A Feast for the Senses

​Review of the common S E N S E at Henry Art Gallery by Indigo Trigg-Hauger


A fully immersive experience is rare when it comes to art. More often viewers are separated by glass and velvet ropes. When one gets the opportunity to leave a trace, it invokes a visceral response. With the common S E N S E, Ann Hamilton asks viewers to go beyond viewing and achieves a highly intimate relationship between the work and the viewer.

Artist Ann Hamilton has been given the unusual chance to take over the entire Henry Art Gallery. The exhibition is site-specific, created for the space using the resources the gallery and surrounding area could offer. The resulting work weaves old and new, buoyed by her collaboration with the nearby Burke Museum. The scans of dead animals from their collections have an intensely eerie quality. The garments made of animal skin and fur, laid out reverently, are practically funereal. In the brightest room downstairs, where skylights have been opened for the first time since 2001, machines approximate animal-like flapping or calls. At times it feels like a mausoleum, at others a place of worship. The choral singers wandering through add to this ambience, as do the readers sitting here and there, transcribing from a book while muttering the words to themselves.

It’s odd – but also oddly calming. There are so many layers to the common S E N S E, at first it may appear impenetrable, the pieces disparate or disconnected. Allow a little time though, wander through the successive rooms, and it will give up its secrets. The lighting lends it a dream-like, surreal atmosphere. What seems random or odd at first slowly becomes clear the more you explore. Hamilton facilitates a process of finding and discovery. Though everyone starts with the same “conditions,” as she put it, each visitor excavates individually. Different senses jump out in each room; touch, sight, sound. The signs of compression and human wear on a coat. The air vents gently disturbing stacks of paper on the walls. The act of drawing aside a curtain to view an artifact.

To walk through the gallery is to meditate on your own mortality and the effect of humans on their environments. As the viewer moves through the exhibition, connections reveal themselves naturally. Papers line the walls in stacks, and you are invited to read these photos and snippets of text, taking ones you connect with. By the end of the visit, you have curated your experience. In doing so though, the visitor takes away from the exhibition in a tangible way: The photos on the wall of three of the rooms will never be replaced, and the texts will ebb away to be replaced by new ones. Knowing this, there is an urge to tread lightly, to consider carefully what matters enough to take.

Be prepared: the common S E N S E requires a certain level of commitment that most exhibitions do not ask of us. For some, this might feel overwhelming. The choice to participate in the exhibition is not so much a choice as a prerequisite if you want to fully engage with it. Ultimately, what makes the common S E N S E stunning is how it drives the viewer to self-examination. What you find depends on you.

the common S E N S E
Henry Art Gallery
October 11, 2014 - April 26, 2015

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