Ann Hamilton, Corpus MassMoCA July 2004by Stephanie Buhmann
Garnering international acclaim for complex multimedia installations that have transformed such prestigious sites as The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Dia Art Foundation, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, and the American Pavilion in the 1999 Venice Biennale, Ann Hamilton has demonstrated more than once that she is at ease with large-scale projects. Though this was hardly reason enough for the MassMOCA to invite Hamilton as the first female artist to inhabit their Building 5—a colossal exhibition space, which has challenged artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Tim Hawkinson, and Robert Wilson—it undeniably works in Hamilton’s favor. Offering a space for her unique conception of an experiential secret garden, "Corpus" (2003) lures the audience into a highly sensual environment, and succeeds in pushing visual poetry into football-field-sized dimensions without becoming pompous.
Employing the powerful theatrical effects of light, the main gallery’s 3,500 windowpanes are draped in red silk organza, allowing the summer sun to bathe the space in a soft crimson. Reminiscent of the atmosphere found in spiritual temples by light filtering through intricate glass mosaics, the result is hints at otherworldliness, which immediately detaches the viewer from the familiar. As the visitor’s excursion begins, single sheets of onionskin paper slowly drop from the ceiling. Released through forty pneumatic mechanisms, their free glide is as silent as it is rhythmic, generating a sense of seasonal pace. Coming to rest on the concrete floor, each fallen leaf is embraced by millions of predecessors and plunges into the ankle-high pile, which has been growing constantly since the exhibition’s opening last December. Here, the temptation to enter this iced over playground is turned into an open invitation, and soon the viewer engages the space by walking through the paper mist, fetching unwritten letters in midair. During this act of participation, which by no means alters the steady cycle of paper distribution from above, the audience helps to re-shuffle and sculpt the installation. By accumulating presence and credibility with every day of its timed existence, "Corpus" is an unwinding work in progress—a work in motion.
Adding to the overall dynamism, two parallel rows of horn-shaped speakers synchronically descend from the ceiling on long wires until they touch the ground, then patiently work their way back up. As this unusual ballet unfolds, each sound device plays a pre-recorded monologue. Though each speaker is devoted to a single voice and statement, the fact that they only rehearse in unison allows for an intriguingly abstract outcome: each message is melted into a tonal blur, which creates a mysterious background murmur.
After traversing the main space, a small dark room functions as a transitional corridor. Incorporating part of an earlier collaborative performance entitled "Mercy" (2002) with artist Meredith Monk, it houses four hectically spinning speakers on long rods, while breathing voices fill the air. In contrast to the vast hall and its almost meditative translucence, this back alley feels claustrophobic and threatening. Fleeing across the room to safety, and climbing up the staircase, one is ready for the final payoff on the balcony: a scenic view of the installation paired with generous seating arrangements and video projections of text fragments.
As a breathing organism made of color, light, sound, and movement, "Corpus" fulfills the high expectations suggested by its title, which denotes both a collection of writings and the human body. Functioning smoothly while undergoing constant transformations, the installation is capable of chewing on our perception, swallowing us up, and awakening our explorative desires. Because of its rich content in poetic abstraction, "Corpus" encourages multiple associations and free interpretations. One might regard the constant flow of paper as a metaphor for the gathering of collective memory or read the entire work as a comment on day-to-day information overload due to the endless stream of incoming bills, advertisements, letters, emails, documents, and contracts. One could ponder the nature of written text, recorded information, and spoken word, or think of the omnipresent public announcements, which create the unavoidable background soundtrack to our lives. However personal the response, in all cases "Corpus" will translate as a deeply felt homage to the tightly knit relationship between human existence and language, which after all, enables us to contemplate everything.