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Mysticism and the Eucharist

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

A Critical Analysis of Ann Hamilton’s malediction (1991)



A master of installation and social observation, Ann Hamilton continues to challenge the limitations of the gallery space. Yet, relatively little attention has been given to her 1991 installation and performance piece, malediction. The work extends into an uncomfortable region, where gallery and religious routine intersect. Although Ann Hamilton has frequently downplayed the religious symbolism embedded in malediction, the piece retains elements of her religious upbringing, as can be seen most clearly in its Eucharistic tendencies, and originates in her attraction to liturgy and the symbolic language of Christianity. The theological implications of malediction become apparent through a study of the installation, an explanation of various characteristics in Hamilton’s work, and a breakdown of the possible interpretations of the piece.


The viewer who experiences malediction enters a space that is dramatically lit, with light isolating the agent within the space. As in many of Hamilton’s other works, malediction balances a sense of intimacy and gravity, setting the stage for her meditative performance. “For in Hamilton’s laboriously installed rooms, visitors enter as if upon an open stage, move inside the dimensional image, witnessing at close range the events of an intersecting moment and what Hamilton refers to as “the accretions of small gesture.””[1] Within the room Hamilton faces away from the viewer as they enter and he or she must approach her from behind in order to observe this “small gesture.”


As the viewer draws closer he or she can observe Hamilton as she takes a piece of bread dough, rolls it in her hands, puts in in her mouth and molds it, removes the dough and puts it in the basket to her right.[2] The viewer examines the objects on the table, the massive bowl of bread dough and the woven basket shaped like a casket and partially filled with lumps of shaped dough. Standing in the silent space, the viewer can begin to hear the soft sound of a woman’s voice emanating from the walls.[3]


A pungent, acidic smell draws the viewer from the table and he or she turns to the wall that Hamilton is facing. Wine-soaked rags are heaped against the wall and emit their rancid smell. Once again the viewer turns back to look once again at Hamilton, this time the viewer faces her. She occupies the space like “a minimalist sculpture, gracefully present and alive, participating theatrically in the obscure spectacle, the hermetic ritual.”[4] Again and again she takes up dough and after she has assigned it a form she lays it to rest in the casket beside her.


In order to understand malediction, it is necessary to explore Hamilton’s artistic and professional background, which form the context for her work. Ann Hamilton began her career when she pursued her BFA in weaving at the Banff Center for the Arts.[5] Because of her experience with the medium, “Weaving and textiles have, of course, been governing tropes in Ann Hamilton’s work.”[6] After she completed her undergraduate degree, she attended Yale for graduate school and studied sculpture.[7] While her body of work tends to be categorized as installation and performance pieces, her processes and choice of materials often reflect her education in textiles and sculpture.


In general, however, categorizing Hamilton’s work is relatively impossible since, “She has never fit neatly into any school or definition but has exerted her own emphatic pressure on the art of the moment through her painstaking inquiry into the experience of the body in space and time and her insistence on engaging all five senses in moments of aesthetic revelation.”[8] This portrayal of Hamilton’s work aptly describes the engaging environments that she creates and identifies some of the key features that are frequently present in her work. These include the use of time, the intentionality of her spaces, her appeal to the senses, and the conceptual themes of the outward versus the inward and social or historical contexts.


The use of time has consistently been present in Hamilton’s work throughout her career, whether in the form of a video, a performance, or an installation site. As Lunberry describes, “Like a tableau vivant set in slow motion, Hamilton’s installations are both held in place and repeated.”[9] This description is further supported by her own explanation of her installation, lignum. Concerning this, Hamilton said that, “The piece is one of constant change: it isn’t an object, it isn’t a place, and it isn’t a thing. […] It’s the attention to time, and to how that time changes, that is the work.”[10] In malediction time is taken into account through the amount of bread dough that Hamilton has transported from the bowl, to her mouth, to the casket.


In addition to her attention to time, Ann Hamilton always chooses the sites for her installations purposefully and often uses the context of her installation site to inform the work itself. She manages to utterly transform spaces without creating cliché environments. “The spaces she transforms are cast into a unity as spatial, sentient, and social places, as worldlike but not worldly. Inhabited by humans and/or animals, they appear at first encounter as spaces set apart, virtual sanctuaries or preserves.”[11] Indeed, if a person were to inhabit malediction he or she would not exist in a purely domestic, religious, or critical space, but rather some conglomeration of a number of social contexts.


