indigo blue

Ann Hamilton: Indigo Blue: Sculptural installation through Sept. 10.
Galleries 210 and 211, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., San Francisco
(415) 357-4000,
ann hamiltonI really love how Ann Hamilton thinks. How everything she does is filled with such meaning and how she discusses her process. I wanted to share this article on her which was in the SF Chronicle on May 27 by Kenneth Baker.

People who encounter an Ann Hamilton installation work tend never to forget it.

I can clearly recall pieces of hers that I saw in San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Pittsburgh and — in two settings — in New York.

So it stunned me to learn from Hamilton that “very little of my installation work has survived in any way. The Hirshhorn (Washington, D.C.) has a piece, but there’s not a lot. I think it’s not perceived as the kind of thing that has a longer life. So to enter the conversation about what it means to revisit something like this and bring it forward is a really great thing for me to be able to do.”

I recently spoke with Hamilton, 50, while she was working on reconstructing “Indigo Blue” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the work was originally made in 1991 for a citywide show in Charleston, S.C.

SFMOMA hopes to acquire “Indigo Blue” in its current manifestation, rescuing it from recycling and cultural amnesia. Score another sharp collection-building move for curator Madeleine Grynsztejn if it happens.

Critical and curatorial consensus as to Hamilton’s importance got corroboration from the MacArthur Foundation in 1993, when it put her in the select company of visual artists who have received the so-called genius grant. “It was an enormous gift,” Hamilton said, “because it said ‘you can keep doing this work that you really love doing.’ ”

The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art had already staged a major show of her work in 1988.

“Indigo Blue” consists of roughly 18,000 items of blue cotton work clothing, neatly folded and stacked on a “floating” steel platform at the center of a room on SFMOMA’s second floor.

At one end of the platform stands an old wood table and chair. From noon to 4 p.m. each day — except Wednesdays when the museum is closed — a volunteer sits silently at the table, erasing, thus effectively destroying, the pages of a book: “International Law Situations,” a Naval War College publication pertaining to legally defined land and water boundaries. The book connects in Hamilton’s thinking with Charleston’s history as a seaport but she is also interested in the invisible activity of reading as a reflection of the invisible labor represented by the work clothes. “The books we originally used,” as Hamilton said — she has a boxful — “are legal documents that mediate the relationship between land and water. That in-between space, and how you occupy the space of the in-between, is still very interesting to me.”
Reconstructing the work entailed soliciting donations of used cotton work clothes from uniform suppliers around the Bay Area and beyond. Only blue cotton would do, and not merely because of the cotton and indigo industries of the work’s original Old South setting.

“Why all this ridiculous search for cotton? It’s because cotton holds temperature,” Hamilton said. “If you touch all the other polyester and blend options, as we did, you would feel the difference in here, even if this is a temperature-controlled space. (The material) sits in here in a really different way. Are you sensitive to that? Probably not in a way you can name, but is it a felt thing? I would say ‘yes.’ ”

Neatly piled in the thousands, the work clothes make a mound more than high enough to obstruct the sight line though the gallery. The figure of 18,000 “is a way to enter it,” Hamilton said. “It’s like my kid asking how many jelly beans are in that jar.”

At the time the piece was first made, the work clothes “were lifted out of a certain economy, the whole textile industry,” Hamilton said. “I was working in the South and it’s totally changed in the intervening 15 years, the production of these things, how we recycle things. So the process of trying to lift these things again out of the system was much more difficult than before.”

Behind the logistical difficulty of reassembling “Indigo Blue” lurks the question of the work’s conceptual and historical roots in its original Charleston setting.
“These pieces are initially conceived to be site-responsive, but I don’t think they’re site-specific,” Hamilton said. “While the history of indigo as the first cash crop of South Carolina and the plantation economy was important … I don’t think the piece is meaningful only in that context. The social history of blue, of how it came from Europe and was used here, how it got into work clothes — all that history is still part of what you see here and I think it translates from place to place. You might also point out that there’s a very strong labor history here in San Francisco.”

The suggestiveness of the massed clothing matters more to Hamilton than its echo of material accretion as a feature of post-minimalist sculpture. “Going back to my early hand, which is a textile hand,” Hamilton said, “if you think about how knitting accretes, how all these loops accumulate to create a larger membrane — if you think of all the metaphors in there about how individuals connect to form the larger social body, I think that’s in this too. The shape that it makes is a kind of belly form, a kind of torso, but it’s made up of all these individual parts that are sort of like empty bodies.”

Hamilton’s installation works typically occupy their own spaces. But at SFMOMA, she invited the curators to surround her piece with resonant objects from the collection.

They include works that make oblique or direct reference to the body, such as Janine Antoni’s self-portrait busts carved respectively from chocolate and soap, and Bruce Nauman’s “Wax Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists” (1966). Doris Salcedo’s untitled bed frames with shirts twisted through them evoke torture, and Kiki Smith’s life-size bronze nude “Lilith” (1994), crouches upside down on the wall, like a fly, a pale echo of the massed work clothes in the blue of her glass eyes.

Hamilton welcomed the context pieces involving various modes of production, especially since she has moved from deploying objects into work with sound.
“For me, at a moment when I’m asking what does making mean,” Hamilton said, “Are there forms it can take? What’s the necessity of it? Does hand-making make sense in the very shifted world economy that we’re living in? To be in the middle of those big questions and to revisit the hand of this piece is a really important thing for me…. I can see that the extension of the hand touching material is like the extension of the voice touching a space, which is where the more recent work has been going…. I don’t have clear memories of working on this piece in 1991, but they’re there in my body.”


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