December 17, 2012 5:38 pm

the event of a thread, Park Avenue Armory, New York

Ann Hamilton has created an ambitious, puzzling new installation
‘the event of a thread’ at the Park Avenue Armory©James Ewing

‘the event of a thread’ at the Park Avenue Armory

Even before we walk into the “the event of a thread”, Ann Hamilton’s ambitious installation at the Park Avenue Armory, we can hear the quiet murmur that permeates the huge Drill Hall. Two men in hairy mantles sit side by side at a table near the entrance, droning into separate microphones, as if to entertain the fat pigeons in their stacked cages. We bypass both men and birds, and stride into the vast hangar, where an enormous, swaying white curtain hangs from the rafters and falls nearly to the floor. Here and there throughout the room, wooden swings dangle invitingly from the high ceiling. A couple snuggles on to one seat, and a young woman shuffles another as far back as she can to give herself some momentum. A pewter-haired gentleman in a tailored suit bobs on a third swing with as much dignity as he can muster. My husband and I split up and follow our different rhythms.

Separately, we roll through the air; the curtain billows and shimmers in sync with our movement. Each swing is connected by pulley to the curtain, and every undulation elicits a parallel shiver in the diaphanous screen. We sway forward and back, feeling the rhythmic motion in the fabric waves. Suddenly I hear a loud thud and turn to find my husband, stunned and sprawling on the floor. Entranced by the momentum, he has let go of the chain, tried to balance on the board, and been summarily ejected from his swing.

“Happens all the time,” an unimpressed staff member remarks.

My husband’s tumble has broken the slow magic of the moment, so we head, a little haltingly, back over to the table near the entrance to try the whole sequence again. Now, the poor pigeons seemed agitated in their tight corrals. Hamilton has arranged things so humans fly, but birds can’t. The two readers continue to intone passages from Aristotle (or maybe Darwin; who can tell?), their duelling monologues broken by portentous pauses that confound any attempt at comprehension. They read from scrolls that cascade off the table; their disembodied voices ripple through portable radios swaddled in brown paper bags. The words are almost drowned out by the velvety quiet.

As we move about, we start to notice other sounds: sporadic tinkling of bells, an intermittent low wheeze, a flock of singing cellphones, flares of laughter. At the far end of the hall, a woman sits at a desk facing away from all the goings-on, scribbling doggedly on loose sheets of paper; she is addressing a letter “to space”, she informs us. The amplified scratch of her pen adds a subtle counterpoint to the whispered din of chance and calculation, like a brushed snare drum in a jazz meditation. My husband quotes John Cage: “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear.”

Hamilton’s enterprise feels Cage-ian in spirit, bathed in chance collisions of sound, sight and movement. Yet there is also an atmosphere of dogged industry about the whole contraption, which she has assembled from parts that are helpfully listed in a broadsheet that accompanies the exhibition: 11 steel trusses, 3m cu ft of air, a concordance, a record lathe, a pencil, a collection of coats and so on. These interlocked elements add up to a scant experience. The swings provide a jolt of wistful fun, but the rest becomes conceptual lint in so many cubic feet of not-nothingness. I came away neither bothered nor thrilled, but only pleasantly puzzled – a reaction too soft and slight for an artwork conceived on such a monumental scale.

To January 6, www.armoryonpark.org

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