Like Hamilton’s use of time and her intentionality with spaces, Hamilton’s installations often incorporate tables. Regarding the reoccurrence of tables in her work, Hamilton said the following, “The table is my landscape. The table is always there. How I describe it to myself: It’s not an altar, but it always implies a social space. It’s a place of work, a place of solitary study, or exchange; it’s where you eat, where everything happens. […] The Last Supper, the altar, it’s all of those things.”[12] The symbol of the table possesses a number of associations, including eating, work, and rituals. By using a table in malediction, Hamilton continues to reference social constructs and she grounds her work in a familiar symbol.


Using these elements Hamilton crafts multi-sensory installations that include visual phenomena, sound, smell, etc. Sound plays a significant role in her work, often in the form of spoken language. As part of her own practice as an artist, she studies language and often finds inspiration in the meaning behind particular words, hence the unique titles of her shows.[13] In fact, Hamilton has said that she is “more indebted to writers than to visual artists.”[14] Recordings of the human voice commonly appear in her work, a trend that actually originated with malediction.


The purpose behind Hamilton’s appeal to the senses relates to her philosophy of the body. She says that, “You have to trust the things you can’t name. You feel through your body, you take in the world through your skin.”[15] In other words, the way that humans understand the world is experientially, through their senses. Thus the viewers, through the use of their senses, simultaneously invest themselves in the experience of Hamilton’s installations and come to a deeper understanding of reality.


Lastly, Hamilton frequently focuses her work on the dynamic between the inward and outward and on social or historical contexts. “Hamilton’s installations, described by her as “interiors which are also exteriors” invite admission while also restricting it, offering an enterable image, yet withholding that which one may have thought was to be encountered.”[16] Since bodies allow people to experience and comprehend reality, there are limitations to what humans can know and Hamilton likes to study these restrictions by revealing and concealing certain meanings in her installations. One realm of meaning that she openly explores, however, is historical context.[17] Regarding this, Hamilton said about her installation, lignum, that, “Whether as political or social history, the past haunts and inhabits the present in ways that aren’t always physically manifest to us.”[18]


Based on these characteristics of Hamilton’s work and various elements present within malediction, the piece can be interpreted in several ways. Her materials function as the most obvious indications of her intentions. The table, chair, wicker casket, bread-dough mouth molds, wine soaked rags, and sound equipment all offer clues for the viewer as Hamilton has intentionally filled the space with these materials.[19] Within the gallery they begin to take on new meaning:


"Hamilton has continued to radically transform the white cube that typifies the space of the contemporary art museum or gallery. In all of these [her] works a membrane is created, which separates this liminal zone from whatever is exterior to it: the space takes on a skin, effecting a porous closure that segregates this inner realm from the world outside, the museological spaces beyond.[20]"


In essence, Hamilton sanctifies the gallery space for her particular purposes. Her installations extend both within and beyond the world that the viewer knows and has experienced. The viewer encounters malediction with his or her entire body, as Hamilton explains, “In fact, when you experience it [the complete installation], you don’t experience it as an image; you experience it as all these multiple, physical sequences of movements.”[21] From the viewer’s path through the gallery space to the small, repeated gestures of the performer, these actions embody time and social dynamics in ways that two-dimensional art forms may be unable to accomplish.


After the materials and the space have been defined within the context of the show title, malediction begins to take on greater meaning. Hamilton’s titles are always precise and intentional. “Malediction” refers to words, often magical in nature, that are spoken with the purpose of bringing about bad luck. This eerie reference to mystical or superstitious words appears in the work as the performer’s mouth molds the bread, in a manner similar to how it would form words. The casket shaped basket implicates death since the performer places the words formed from dough into a space traditionally reserved for the dead. Historically, the wicker casket in malediction is the same kind that was used to move cadavers in the nineteenth century.[22]


Meanwhile, the sound of a recorded voice can be heard in the background. The recording is of a woman singing the poems “I Sing the Body Electric” and “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman. Malediction was the first installation in which Hamilton decided to use recordings of spoken words.[23] This “lyrical outpouring” resembles an incantation, once again supporting the general atmosphere of mysticism or cult activity.[24] However, malediction cannot be understood simply as a manifestation of the mystical since it decisively includes religious, even Christian, allusions.


