Ann Hamilton: habitus, commonplace, text, textile

In an interview published by Philadelphia’s FringeArts (2016), Ann Hamilton describes the dual impulses behind her four-decade-long practice and the multi-site exhibition she had recently mounted in the city: “Watching a raw material become a single thread, join other thread to become a warp or weft of a cloth or carpet holds for me all the possibilities for making; sewing and writing are for me two parts of the same hand.” Organized by the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Hamilton’s sprawling text and textile project, habitus, consisted of a site-specific public installation on the abandoned Municipal Pier 9, which was part of the FringeArts live arts festival; an exhibition at FWM of Hamilton’s works and artifacts related to the region’s textile history; and an online collection of literary texts concerning the social meanings of cloth contributed by visitors at <cloth-a-commonplace.tumblr.com>.

Pier 9, which opened eleven days in advance of the FWM exhibition, provided a theatrical introduction to the themes of the habitus project. Monumental swathes of pale grey Tyvek billowed like wedding dresses, suspended on metal circles from the high ceilings of the windy, post-industrial. Visitors wandered under and through these ground-skimming sculptures and pulled at long, thickly woven ropes attached to pulleys that whirl the skirts and make bagpipe-type instruments wheeze overhead. Past these interactive sculptures were two performers—one spinning yarn from wool, another unraveling knitted garments. They worked to the accompaniment of a looped video projecting two poems by Susan Stewart on the surface of a shipping crate. As visitors turn a handle, the wheels turn, revealing further words in the poem. A free newsprint publication elaborates on Hamilton’s concerns. In the essay titled “blanket,” she observes that the words in William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1962), “like the three wheels such a cart depends on, gained momentum to generate miles of conversation. The words became an object known and turned by many hands.” This positions the various gestures of winding and unwinding performed on the pier as social, functional, and poetic. Words become objects and objects express a kind of language.

At FWM, a concise survey of Hamilton’s textile-oriented work filled the first floor, after a presentation of Stewart’s CHANNEL and MIRROR poems in installation form. White fabric tape was wound several inches deep on metal wheels; stitched in pale blue on the tape were the words of the poems. As visitors turned a handle, the wheels turned, revealing further words in the poems. Cranked back and forth from wheel to wheel, the poems were revealed as palindromes, making sense in both directions. In the survey proper, viewers encountered the aggressive affect of (suitable/positioned) (1984/2014), a man’s suit entirely pierced by toothpicks that create a protective shell and hint at a masculine vulnerability typically concealed by conventional business attire, and the contemplative untitled (1992), a concrete poem in which tiny white stones cover, like stitches, each vowel of a small printed manuscript. While the text is near-illegible, the work reaches across forms to be imaginatively read as linguistic sculpture, a text to handle with the eyes.

FWM’s second and eighth floors house collections of antique commonplace books (personal journals of copied or cut-and-pasted literary passages) and fabric sample books respectively, borrowed mainly from Philadelphia museums and archives. Viewing these collections in parallel, as analogues, both text and textile swatches documented the construction of individual lives, of subjectivities, and of cultural moments. Installed on long, low plinths extending throughout the left hand side of both spaces, cloth · a commonplace, 2016—takeaway, letter-sized printouts from the open call on Tumblr—conceptually ties together the two floors together. The online commonplace project featured excerpts from Virginia Woolf on the acute feeling of loss when there is no one to give a handmade crown to, and from Edith Wharton, who describes layers of lace, cloth panels, and carpet as luxurious class indicators.

The guided exhibition tour—mandatory because of the hundreds of delicate works—concluded on the seventh floor, a cavernous dark space lit only with a blanket-size video projection at its rear. In November, the CHANNEL and MIRROR (2016) video originally shown at Pier 9, moved to FWM, where it reprised Hamilton and Stewart’s wheel of poetry on the first floor with blurry close-ups of pale blue capitalized words sewn onto tape. In stilted movements, they inch off screen as new words appear—SWEET, SALT—prompting free association, and reminding us of the conversations that occur when objects become words and words are handled.