Ann Hamilton's large-scale installations are laden with richly sedimented layers of meaning. These mesmerizing and often inscrutable works, which are frequently placed outside traditional museum spaces, deploy unconventional materials as a way to elicit sensory responses and to obliquely reference historical and cultural meanings derived from the artist's studies of a particular site. Her repertoire of materials has included several tons of horsehair, thousands of honey-coated pennies, beetle-infested turkey carcasses, and thousands of human and animal teeth. Often a lone individual intently engaged in a repetitive task—burning words from a book, wringing his or her hands in honey, or unraveling a length of fabric—inhabits her environments, lending the intimacy of human touch. Hamilton thus translates intellectual and social constructs into corporeal impulses, building up a collage of metaphors that allude to experience, memory, and desire and mine the intersection between the individual body and the social body.
In her installation (between taxonomy and communion) (1990/96), Hamilton deepens her explorations of the human body through language and its related structures of classification such as taxonomy, the scientific system of categorization used to define and understand the animal kingdom. The work consists of approximately 14,000 human and animal teeth—which Hamilton obtained from dentists, taxidermists, oral surgeons, slaughterhouses, and friends and associates—laid in rows across a steel table covered in a layer of iron oxide powder suggestive of blood. The red surface both foregrounds and threatens to soil the teeth, and it underscores the violence visited upon human and animal alike in the pursuit of knowledge.
As if in a laboratory, viewers are encouraged to approach and inspect the specimens displayed in orderly rows on the table. The arrangement of the teeth according to size and appearance rather than species upends the expectation that the work is principally about the difference between animals and humans. In fact, the commingling or unification of the two, manifest in the span of intermixed teeth set against the red background, produces a striking abstract composition that refers to the interconnectedness of our two worlds. As Hamilton has noted, a key aspect of the work is the acknowledgment "of a relationship to animals that allows their otherness, that falls between the distancing of species identification and the longing in us that is animal."¹
As metonyms for the mouths from which they were extracted, the teeth allude to the bodily functions enacted by the mouth such as eating and biting as well as to its role in articulating meaning through sounds and speech. While the animals and humans represented here remain anonymous, their unique teeth nonetheless stand in for the absent individuals whose distinctive qualities can never be adequately described by taxonomy. Thus for Hamilton (between taxonomy and communion) is fundamentally about the "predicament of naming," the "gap between language and experience," and the "edge between something that's living and something that's dead."
1. Ann Hamilton, in Hugh M. Davies and Lynda Forsha, "A Conversation with Ann Hamilton," in Ann Hamilton, exh. cat. (La Jolla, Calif.: San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, 1991), p. 61.
2. Ibid., p. 62.