Ann Hamilton displays her concern for tactile human experience in near-away (2013), a series of 26 unique pairings of a hand molded from papier-mâché and a book of thousands of strips cut from paperbacks, bound together along one edge. They hang suspended on the wall: dangling from a string, the bound pages lift away from each other at the outer edges where the density of pages does not hold them together, and they flutter with any passing draft; the papier-mâché hand hangs sturdily from dark steel wire a few inches away. Both are artifacts of earlier Hamilton installations: the paper hand appeared in “stylus” (2010) at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, and the re-bound book fragments were part of human carriage (2009) in “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia: 1860–1989” at the Guggenheim Museum. Hamilton has said that the two objects represent the elements of life that have touched her the most: physical sensation and acquired knowledge.
In the contemporary world, experience reaches us through such a variety of means that at times we feel numb to stimuli. The large-scale installations for which Hamilton is known evoke visceral encounters with the senses and encourage us to identify that which touches us as individuals. Near-away calls attention to the ability of the fleeting and the corporeal to move and inspire. The accumulation of strips of isolated sentences or phrases points to the lasting presence of language in spite of its ephemerality. Each cutout resembles a cookie fortune in its brevity; Hamilton’s fortunes, however, are culled from fictions and histories. One strip reads, “…even I couldn’t fight…”; another, “…remained, comfortable in the freedom from stares…” Separated from their original texts, they take on new meaning, with distinct associations for each viewer. Hamilton’s repurposed book pages unite the found and the made, revisiting existing records and extending their presence duration. At the same time, the assemblage has come into being through the destruction and disjunction of previous texts; its presence is both near, in its current state, and distant, in its previous form.
The hand, too, has a crude presence—it is merely the shell of a hand that is now elsewhere. The form is a trace, an index of the volume that filled it. An allusion to physical touch, it also recalls the active hand that wrote the words in the neighboring texts (themselves records of the act of their making). Hamilton constructs tangible representations of the conceptual and experiential frameworks that shape us. The two objects of near-away are relics that beckon viewers with their universality while conjuring diverse emotional experiences.