Reading aloud to a photo of a dead bird

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by Debi

On Thursday night last week, my MFA cohort had a field trip.  We met at The Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus and participated as reader/scribes in the gallery-wide display, “the common S E N S E“, by American artist, Ann Hamilton.

The description of the exhibit on the gallery’s website says:

Aristotle wrote in Historia Animalum and De Anima that “touch” is the sense common to all animal species. In this project, touch is not only physical contact but a form of intellectual and emotional recognition. The exhibition is full of images and skins of animals: once alive, they touched and were touched in return by the world they inhabited. For Hamilton the common S E N S E is “an address to the finitude and threatened extinctions we share across species—a lacrimosa, an elegy, for a future being lost.”

So, back to my class field trip.

“You’re going to do what?  What exactly is a reader/scribe?”

Glad you asked.

As part of the “experience” Ann Hamilton devised, she had a set of instructions for people to come in and read aloud to artifacts in the museum.   We each were given a small bench, a soft blanket, a clipboard, a notebook, a pencil, a reading light, and a copy of J. A. Baker’s book, The Peregrine, and sent off to find an artifact we felt drawn to in some way, and then to sit down by it and read to it.  Aloud.  Like reading a bedtime story to a small child.

The gallery is a large multi-floored building, so the dozen-plus of us from class were scattered all over, reading softly to our chosen “friends.”  Some of us read to children’s books.  Some read to Alaskan clothing.  Some read to fur coats. Some read to metal poles.  I sat in front of a wall on my little stool, and read to a piece of newsprint containing a scanned image of an actual dead bird from the University of Washington’s natural history collections.

Honestly, sometimes the art world is a bit too artsy for me.  Too conceptual.  Sometimes even just plain strange.  This whole reader/scribe thing felt like it might prove to be one of “those” times.

When I arrived at the gallery, nobody else was there yet.  Traffic had been surprisingly free-flowing and parking was easy.  So I spent about forty minutes touring the exhibit as just a visitor to the museum and not as an MFA student or a reader/scribe.  I picked up all the hand-outs, followed all the instructions, and took my time wandering through the exhibits.

There was something a bit other-worldly about the exhibit.  Everything was so quiet.  The displayed items in the first couple of rooms consisted of animal pelts, birds, pieces of paper with random quotes about the sense of touch, and a variety of children’s books and primers featuring the story about the death of cock robin.

I felt a connection between the passages about touch and the death-themed displays.  The common sense between all creatures is sometimes considered to be the sense of touch.  The dead birds and small mammals on display at one time felt touch.  Now their dead bodies could be touched.  But not by us.  They were displayed in solid glass cases.  No touching allowed.  Ironic.

0108151914Stepping into the main gallery spaces, there were sheets and sheets of newsprint with scanned images of dead birds, small mammals, and amphibians.  Something about the scanned images looked like images you might see in a morgue.  The only sound was the gentle rustling of the newsprint pages in the slight breeze in the room and the soft footsteps of the visitors.  I found myself wondering what it would be like to be reading aloud in one of these silent rooms.

Reading bedtime stories to dead things.  Hm.  Death.  Sleep.  A melancholy settled over me as I went downstairs to see the other exhibits.

I walked into a room that was confusing at first.  Nothing but display boxes randomly placed throughout the room and shrouded with light-colored curtains.  When I separated the curtains to see inside the display boxes, I discovered each box contained a piece of clothing made from animal skins or fur.  One item was a raincoat made from dried and decorated intestines.  There were fur coats like my grandmother would’ve worn going out dancing in the city during the late 1920’s.  There were mukluks and parkas from native Alaskans.

The display boxes with the curtain shrouds were called “bassinets” by the artist.  Shrouded bassinets.  Containing dead animals.  And we were going to read aloud to these artifacts.

The book we read?  Well, The Peregrine is about a man who followed the lives of some peregrine falcons throughout the year.  The book told in great detail of how these birds of prey lived, how they hunted, and how they killed their prey.

0108151648Fast forward to all of us being given our reader/scribe implements and dispersing throughout the gallery to read to our chosen artifact.  I chose a scanned image of a dead woodpecker.  I found there was something disturbing about reading a “bedtime story” about a bird of prey killing birds much like my woodpecker.  I almost felt like I wanted to apologize for disturbing its rest when I’d find a particularly graphic hunting section.

I am not a hunter, myself, but I was raised in a family of hunters.  I grew up with a strong aversion to the idea of killing for sport, but at the same time spent my childhood summers at my grandparents home in the mountains surrounded by deer trophies, bear rugs, and hunting photographs of my assorted family members posing with their latest kill.

Ann Hamilton’s display at The Henry was poignant, pointed, melancholy, gentle, lovely, disturbing, sad, thought-provoking, and restful.  Yes, all of those things.  And participating as a reader/scribe was an interesting experience, too.  We will be returning to The Henry and revisiting our reader/scribe activity once more at the end of the quarter.  I wonder how it will differ after having done it once before?

I would also like to experience the exhibit at some point when there are other reader/scribes actually participating.  No one was reading when I went through the exhibit for myself, and then when my class was reading, I was reading, too, so I don’t know what it would have been like to come across random people reading a book to a museum artifact.

Does it seem sort of crazy?  It felt sort of crazy.  And sort of sane, too.

Art.  It touches me.

And so we’ve come full circle.  Touch.

The common S E N S E .


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