Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

phora by Anne Hamilton


“phora” by Ann Hamilton
la maison rouge, fondation antoine de galbert, Paris
February 18th – May 22nd, 2005

Hamilton’s first site-specific work to be shown in Paris is a response to three distinct voices alluded to in the work’s title, phora[1]: the voice of the artist embodied in la maison rouge, a private non-profit contemporary art foundation which houses the installation; the voice of public uprising from the nearby Bastille, the infamous prison stormed by the people at the beginning of the French revolution; and the voice of the Opera Bastille, literally the stage for the projection of the musical or lyric voice to the public. Hamilton intertwines these three types of voice in what the exhibition catalogue describes as an exploration of the “genesis of vocalisation and vocal expression” through projected sound, video, photography and textiles which “form a progression from silence to sound, from sound to voice, from voice to speech and from speech to speaking.”

Waltraud Forelli-Wallach of la maison rouge explains, “The interlocking of public and private spaces at la maison rouge enabled [Hamilton] to come back to the idea of the home and explore the oppositions between interior and exterior, private and public, culture and nature. The foundation’s urban and historic environment, with the nearby Opera and the ghostly presence of the Bastille prison, were an opportunity for her to continue her reflections on language and vocal expression. In her eyes, the Bastille prison represents the voice of the insurgent people and has mythical status in the collective memory, whereas the Opera represents the voice of poetic and historic fabrication. These two public platforms form the symbolic context of the foundation with, at its centre, the red house.”

In the first of five rooms that the installation occupies, printed video stills of medieval wooden sculptures paper the walls in a cacophony of silent painted mouths. This soundless hallway leads to a dimly lit room in which a revolving projector throws images of an ink pen nib drawing a horizon line onto white paper. Five voices utter sounds from different corners of the room but no distinct words, either written or spoken, are revealed. In the third room “sound becomes speech” and the voices of three women in English, French and literary Arabic repeat the mantra: “There, here, now, you, I, in this place, speaking. The things we offer. How to account for each other, to attend the order, sounding.” The room barely contains a large scarlet coloured silk tent, a scale model of la maison rouge itself that floats – devoid of foundation – in the space. Even when inside the tent, the fabric walls cannot muffle the voices of each woman’s entreaties which include, for the first time in her career, a recording of Hamilton’s own voice.

In a fourth room music from old military marches emanate from rotating double tuba horns, curious objects that also appear in the third room. Bundles of clothes, not specific in age or gender, are suspended from the ceiling, partially covered with white drop cloths. The atmosphere encountered here is the most ambivalent and perhaps least successful of all the rooms. The white drop cloths look like disrupted efforts to open a home for spring cleaning after being shut up for the long winter. But they also embody far more ominous associations, the homogenization of individual identity – or even the clinical cloth of white that conceals the face of death.

The final space in the basement contains a large wooden table, a recurring motif in Hamilton’s work. The structure offers a wooden base for the foundationless tent hanging one floor above, but it may also act as a stage, albeit one where characters would have to crouch to perform. As a meeting place, many could gather but their voices would have to shout across the distance the solid structure creates. Possibly Hamilton is suggesting that it is here that the public voice of negotiation, diplomacy and compromise sounds. While such dense and layered Ham H

references as are established in this work may not be immediately accessible, Hamilton’s work undoubtedly offers much to dwell on. Textiles in particular are as vital to this installation as many of this artist’s previous works. Here they evoke references to France’s controversial decision to ban women wearing the veil during school time, the European Union’s struggles with immigration control and the dilemma of housing in permanent homes rather than cloth tents political refugees and asylum seekers. “Phora” offers a timely reminder that identity politics is far from a new concern and voicelessness, whether collective or individual must be addressed at its multiple and diverse sources.

[1] The etymology of the word phora can be traced to the Greek word pherein, meaning “to bear” as well as the Latin term fora, a place of assembly or “forum.”

Surface Design Journal (winter 2006: 58-29)