Present/Absent Bodies

Ann Hamilton reflects on the evolution of her public art works in HI’s Faculty Fellows Seminar on Health, Well-Being, Healing
By Clare Callahan
O N E E V E R Y O N E by Ann Hamilton
O N E E V E R Y O N E by Ann Hamilton

Last week’s Humanities Institute Faculty Fellows Seminar on “Health, Well-Being, Healing” hosted internationally recognized visual artist Ann Hamilton to speak on O N E E V E R Y O N E, a public art project commissioned by Landmarks for the Dell Medical School. O N E E V E R Y O N E opened on January 27, and Hamilton was in Austin for the opening. Hamilton’s O N E E V E R Y O N E, as Landmarks describes the project, “is framed by the idea that human touch and intimacy are the most essential means of contact and the fundamental expression of physical care. More than 500 participants in several Austin locations were photographed through a semi-transparent membrane that sharply focused parts of the body that made contact with the material and softly blurred the parts that moved away from it. The optical quality of the material renders touch—something felt, more than seen—visible.”

Hamilton developed O N E E V E R Y O N E as a response to Proposition 1, which seeks to improve health care in Austin. Proposition 1, championed by Democratic Senator Kirk Watson, was passed in 2012 by Travis County tax payers, and provided funding for a new medical school that, as Hamilton described in the seminar, “would be the heart of a new care system that had a network throughout the city” of Austin. Hamilton emphasized the significance of the fact that the people of Travis County voted to pay more taxes for the public good. O N E E V E R Y O N E is a response to this ethic. At the heart of the ethic informing Dell’s new curriculum, Hamilton said, is the experience of the individual. (Dell states their mission as instituting an inclusive, person-centered practice of care.)

A Fortunate Man by John Berger and Jean Mohr
A Fortunate Man by John Berger and Jean Mohr

In the seminar, Hamilton attributed her artistic reflections on medicine and care manifest in O N E E V E R Y O N E to the influence of John Berger and Jean Mohr’s 1967 A Fortunate Man. A Fortunate Man, a novel that integrates Berger’s prose and Mohr’s photography, tells the story of an English country doctor serving an impoverished community. Hamilton was particularly interested in the novel’s exploration of the doctor’s place in his community and how he is perceived by that community. Hamilton teased out the novel’s suggestion that the ideal role of a doctor is to create a sense of fellowship and recognition, even as he stands always outside of the community. For O N E E V E R Y O N E, Hamilton drew from the way A Fortunate Man presents touch—the acknowledgement of the body—as the first gesture in medicine. Hamilton explained that she was especially interested in the reciprocal aspect of touch that makes it a unique sense—one cannot touch without being touched in return—and in the relationship between touch, language, and how we know things.

This exploration of the quality of touch was extended into the medium on which the photographs that comprise O N E E V E R Y O N E were printed. In addition to the images currently on exhibit in Dell Medical School and the Visual Arts Center, photographs of all the 500+ subjects featured in this project were compiled into a book printed on newsprint. The result is a book that feels very much like a phonebook, but much lighter. Hamilton told the seminar that the paper on which these photographs were printed is very important to how the photographs actually feel; newsprint draws attention to the element of touch.  The photographs themselves depict people of all ages and from all backgrounds.

O N E E V E R Y O N E, which Hamilton describes as not only exploring the sense of touch but also allowing the subject to both reveal and conceal him or herself at the same time, evolved from Hamilton’s previous work, which has explored the possibility of intimacy at a distance. Hamilton shared images and videos of these works with the seminar. In Face to Face (2001), Hamilton made pinhole cameras out of old film canisters. She placed these cameras inside her mouth, so that each time she opened her mouth, the camera would take a photo. This work explored how the orifice of speech becomes a way to access the orifice of sight, evident in that the shape of the opening of the mouth in these photographs imitates the shape of the eye. Face to Face also demonstrated how the physical placement of the camera creates an opportunity for social exchange. The camera that Hamilton held inside her mouth for this project became the condition for intimacy in the same way that the semi-transparent membrane through which subjects were photographed for O N E E E V E R Y O N E is the condition for the sense of intimacy central in that project.

Face to Face, Ann Hamilton
Face to Face, Ann Hamilton

In her seminar discussion, Hamilton also traced O N E E V E R Y O N E back to her 2012 work The Event of a Thread, exhibited in the same year she began work on O N E E V E R Y O N E. This highly complex project began with the idea that the crossing of two threads is what makes a cloth and also represents the making of our sociability. Exhibited in an enormous drill hall in the Park Avenue Armory in New York, this project weaved together multiple components. The Drill Hall itself was a significant space. It once housed the 7th Regiment to the Armory where militias in the early city protected the neighborhood. It has harbored many civic events since. The Armory’s mandate, Hamilton explained to the seminar, is to provide shelter and care; the 4th floor of the Armory is a women’s shelter, for example, while cultural projects are being increasingly commissioned for that space. The central piece of The Event of a Thread was a large white cloth that hung from the ceiling as a curtain. Swings were hung from steel girders overhead, and the ropes of these swings were attached to the cloth. Visitors’ swinging on the swings set the cloth in motion, allowing the people on the swings to feel each other’s motion on both sides of the curtain, at a distance greater than the reach of a hand or of their voices. There were several other components to this project (pigeons, reading, writing, and song), which can be read about in more detail here. Hamilton’s purpose in discussing The Event of a Thread was to demonstrate her history of exploring how and where people could be connected at a distance, in this case, by experiencing intimacy in the very large space of the Drill Hall.

Ann Hamilton/Armory show
Ann Hamilton/Armory show

The project of connecting people at a distance seems to be integral to Dell Medical School’s aspiration to be at the heart of a network of care that extends throughout the city—everyone, Hamilton said, will pass through the medical system at some point—as well as a tangible quality of the present/absent bodies that make up O N E E V E R Y O N E.

After her meeting with HI’s Faculty Fellows, Hamilton participated in a public discussion of her work at an HI event, co-sponsored with Landmarks, “O N E E E V E R Y O N E: A Conversation with Ann Hamilton.” At this event, Natalie Shapero, a poet, and Brian Rotman, an expert in semiotics and the cultural studies of mathematics, read from their respective essays, which were written in response to O N E E V E R Y O N E and were published in a Newspaper on the project. Following these readings, a discussion with Hamilton about her work was led by HI Director Pauline Strong. More information on this project, including downloadable images and author texts, can be found on the website for O N E E V E R Y O N E.

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