The city could have flinched and spent a million dollars on something safe and predictable for the biggest and most prominent public art commission in the history of Seattle. Instead, Seattle hired Ann Hamilton.
Hamilton can't say yet what she'll make. "I don't have an answer," she said. "What I have is a question: Is this possible? If you felt like you wanted to trust me with that question, we would be in that question together."
If that quote were all you knew of Ann Hamilton, you'd think she was a total flake.
The truth is, she's actually the most accomplished of the finalists, and she could be cocky if she wanted to be. For more than 20 years, she's been creating ingenious art around the world while managing to be, as New York Times critic Roberta Smith pointed out in 2012, one of the most self-effacing of our leading installation-performance artists.
She won the MacArthur Fellowship in 1993, the year after she created an installation involving 200 yellow-and-black-striped canaries in Seattle, which people still talk about. In 1999, she was the US representative at the Venice Biennale. She has art in Seattle's Central Library, underfoot on 7,200 square feet of the fourth floor where first lines from library books in multiple languages are embossed in the maple. Dirt accumulates subtly from people walking on it, the letters every day becoming more like penciled, personal writings.
Hiring Hamilton is an act of profound trust. She's the only artist of the five finalists interviewed on March 13 who said she saw this commission as a challenge and an opportunity to grow. Her canvas is the prime location on the central waterfront: Pier 62/63, which juts out over Elliott Bay at the base of Stewart and Pine Streets. She readily admits she's throwing herself at the mercy of the dramatic place—tides, winds, horizon. Her plan is to harness it, not compete with it.
When you think about it, to do anything else would be insane or stupid. Making art on the Seattle waterfront is a triple dog dare. It's a site that wants for nothing whatsoever, and in a beloved place like that, art easily becomes the antagonist—even the loveliest of objects risks blocking a view of something lovelier.
For a project as important as the waterfront, she's a thrill of a choice—she's a calculated risk, with just the right ratio of calculation to risk.
"She told us straight out, 'You'd be taking a risk choosing me,'" said waterfront art manager Eric Fredericksen. "But she's got such a history with big projects, and a history in Seattle. She's able to do really big things without any sculptural heroism. People have very intense experiences with her work."
Thousands of people spent hours with her 2012 installation inside the 55,000-square-foot drill hall at New York's Park Avenue Armory. It was called the event of a thread, and you should really look at it on YouTube for the full effect. She hung swings from the rafters, and people of all ages naturally got on and swung. The swings counterbalanced a huge white silken cloud of fabric that rippled and swayed with every swing, each person's movement registering individually but creating an overall symphony of action on the curtain. People lay on the floor for hours, watching the fabric and the wild engineered web of strings up in the rafters.
Hamilton's general interests include the weaving she learned from her grandmother (her earliest art), reading the dictionary for fun, animal natures (like making people swing, or feel words underfoot, or share a room with birds), and the question of how people can be alone, together.
The other four finalists were Alice Aycock, Giuseppe Penone, Nancy Rubins, and Oscar Tuazon. With the first three, you'd have been able to foresee the kinds of objects you'd be getting. Tuazon's approach is more open, like Hamilton's, but he is far younger and even riskier than she is.
The committee that sent the final recommendation to the city for approval was Karen Henry (public art planner, Vancouver, BC), Catharina Manchanda (Seattle Art Museum curator), Alan Maskin (principal and partner, Olson Kundig Architects), Cary Moon (founder, People's Waterfront Coalition), and Norie Sato (an already commissioned Waterfront Seattle artist).
In addition to choosing Hamilton, they also recommended to the city that a significant commission be created for Tuazon, and the city agreed. Judging by his past work in Brooklyn, Seattle, and France, and the compelling presentation he made on March 13, that's great news for us.
A total of 343 artists around the world applied for the million-dollar commission. They ranged from potters in Tacoma to Seattle artists like Iole Alessandrini and Preston Singletary to figures from art history books such as Chris Burden and Judy Baca.
While a million-dollar commission breaks a barrier in Seattle, it's peanuts compared to big public art projects in other American cities. Take the "Bean," Anish Kapoor's popular reflective sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park. Its original budget was $6 million, and in the end, it cost $23 million (with some private funding added to the public).
The entire budget for public art along the Seattle waterfront is projected to be around $5 million, timed with the construction over a span of seven years. Of that, $1.7 million is commissioned already to Hamilton, Seattle artists Buster Simpson and Norie Sato, and sound artist Stephen Vitiello. Almost all is paid for by the $290 million bond that voters passed last fall to pay for the replacement of the seawall, including Hamilton's commission.
During deliberations, according to curator Manchanda, the main philosophical discussion centered on whether to invite an artist to make a freestanding object to be looked at, or go with artists more like Hamilton and Tuazon, who make subtler inventions. "She has a way of creating aesthetic experience without necessarily announcing, 'Okay, it's art now,'" Manchanda said. "It's more a seduction." It's also loyal to the roots of public art in Seattle—asking artists to be more responsive to places and people—which grew out of a reaction against plop art, the mid-to-late-20th-century practice of plopping down any sort of art anywhere in public, as long as it was sufficiently colossal.
In a phone conversation last Saturday from her home, Hamilton said Seattle, to her, has become a place where she feels trusted. She's used to starting from scratch—she also didn't know what she was going to do before she began creating her memorable 1992 show at the Henry Art Gallery at UW. Separate from the waterfront commission, she'll be back at the Henry next year to fill the entire museum with new work for six months. Given the popularity of her first exhibition, "I'm really nervous," she admitted, "because this will be totally different."
Hamilton tends to conjure a mood that's meditative but a little exhilarating, which is not unlike the effect of Elliott Bay from the city's edge. A child visitor to the swings at the Park Avenue Armory told Hamilton she felt wild and safe at the same time, "And I was like, yeahhh."
They're just initial thoughts, but Hamilton has given a few hints about her waterfront ideas. She dreamed aloud about using the hydraulic power of the tides to set functional elements on the piers (tables, benches, whatever) rising and falling, appearing and disappearing. She's thinking about motion first, before material. "There are all these rhythms," she said. "The rhythm of the city. The rhythm of your walking. The rhythm of the tide, the wind, the light." She also thinks that art in a massive urban project should "introduce an irregular hand into something that so often has to be regularized."
At the end of a wide-ranging phone conversation about past pieces, how durable materials can strangle delicate ideas, and how far the eye can see at Pier 62/63, she said, "I am so excited."
She confessed in a recent radio interview, "I looove huge volumes of space." The Guggenheim, MASS MoCA, and now Seattle's waterfront—does her site even have edges? "It's like wanting to fling yourself," she said, "into something gigantic."