Hamilton grew up in a Presbyterian family and described her experiences with Puritan culture as “very repressive.”[25] Although her family stopped attending church when she was in high school, remnants of her religious upbringing continue to resurface in her work. “There has always been a kind of moral rectitude in the work, a sparseness out of the Puritan American past, and a steely judgment of American history.”[26] Later in her life Emmett, her son, went to a Catholic church for a while and in visiting the church with him Hamilton found that moments in the liturgy, when everyone was speaking together, were very emotional for her.[27] Her attraction to liturgy fits with her work since her installations often include repetition and the use of spoken word.


Although Hamilton has experienced Christianity in a number of ways, her views on religion are somewhat ambiguous and she said the following about the relationship between religion and her work:


"I don’t know how to talk about Christian stories – the laying on of hands, immersion, redemption. I used to be really uncomfortable with the use of the word “ritual.” It’s not a word I necessarily use to describe the work and I wonder, Why does that make me nervous? I suppose my nervousness is not so much about the word but how it is used to designate something outside the immediate culture. I am interested in acts that reside within our immediate culture and so am more comfortable with the description of repetitive acts than with the word “ritual.”[28]"


In essence, she does recognize the connections between the work she is making and religious symbols; however, she prefers to engage within the social space rather than in the sacred or set apart. Consequently, in order to see the theological implications of malediction one must also examine the social aspects of Christianity and how those relate specifically to the work.

Hamilton mentions her hesitancy about the use of the word “ritual,” saying that this term defines an action done outside of culture or contemporary society. Yet, if culture and religion are interconnected, then perhaps it is worthwhile to consider how the term “ritual” might animate malediction. The action of taking and molding bread dough repeatedly, for days on end, produces a tension between introspection and industrialism. Her actions reflect both the liturgical and the mechanical in their repetition and implicate every viewer in that process as they observe the performer as an actor.


The actions of the performer in malediction appear oddly debasing or even inhumane. Raw bread dough cannot be pleasant to the touch or palette. The consistent and restricted movements of hand to mouth to basket cannot be stimulating. The process reflects a sort of occupation, like a worker on an assembly line. Yet repetition bears value, as is exemplified by a priest celebrating the Eucharist. Time and time again he repeats the same words and motions in memory of and honor to the sacred. The familiarity lends itself to greater contemplation and deliberation both for the priest and for his parish. The repetitive process can become both sacrificial and sustaining.


Sustenance is a key theme in malediction as the performer methodically places an edible substance into her mouth. But then she removes it and places the lifeless substance into a casket. In a way, she simultaneously feasts and fasts. Both of these actions are crucial elements of Christian tradition. The Passover, Last Supper, Eucharist, and any other number of feasts possess a significant role in worship and community. They facilitate rejoicing and remembrance and draw people together for a common cause. Fasting, on the other hand, functions as an initiation or cleansing of material distractions. The prophets and Christ, after their example, set apart a time of solitude and contemplation so that they could draw closer to God and his truths. Sustenance preserves life and there is a curious fluctuation between its presence and absence in malediction.


Life and death are also implicated in Hamilton’s performance as she symbolically feeds herself and then places the material, which would have given her the strength to live, into a coffin. In starving herself, she reenacts a ritualistic sacrifice. Her abstinence evokes a sensation of morbidity and the body-sized basket conveys the ever-constant reminder that humans feed themselves to prolong their lives, but ultimately death is inevitable. The presence of a live actor makes this dynamic even sharper as Hamilton performs a ritual common to all people.

However, malediction possesses greater specificity since the bread dough exists within the same space as wine-soaked rags that are piled against the far wall. Bread and wine are common symbols for the Eucharist. The connection between these two materials cannot be coincidental since Hamilton precisely chooses her materials. Likewise, the Eucharist is the most socially recognized and viable interpretation of these particular materials. But although the reference to Communion is obvious, what Hamilton has to say about the Eucharist through malediction is not as clear.


