Anxious Pigeons, Big Swingers, Chains Bring Fun to Armory

Ann Hamilton
Swingers activate the curtain in Ann Hamilton’s participatory installation, “the event of a thread,” at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. Photographer: James Ewing/The Park Avenue Armory via Bloomberg

“Let’s run right to a swing!” a man in his early sixties said to his companions.

We were all there to participate in Ann Hamilton’s multi-sensory installation, and the anticipation outside New York’s Park Avenue Armory was palpable.

I wanted to be among the first to enter when “the event of a thread” was activated -- to experience the artwork in its stillness and then to watch it set sail and take flight.

Just inside the Wade Thompson Drill Hall was a long wooden table at which sat two handsome people in stylish, blue-denim jackets and wooly capes.

They read Aristotle, Darwin and Ralph Waldo Emerson from unfurled scrolls into vintage microphones. Their monotone whispers emanated from numerous radios, each wrapped like a school lunch in a brown paper bag tied up with string. You could hold the bags to your ears and carry them about.

Sharing the table were a dozen small stacked cages holding homing pigeons. The authoritarian-barnyard tone -- “Animal Farm” meets “Ninety Eighty-Four” -- was retro-futuristic. Cramped and startled, the pigeons defecated prodigiously. My first impulse was to contact the ASPCA, but art spurred me onward.

Beyond the table, bisecting the 55,000-square-feet hall was a diaphanous white curtain. Scalloped at top and bottom, arcing across the center, it remained motionless until visitors began to mount the 42 wide-planked wooden swings that hung around the room, interconnected by chains, ropes and pulleys.

Billowing Sail

As more and more participants began to swing, the curtain increasingly billowed, fell and rose in response. At times it resembled sails or a giant sheet flapping in the wind. At others, it looked like a silken wall of rain, white rapids and a waterfall.

Up above, ropes danced and creaked like ship’s rigging. Some were attached to sleigh bells and rang like cell phones, so it sounded like an orchestra warming up.

Empty swings, inviting yet restless, rocked and swayed, and as I began to swing I felt cooling breezes as well as the tug of others’ swings. The curtain pushed and pulled, as if linked to my feet by invisible threads, and I felt the airy snap-and-rhythm of its deep breathing.

Playful, graceful -- a return to childhood -- “the event of a thread” was soothing, yet Hamilton’s installation fell far short of spectacular. Its theatricality was all preamble and overture.

Beauty and lightness were weighed down by the pretentious philosophical ballast of the spoken word. Hamilton’s “event” was a curtain that never fully rose on a performance that never got under way.

“The event of a thread” runs through Jan. 6 at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave. Information: +1-212-616-3930;

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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