In a time when we’re increasingly removed from one another, ONEEVERYONE, Ann Hamilton’s ambitious new work for UT Austin, is especially important. With its emphasis on connection and the power of touch, it offers the perfect antidote to the endless static of texts, emails, and emoticons. It reminds us to actually look at one another, and to really see.
Commissioned by the University’s Landmarks program, the project comprises large-format portrait panels for the new Dell Medical School, along with a 900-page catalog, a website, a newspaper, and an exhibition at UT’s Visual Arts Center. At the crux of the project is the idea that touch—our most direct connection to one another—is a healing life force that simultaneously renews us and exposes our vulnerabilities. As Andrée Bober, Director of the Landmarks program explains, the works “encompass the full arc of human existence, where life appears—where the soma and the psyche are cared for—and where it ends.”
Hamilton, the acclaimed Ohio-based artist, photographed more then 500 Austinites for the project—a cross section-section of men, women and children of various ages and ethnicities. The portraits are intimate, revealing her subjects’ inner workings, but they also highlight our commonalities as human beings. We are, indeed, one everyone.
In advance of the opening events, I reached out to Hamilton for insight into her process and her thoughts on the project:
Kathleen Stimpert: Your career has not followed a singular trajectory. Though you hold a masters degree from Yale in sculpture, your work has included textiles, photography, printmaking and installation art, among other media. How and/or why did you select photography as the medium for the ONEEVERYONE project?
Ann Hamilton: It would be impossible to count the number of times over the course of a lifetime we take pictures of the people we love and how often, in turn, we are photographed. The camera in hand has become as ubiquitous as the pencil. Ever ready to record or mark, we prepare ourselves for it in a fraction of a second. Yet to offer oneself to be photographed—whether by oneself or by another person—entails the possibility of exchange; it carries a willingness to be vulnerable in allowing oneself to be seen.
I am interested in how this technology that allows us to capture and record ourselves in an instant might be engaged to record a less self-conscious self.
Photography has been a part of my practice since graduate school. At first I approached the camera traditionally, as a mechanism to document and witness myself in physical predicament with quotidian objects. Later I became interested in the conditions of taking photographs and of being a subject, and how the exchange between camera, photographer, and subject shifts when the physical or mechanical circumstances are changed.
I also began thinking about my open mouth—an orifice of speech—as an orifice of sight. It occurred to me that I could use old plastic film canisters to create small pinhole cameras which could fit in the cavity of my mouth. Standing face to face with another person, my lips opened to the light, functioning as the aperture and determining the length of exposure. The photograph was made—not by standing behind a camera or looking through a viewfinder—but by looking directly into the eyes of the person standing a few inches away with my open mouth. The film registered the duration of our reciprocal gaze. It was our circumstance that created the possibility of the image.
KS: You have a history of both gallery/museum exhibitions and public interventions and commissions. Which do you prefer and why? Do you find that your work translates easily between these two realms?
AH: Every circumstance—all the particularity and history of its social and physical condition—asks different questions, needs different approaches, makes different experiences and forms of work possible. My questions are shaped by the context, and the form changes in response by what connects or informs the work. In this way, a museum, a theatre, and a public space each hold a consistent thread.
KS: ONEEVERYONE has been described as a project framed “by the idea that human touch is the most essential means of contact,” yet your subjects have all been photographed behind a semi-transparent membrane. This literal and figurative barrier seems counter to any exploration of touch. What was the idea behind the membrane and how do you expect it to function in the overall reading of the portraits?
AH: I am interested in the felt qualities of the images made through this contradiction you describe—for to be hidden is to also be exposed. Physical touch is something we feel more than we see. Yet, when we see something that moves us, when we read the words of a poem or novel that likewise stirs feeling within us, we say we are “touched.” Similarly, use of the membrane and the process of listening and taking direction create images that appear as they do because of these conditions. When I look at the photographs, I see listening in some. In others I see a more private self, and sometimes I see the strength that comes from allowing vulnerability. In all of them I recognize a kind of beauty.
I worked on a project with Bayer Material Science and was struck by the unusual qualities of a flexible, impermeable membrane they manufacture for holding large volumes of liquid under pressure. Off-white and semi-transparent, what touches the surface can be seen in clear focus from the opposite side while everything else dissolves into a soft, blurred presence. Only the contact of an eyebrow or an elbow or cheek is defined. Although very different than the earlier pinhole work, the physical and optical qualities of this membrane extends my interest in creating a specific condition for an exchange with another person. The experience of standing behind the material is one in which you can hear but cannot see; you are both hidden behind and exposed by its thin surface. The membrane creates a sense of privacy because you cannot see through it, so you must listen rather than watch for direction. The circumstance of this exchange creates the visual effect of the images.
This process and the resulting images correspond to the Dell Medical School through the basic gesture of touch. The act of recognition that is at the heart of the relationship between a patient and a doctor, nurse or caregiver, is often expressed through the gesture of the hand reaching outward: to acknowledge, to diagnose, to know, perhaps to reassure. Touch is contact. In a medical context, it is a fundamental exchange between a doctor or nurse and a patient, and I became very interested in bringing this process into a medical context.
In an email exchange, Clay Johnston, Dean of the Dell Medical School wrote: “…There is also some interesting neuroscience that shows that when we see something beautiful, the area in our brain that triggers touch is activated. Beauty then becomes tactile even without hands being placed on the object.”
KS: ONEEVERYONE is a multi-pronged project. Was this your plan from the inception of the project or did it develop organically throughout your process of creating the work? Do all components need to be experienced in order to have a full understanding of the work, or does each arm function independently?
AH: I began by wanting to make a project that would in some way embody or demonstrate the ethic of care and individual experience that is at the core of the Dell Medical wellness systems and programs. Their vision includes how everything in the environment affects how you feel: the lighting, the space and materials in the architecture, your access to information, your welcome to the building and understanding that your experience contributes to your wellness. Everyone needs care. Everyone needs to be seen as a unique individual within the larger healthcare system.
How are we seen? How do we allow ourselves to be seen? An exchange of trust is central to medical care and also to the photography process. My project developed through work with volunteers, by being welcomed by the many partner institutions, and by thinking about how these images might circulate through the Dell Medical facilities and the larger community. The project came to specific physical form over time and through many conversations with Andrée Bober, and the Dell medical team and architectural teams. I wanted to make something that could have a more permanent, fixed presence but also represent each image in a way that would circulate directly, would pass from hand to hand, would be given away, would be shared. Each form—the enamel panels in which even their cool surfaces invite touch, the newsprint book and newspaper with their respective weights and textures, the contributions from several authors responding to the work—every element can stand on its own and function independently, but when combined they form a larger web of meanings and relations.
KS: What do you hope viewers will experience in looking and engaging with the project?
AH: That is always a difficult question to answer. One hopes always that people will see and that they will feel; that somewhere in this seeing and feeling and thinking is the empathy that connects us to ourselves and the commonness of our vulnerabilities. To be willing to be seen is—even in the age of Instagram—a risk and a gift to others.
‘ONEEVERYONE’ opens on January 26. For a full roster of events, including a discussion and book signing with the artist, visit http://landmarks.utexas.edu.