The multitude of references to mysticism in malediction may indicate that Hamilton views the Eucharist as a similar activity. Since the birth of Christianity the general populace has viewed Communion as a strange and perhaps even cannibalistic activity. The poems recited from the walls include references to the human body and the liturgical rhythms of the cycle of life. There is a brutal reminder of human mortality evident in the Eucharist and its mysterious nature is undeniable even to tenants of the Christian faith.


Hamilton may not have chosen to take a definite stance regarding the Eucharist in malediction, but it comprehensively bears witness to the peculiar nature of the human desire for the mystical, that which is beyond human comprehension. Perhaps malediction was Hamilton’s method of wondering and musing about her attraction to the liturgical. While she may not have adhered to a particular set of beliefs, her work is undeniably religious in its expression. Through observing that space, in understanding Hamilton’s experiences with religion, in studying her practices as an artist, and by observing some of the possible interpretations of malediction, it is evident that despite Hamilton’s ambiguity towards religion, malediction possesses Eucharistic elements and originates in a curiosity towards the liturgical and symbolic nature of Christianity.


Bibliography


Coffey, Mary Katherine. "Histories That Haunt: A Conversation with Ann Hamilton." Art Journal no. 3: 11 (2001).

Cooke, Lynne, Mark C. Taylor, Marika Wachtmeister, Mirjam Schaub, Björner Torsson. Ann Hamilton, lignum. Stockholm: Atlantis, 2005.

Cooke, Lynne and Karen Kelly, ed. Ann Hamilton: tropos. New York City: Dia Center for the Arts, 1995.

Lunberry, Clark. "Theatre as Installation: Ann Hamilton and the Accretions of Gesture." Mosaic (Winnipeg) no. 1 (2004): 119-133.

Simon, Joan. Ann Hamilton: An Inventory of Objects. New York: Gregory R. Miller & Co.: Available through D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2006.

Wallach, Amei. "A Conversation with Ann Hamilton in Ohio." American Art 22, no. 1 (2008): 52-77.

[1] Lunberry, "Theatre as Installation,” 124.

[2] Simon, Ann Hamilton: An Inventory of Objects, 99.

[3] Simon, Ann Hamilton: An Inventory of Objects, 98.

[4] Lunberry, "Theatre as Installation,” 126.

[5] Wallach, “A Conversation with Ann Hamilton in Ohio.”

[6] Cooke et al., Ann Hamilton, lignum, 132.

[7] Wallach, “A Conversation with Ann Hamilton in Ohio.”

[8] Wallach, “A Conversation with Ann Hamilton in Ohio.”

[9] Lunberry, "Theatre as Installation,” 124.

[10] Cooke et al., Ann Hamilton, lignum, 156.

[11] Cooke and Kelly, Ann Hamilton: tropos, 61.

[12] Wallach, “A Conversation with Ann Hamilton in Ohio.”

[13] Simon, Ann Hamilton: An Inventory of Objects, 3.

[14] Coffey, "Histories That Haunt,” 15.

[15] Cooke et al., Ann Hamilton, lignum, 121.

[16] Lunberry, "Theatre as Installation,” 127.

[17] Coffey, "Histories That Haunt,” 20-21.

[18] Cooke et al., Ann Hamilton, lignum, 156.

[19] Simon, Ann Hamilton: An Inventory of Objects, 98.

[20] Cooke and Kelly, Ann Hamilton: tropos, 65.

[21] Wallach, “A Conversation with Ann Hamilton in Ohio.”

[22] Simon, Ann Hamilton: An Inventory of Objects, 99.

[23] Simon, Ann Hamilton: An Inventory of Objects, 98.

[24] Cooke and Kelly, Ann Hamilton: tropos, 79.

[25] Wallach, “A Conversation with Ann Hamilton in Ohio.”

[26] Wallach, “A Conversation with Ann Hamilton in Ohio.”

[27] Wallach, “A Conversation with Ann Hamilton in Ohio.”

[28] Wallach, “A Conversation with Ann Hamilton in Ohio.”

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