart's Poetry and the Fate of the Senses and The New Science of Giambattista Vico.

And there are pigeons, of course.  Magnificent pigeons in wooden cages.

They sit idly, and mostly peacefully, as reams of paper roll out from the readers.

Then, when the lights dim, more actors appear on the scene and begin to transport the pigeons.

Among them, the artist herself.

The cages are neatly stacked under the curtain.

Then a singer appears on a balcony and signs an operatic song, which is recorded on a vinyl record cutter, to be replayed the next day.  When the song ends, the pigeons are released.  They fly to a suspended open cage at the far end of the exhibition hall.  Free--at least until their next performance. 

I didn't manage to film the release, but here they are flitting about in their suspended temporary home.

At one level, this is surely a satisfying experience.  The grand scale, the poetry of motion, the charming birds.  It is both starkly minimal and evocative.  Where it fails, however, is in the emptiness of its symbolism.  The liberation of birds.  The Great Texts.  Even the curtain.  The performance is strangely trite, even though it's surely nothing I've ever seen before.  It is a guilty pleasure.  The artworld equivalent to a trip to a national park: glorious while you are there, with nothing to take home afterwards.


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