ENJOY THE SWING! by Talon Gustafson
A review of
the event of a thread by Ann Hamilton
Park Avenue Armory

Here’s what I think: Ann Hamilton had a layover at Denver International Airport (see picture at right). On her flight from Denver back to Columbus, Ohio, she got bored with her Bertrand Russell book and decided to slum it by watching the in-flight movie which was...The Golden Compass. She was charmed, not by the movie itself, but by certain aspects of its set design. During the movie she noticed other passengers reading, others writing. She became cognizant of the air spilling out of the nozzle above her seat and she began to think of these disparate sounds as a beautiful song. The intertwining elements of which, reminded her of a textile. The fabric of life. Her resultant experience was crystallized into an interactive installation now on display the Park Avenue Armory.

As soon as I entered the event of a thread I felt like I was in a Yoplait commercial. Families and lovers and friends, swinging together and laughing, frolicking. An enormous, white silk fabric hung from the center of the 70 ft tall structure, billowing and dancing for all to see. 40 plus large swings with wide seats dotted the expansive interior, each one doing its part to effectively pull at the curtain in the center, causing it to undulate. Seated at a large desk near the entrance, two women with frazzled hair, wearing large woolen coats (think Hagrid meets J. Jill) read from long scrolls filled with lines of poetic language categorized by alphabetizing and aligning the principal words of a sentence. They read these sentences into old timey microphones and their voices were broadcasted through speakers dispersed here and there on the exhibition floor. Each speaker was wrapped in a paper bag, tied up with string, and sealed with one of our favorite things: wax. VERY tasteful. Viewers could pick up the package and take a listen. The day I attended, which was the last day, there were so many people that the only way to hear the bags was to hold them close to your ear. Several texts were being read but a few examples: Aristotle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin – you get the point. On the other side of the curtain, yet  another woolen lady sat with quill and paper, writing “letters addressed to qualities, emotions, and places far away–Dear Far, Dear Near, Dear Sadness, Dear Weight, Dear Time, Dear Here” etc. The sound of the writing was miked and made up the third element being transmitted through the decorated paper sacks.

But the event of a thread isn’t really an event if YOU don’t participate. If no one decided to swing, the curtain wouldn’t move, the divide separating the Armory wouldn’t be lifted, and those art-goers who love to lay down under stuff wouldn’t get to view the swinging fabric from below. The atmosphere is akin to a really well-organized party thrown by a domineering hostess. The pleasure isn’t so much for you, as it is for her. You have to perform for the artist. And when you do, you can almost hear Hamilton’s voice in your  head, “See, you’re contributing now. We’re all interconnected. It’s the circle of life!”

Any art that utilizes social interaction runs the risk of being patronizing. It’s a delicate balance between artist and artist-celebrity-god. The reason it comes across so heavy-handed with the event of a thread is because the relationship between interaction and message is so edifying: If you do what I say and get in touch with your inner child and experience fun you’ll become part of a larger community that has the capacity to effect the fabric of life. HAVE FUN! LIGHTEN UP! DO IT!  

You could make the argument that a moral imperative is implicit with relational aesthetics. By activating the audience as participants, this work doesn’t function properly without the community, underlining the symbiotic relationship between audience and artist, art and life. If that then is understood as the principal motivation behind relational aesthetics, Hamilton has just made an installation that didactically illustrates the foundation of the genre. It’s like a play that has a moralistic narrative and it’s begging you to act it out.

Whereas Carsten Holler creates a slide, the implication that if you don’t participate you’re a crummy citizen, is there but it’s subtle. You’re allowed to come to that conclusion on your own. The slide is there for you as a possible experience. Unlike Hamilton, Holler gently insinuates his message, asking you “why wouldn’t you want to be a part of this community?” rather than asserting “why aren’t you?!”

Surprisingly, Hamilton seems perfectly comfortable in her artist-celebrity woolen cape. So much so that a newspaper was produced to accompany the show, complete with a half page “thank you” section. The rest of the paper spells out anything you might’ve missed. A literal encyclopedia of things relevant to the work. Wanna know about air? There’s a paragraph about air. Wanna know more about pigeons? There’s a paragraph about pigeons. There’s also a complete description of the work written by Hamilton herself and an adorable, extensive list of materials: “a pigeon, a pencil, a flock of radios...”

In Roberta Smith’s review of the show she contemplated “Whether all this makes good art, I’m not sure. I don’t even know if this is art”

It’s not art, it’s ART and it takes itself very seriously. A little too seriously. A friend of mine, during a monologue about his work explained “I want everything to look perfect but it can’t look too perfect. You have to throw a fart in there to make it interesting.”  I think that advice applies to the event of a thread. Ann Hamilton needs to take a fart.

Denver International Airport

Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

The Golden Compass


Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

Philip Greenberg for The New York Times