“A fragment must, like a small work of art, be completely isolated from the surrounding world and complete in itself, like a hedgehog.”—Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe
When I read these words inside one of the Henry Art Gallery’s smallest, oldest spaces, they occupied a piece of newsprint, copies of which were stacked in an orderly pile. This pile was one of several that stretched in single file along two shelves facing one another from across the room, separated by a vitrine that held a collection of antique scissors, several pages of handwritten diary notes and Common Place Book Six. This installation is just one of many in internationally renowned artist Ann Hamilton’s museum-wide exhibition, the common S E N S E, which incorporates objects from the Henry, as well as the Burke Museum and University of Washington Special Collections, and at first I did not recognize Schlegel’s quote in this context. It felt at home among the scissors from an era when scholars and students would physically record, cut and paste quotations they wanted to remember into “commonplace books,” a version of scrapbooking popular in the 17th century that was an undoubtedly more aesthetic method than finger-typing such things in the “Notes” application of an iPhone.
I only later remembered that Schlegel’s quotation was used by a professor I had to begin an arts criticism course I took as an undergraduate, one of several that ignited my later interest in studying museology at the University of Washington inside the Burke Museum. I may have initially bypassed my memory of this quote comparing art to an animal, but the images of taxidermied creatures from the Burke’s collection that I encountered on the wall of another gallery were more instantly transportive. These deceased animals, captured in extreme close-up, were also printed on newsprint, but this time the stacks of copies were bound across the top and affixed to the walls, covering the gallery’s interiors like a swarm of starlings. Hamilton created the images by placing the bodies on a scanner, where only what she called their “most vulnerable parts” physically touched the glass and came into focus—their feathered bellies, their limp feet, the white stuffing that fills the space where their eyes should close.
As I stood among these photos fluttering from the airflow that hums through the building’s HVAC system, they rustled with an intimate, sense-ridden familiarity. An image of a penguin flipper brought me back to the morbid beauty of the drawers upon drawers of bird wings I once saw during a tour of the Burke’s back rooms. The bent, moist body of an American bullfrog resurrected the metallic, iron smell of extracted organs that came into my apartment alongside a classmate who used to stop by after taxidermy class for a beer. Seeing the tiny corpse of a ruby-throated hummingbird, I recalled my profound sadness at learning of the way collected birds’ hearts are made to explode inside their bodies so that their bones and feathers suffer no damage.
the common S E N S E at first seems to be an exhibition about objects. Piles of quotations, puzzles and primers from the University of Washington’s Historical Children’s Literature Collection fill several cases in addition to the photographs throughout the museum. Another gallery houses a set of shrouded vestibules on wheels that display historical fur, feather and gut garments. In the exhibition’s largest space, propeller-like bullroarers migrate up and down a set of poles. Volunteer “reader/scribes” read aloud to the exhibition’s objects from J.A. Baker’s book, The Peregrine, and University of Washington Chorale students sing to them. Visitors are encouraged to take copies of the quotations and photographs from the piles, departing the exhibition with paper collections inside of a folder.
However, the art of this exhibition is not the physical objects so much as it is the space Hamilton creates around them. Imbued into the displays are the connections the artist worked into her process of assembling the show. She culled the chorale singers, volunteer readers and taxidermied animals of the Northwest directly from our surroundings, making them ripe for locally rooted stories to fill the blank spaces between them, as mine did. Nowhere is this more evident than among the copied quotations that weave through the building as the exhibition’s connective tissue—an element Hamilton discussed during the exhibition’s media preview in the context of Seattle’s reputation as “a community of reading.” Amassed from a Tumblr account in which anyone can submit an excerpt that relates to the sense of touch, this user-generated content is startlingly poignant. At times it was hard to believe Hamilton did not unearth the quotations herself in relation to specific objects. Mirroring her creation of the physical exhibition, the artist created a space precisely empty and precisely full enough, entrusting us to know what to do inside.
Ann Hamilton’s the common S E N S E will be showing at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle through 26 April 2015.