Ann Hamilton went deep into storage at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, and picked out 200 dead animals. Their bodies were taken to a room where Hamilton awaited them with scanners. She set each animal on a scanner, one by one, and took its portrait.
Arranging an animal on a scanner for the first time was emotional. Hamilton is not a scientist, not an observer with conventional goals, so she was seeking other ways of honoring the creatures she held and laid out. The first several portraits felt tender. But after an arkful of repetitive handling, the emotional poignancy faded. What arose in its place was curiosity. "Not so much curiosity about the particular species, but about the way their touch registers in these images," Hamilton explained to me.
The images now hang on the walls at the Henry Art Gallery, where midsentence, the 58-year-old artist absentmindedly reaches out a thumb and two fingers to an image of three long and bony toes.
E.T. phone home. There is, in this portrait, no view of the animal's face, nor are there faces in most of the portraits. There's no seeing into those famous windows to the soul, the eyes, art's dominatrices. What you face instead is the animal's soft, gray underbelly, its skin wrinkled where it touched the scanner. Only the parts that touched the scanner appear in focus: this belly, breast, and chin, these gangly toes. The rest of the animal's dead body goes soft and misty into the background.
These would have made precious gelatin silver prints. Instead, Hamilton printed them onto flimsy newsprint, a type of paper that looks gritty but feels like perfectly worn bedsheets. She made thousands of copies of each animal's picture, stacked them to the same width, and bound each stack in a bar of brushed nickel she bolted to the wall. You're invited to tear off a copy to take home, but if everyone does, then the animals will disappear from the galleries. If you must take just one, which one? Maybe you would like the gangly toes Hamilton reached for: the American bullfrog. It's hard to resist the resigned cheek and crumpled furry ear of the baby monkey: the mantled guereza.
I would not have been able to identify these animals without consulting the field guide quietly filed in a box at the entrance. It's meant to be background only, satisfaction for those who can't stand not naming. There are no labels on the walls whatsoever. Hamilton doesn't care whether you know an African clawed frog from an African helmeted turtle.
It seems she would rather have you wonder about what kind of recognition can exist outside of naming, and whether it can be more than just seeing another version of yourself. These books of pictures, rustling in the light wind of the museum's HVAC system, form an environment meant to convey something of what it was like to be in that lab holding a dead animal for the first, fifteenth, one hundredth time. Does photography bring things closer or push them away? In another gallery, there's a special camera. People can stand behind an opaque curtain, touching it, just like the animals on the scanner. If you sign the waiver, your touch-portrait will be added to yet a third gallery. As the animal pictures disappear from one gallery, the human pictures accumulate in another.
Pictures are only a part of Hamilton's installation-of-many-parts, called the common SENSE. All her works—seen around the world, including a permanent million-dollar commission she's devising for Seattle's central waterfront—are environmental systems offering collectivity and detachment at the same time. They're interactive (21st century) and monastic (medieval). Tension is part of the meaning. Touch, she writes, is "a sense common to all animal species." But jolts of recognition with any other living being—and ourselves, for that matter—go only so far. Art participates in the paradox of touch, too. We're admonished not to touch it, yet the bar for great art is that it touches us. Touch is about intimacy and not-intimacy. I touch a sea cucumber because what else can I do with a sea cucumber? I touch my dog and we both like it for reasons neither of us can understand. I touch my dead grandmother's handkerchief because I can't touch her. As Hamilton's long days of scanning suggest, maybe curiosity not only leads but follows all touch. Maybe touch keeps searching going, lets flux be.
The common SENSE is big, with maybe too much going on. But it's compelling for being unlike anyplace else, too. (You're meant to visit multiple times, which makes the Henry's recent reversal of its long-held suggested-donation admissions policy particularly offending.) The list of collaborators—composers to architects to digital artists—would be cut off by the Oscars music, and even just cataloging the parts sounds absurd. There are specimens and other objects borrowed from the Burke. Dead birds in glass cases are turned on their backs rather than displayed the usual way, the stubborn hills of their bellies jutting skyward and their white empty eye sockets glaring out from upside-down faces. Documents and artifacts, like antique children's books about animals and learning ABCs, are on loan from UW Libraries' Special Collections. Furs and other animal fashions—haute-excessive Chanel, utilitarian-indigenous—come from the Henry's collection of costumes and textiles.
Then you get to the large subterranean gallery, skylit, transformed into a concert hall for a mechanized choir. Sound rides across a sea of vertical metal poles that reach all the way to the ceiling. It's a sound that emulates bull-roarers, devices people used for thousands of years to call across great distances. The sound derives from the spin of a wing on each pole. The wings are driven by a confluence of computer algorithms that sense visitor flocking patterns and gravity. (The custom-designed rotors are made from wood that attractively matches the gallery's. "I wanted this to look as good as it could," Hamilton told me. She doesn't defy the dominatrices.)
Hamilton has the whole museum; wander in any order. She's unblocked all the skylights for the first time in years, and it feels like you're there off-hours. Low shelves are lit like desks in a library at night. On the shelves are stacks of paper you're invited to take and keep in a folder you're given at the entrance; this becomes your personal exhibition catalog. So far, the texts on these papers range from Bambi to poetry to science writing. They were culled from an open Tumblr site where Hamilton's asking for submissions pertaining to touch.
More voices: Singers wander the rooms from time to time lullabying to the animals and objects. Volunteers who are given blankets, desks, and books read aloud to the art, snuggled up near it.
One room I haven't told you about yet is the gallery at the bottom of the stairs, where curtained carts on wheels are parked in rows. You walk through their haphazard maze as if this were storage, backstage. Pull apart any two curtains. Each bed, you find, has a garment laid out in it, each garment made from an animal. Absent wearers are outlined by seal trousers and bright-satin-lined fur coats. The whole body of the snowy Arctic fox flattened to a stole is here. You can become one of the volunteers reading aloud, and in the dim lighting, as you're peering into what may as well be a bassinet or a hospital gurney, settling down under a blanket to bring your own voice and these creatures together does not seem far-fetched.