In 2015 I participated with some fellow artists in a dynamic exhibition at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery created by American artist Ann Hamilton. The exhibition, called the common S E N S E, displayed a curated selection of material elements from the University of Washington’s special library collections, the Burke Museum of Natural History, and the Henry’s collection of textiles, costumes and photographs. In displays and cases specially designed by Hamilton, visitors could contemplate scanned images of animal specimens, bestiaries, fur clothing, children’s books, and collect samples of literature texts and images printed on various paper types to take with them.
From the Henry:
“The exhibition title refers to Greek philosopher Aristotle’s proposition in Historia Animalium and De Anima that “touch” is the sense common to all animal species. In this project, touch is not only physical contact but a form of intellectual and emotional recognition. … The exhibition is full of images and skins of animals: once alive they touched and were touched in return by the world they inhabited. For Hamilton the common S E N S E is “an address to the finitude and threatened extinctions we share across species — a lacrimosa, an elegy, for a future being lost.’”
My group went to the Henry to serve for one evening as reader/scribes — a live component of the exhibit designed by Hamilton and which felt like an exercise in combined performance art, meditation and parenting a small child who needs help going to sleep.
We were directed to choose any object in the exhibit — image of dead duck; vintage children’s storybook, seal-skin mittens —and for one hour read aloud to it from a common text while scribing selections of that text (The Peregrine by J. A. Baker) into a bound log book.
You read correctly. Read aloud to an object in the middle of a public museum exhibit.
I had my doubts, or rather, more thoughtfully, I was struggling to envision how this exercise would connect to my own writing and how this activity went beyond an artist’s conceit to become something of value to the community as a whole.
I chose as my object not any of the animal images, animal skins or paper texts, but a structure built by Hamilton called a bullroarer — a type of bird-house-like fan/propeller mounted on a metal pole, which travels up and down the post spinning and emitting a whirring noise. Hamilton is known for engineering and constructing material machinery, from the simplest to incredibly complex, to engage viewers with the unexpected and force them to consider her chosen materials and message.
At the Henry a field of bullroarers has been erected in a large, low-light basement room at the end of the exhibit. The room had the feel of a small wind-generating station built inside an abandoned gymnasium. It elicited in me a kind of feeling of low-level dread and loneliness. It was the space I was most uncomfortable with, and yet I felt strongly pulled at almost a molecular to work there. Go to where is most uncomfortable is what I believe in.
I settled onto a small wooden bench with an assigned lap clipboard, my copies of The Peregrine and log book —which other reader/scribes had utilized before me — a small clip-on light, two pencils, and my phone (there only for taking flash-free photos).
Two other fellow artists had also chosen to work in the bullroarer room, but we were spread out, and the whir of the fans made it such that when they read I could hear only the far-off hum of their voices, like a prayerful refrain or distant chanting —rhythmic vocal undulations clearly human and male but unidentifiable as individual words.
The presence of the two other artist companions made me feel slightly less isolated in the room. I began to read my text aloud, sitting side-saddle to the bullroarer post as I had been instructed.
At first I felt self-conscious, and I stumbled over the instructions I received to read any chosen selection of the text aloud first as I would read to a child a bedtime story, then to go back and speak each word slowly as I transcribed the section into my log book. All the attention I was paying to reading it at a usual pace first, then sounding out each word in an effort to pace along with the speed of my handwriting (and the fixation my mind was creating on how my own handwriting would look in the log book to the next other reader/scribes, or to Ann Hamilton herself — was she planning to read these?) was distracting. The text concerns the author’s tracking of a certain type of hawk for one season out in the wild, and while the prose was clearly lovely I had difficulty attaching to the actual words —both because of the negotiating I was doing between reading and transcribing, and because I recognize that I have resistance to connecting deeply with exhaustive exposure to and encounters with the natural world. I am a city girl. I attach to humans or, if to animals, animals within a primarily human environment.
About 20 minutes into my assigned hour, my writing hand began to ache, and I decided to abandon the directive to scribe at all. This felt directly disobedient to Hamilton and slightly thrilling. I flipped back to the beginning of the book and began reading aloud to my bullroarer post without stopping . Exhibit visitors wandered in and out of the dim hall. I heard the gravelly hum of David and Anthony, my artist peers. The whir of the fans alternated between the obscuring sound of a hovering remote-control helicopter and a softer near-hush. Occasionally the fans, operating at different speeds and cycles, would all seem to stop at once, and snippets of defined words would float to me from David and Anthony. I kept my head down and experienced no peripheral vision. Soon I noted that I had begun to sway slightly as I read and that while I was reading I was not at all thinking about reading. I was more connected to the vibration of my own voice inside my chest than I was to the words I was speaking or their meaning — in fact the meaning of the words seemed to recede almost completely. The experience felt cadenced, devotional, trance-like. The final minutes passed in what seemed like a few seconds; when one of my professors gently approached me to tell me our time was almost up, I leapt off the bench, startled out of the daze.
And of my early skepticism: What ultimately did the experience of reading prose to a pole (and/or observing the entire collection of inanimate and once-living objects, animals, skins and texts) have to do with my own writing?
I have spent time recently as part of writing projects I am engaged with considering objects: What do they communicate to us, what do they mean? I have been conceiving for a few months a piece of writing exploring the collection of family heirlooms — cups, saucers, vases and candy dishes — left to me by my grandmother: What is passed from one generation to the next over decades and centuries, through objects and also through what cannot be touched?
A line from the work in progress:
What else is bequeathed? Is scandal passed down in the blood, a love of love? Grit, guile, yearning. It is not only the things we can hold that endure.
The experience of being forced to interact with an object in an intimate way, counterintuitively, absolutely propelled me to think more deeply about both the material and the psychic weight objects can carry for us, the living.