Ann Hamilton's Corpus at Mass Moca

2003 Installation in Building Five

By: - Jul 30, 2014


Ann Hamilton’s Corpus
Mass MoCA
North Adams, Massachusetts
December 13, 2003 through October, 2004
Reposted from January 11, Maverick Arts

Seated on the steps of the football field sized, Building 5, of Mass MoCA, we viewed the installation Corpus by Ann Hamilton. It is an enormous and daunting space which inspired the great hall gallery in Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim at Bilbao. It may evokes the dimensions and challenges of Turbine Hall of Tate Modern and the industrial vistas of Dia Beacon.

For museums and their curators these dramatic great halls present a set of issues and possibilities. Curators have presented artists comfortable with such dimensions. It is an A list of international artists. There are other options like break up the space with partitions to display a large exhibition of works with more conventional dimensions. Curators prefer not to move in that direction.

There is a genre of scale as a category of contemporary art. It is encountered on the circuit of Biennials. Previously, for example, Hamilton represented the United States in the 1991 Sao Paulo Bienal, and the 1999 Venice Biennale.

Often curatorial decisions entail which artist best fills the vast space. We must consider the aesthetics and politics of an art of spectacle. Projects entail teams of technicians, installers, assistants, interns and volunteers. All working for the greater good. But unlike an epic movies where a dense scroll of credits may run for ten to fifteen minutes in the fine arts, generally only the artist is acknowledged. 

This obscures the vital role of installers and technicians in realizing the vision of artists.

As Mass MoCA is closing in on its 5th anniversary it has been interesting to see how it has treated this unique space. It was launched with a dense display of individual paintings by Robert Rauschenberg joined as a kind of wrap around wall as well as free standing elements.

Having this as its inaugural work was a coup for the museum. It entailed a loan from a living artist. He owns many works that he had not been able to install as a whole on any prior occasion. No museum, or even a private collector who owned the work, would be likely to lend it as the space does not meet climate control specifications.

This was followed by huge, surreal, breathing, organic, intestinal, bladder- like sculptures by Tim Hawkinson. The work was popular with many viewers. The Robert Wilson piece that followed, 14 Stations, was magnificent. It deserves to be permanently installed somewhere. This is the concept of Dia Beacon, for example.

As neighbors of Mass MoCA it is intriguing to follow the evolution of what the museum does, in an ongoing basis, with this singular space.

Back on the steps, I concentrated on first impressions of Hamilton’s Corpus. The dictionary defines Corpus as, “1. The body of a man or animal especially when dead- now chiefly humorous. 2. A comparatively solid and homogeneous structure forming a part or an organ, esp. of the brain. 3. A general collection of writings; the whole literature of a subject. 4. The main body: esp. the principle of a fund or estate, as opposed to interest, etc.”

Attached to the ceiling are forty, pneumatic mechanisms that lift and release single sheets of translucent onionskin paper. There are parallel rows of large, horn-shaped speakers that simultaneously descend and ascend from the rafters touching the accumulated paper on the floor and then returning to the vaulted space above. Looking down the length of the space, the floor to ceiling windows, comprising hundreds of individual panes of glass, have been covered with red or magenta silk organza.

On the day of our visit, just a couple of weeks after the opening, there were families and small children in the gallery. At slow but regular intervals individual sheets of paper were released to flutter and drop to the floor.

Children were playfully trying to catch them. They were also kicking them, as one would fall leaves or snow, and gathering them into piles. One child was diving belly-flop style onto a pile of paper. As of now, the density of papers is about ankle high. It will be interesting to come back in the ensuing months to view the space gradually piling higher and higher. So it is a work in progress which may also be why the museum is setting an end date in October. After that, the depth of the material may become hazardous. They may have to send out search and rescue teams to recover missing children.

(After this review was posted the North Adams Fire Department stipulated that the pile of paper could not exceed ankle high.)

The magenta covered windows and ersatz nave of speakers evoke a cathedral-like response. The dimensions are similar to the Early Christian, long, rectangular basilica form. But, the degree to which this concept has been realized is problematic.

Visiting on a gloomy winter afternoon the light in the space was diffused. The windows were just pink. There is no particular religiosity in that. This impact may be quite different when the bright summer sun streams through the windows creating a suffused, pinkish light through the basilica-like space. Hamilton uses no interior artificial light so the level of illumination during this winter visit was subdued.

Each of the moving speakers represents a separate voice. They are heard individually or in unison following an orchestrated pattern. The voices are hushed and muffled. Try as I might I could not unscramble a coherent text or message. It was just ambivalent. This may have been obstructed by the ambient noise of a gallery with numerous visitors.

After an interval of time we walked through the space and into the smaller gallery behind the end wall. There we found a dark room, the walls painted a deep chroma, recycled from the prior Wilson installation which displayed drawings in this space.

Above were four, rapidly spinning speakers on the ends of long rods. The breathing voices/ sounds were culled from a prior collaboration, Mercy, with Meredith Monk.

Proceeding through this gallery we ascended to the balcony/ gallery that overlooks the space below. Here one finds a grid of  white benches or pews fabricated from the recycled beams from a floor that was removed to create the two-story space of the large gallery. Seated on a bench, we see an evolving line of text spinning about the room. With time and patience one may read the message which is given in tiny increments.

From the edge of the balcony there is an overview of the main gallery. From above there are the interesting patterns created as people shuffle through the space kicking away the accumulated paper/ leaves/ snow.

Materials provided to the media were limited. The skimpy press kit did not include statements about the work by the artist or curator. Too often this comes well after the fact with the publication of a catalogue. We were unable to attend the opening and artist's talk so we were on our own to deal with the work.

Mass MoCA director, Joseph Thompson, stated that, “Ann is probably the best known maker of site-specific installations in this country if not the world. Being in one of her evocative installations engages all the senses: they are experimental, immersive, kinesthetic, and, in this case, liturgical without liturgy.” Amen.