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Inspiration: Paper, Pants and Pennies

Ann Hamilton inspires through her installation art pieces throughout the United States.

There's something really sacred about a leaf falling from a tree. After a short season of holding up the breath of humanity, it ever so quietly lets go and floats to a motionless stop. It makes no sound nor attracts any attention. It just falls.

Ann Hamilton, one of the most recognized contemporary American installation artists, captures this through every human sense for me in Corpus, an installation she was commissioned to make for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Perched in the top of a capacious warehouse-turned-museum, several dozen stacks of paper tuck themselves away in the rafters. Single blank sheets dance down from the ceiling and slowly begin to blanket the empty cement floor, accumulating over weeks into feet-deep layers of paper. Rose-tinted windows wrap the stretched out sun rays in mystique and comfort. Horn-shaped speakers raise and lower, interrupting the tranquility with abrupt chanted numbers. Church pews rest under cathedralic sounds in the distance, juxtaposed with swirling, maimed ceiling fans.

Installation art is a placeholder for art that uses space and time as mediums of physically participatory materials-rather than paint or marble. With its nebulous categorization, it has written a raucous history of creating a constant commentary about itself and all of art. Its liberated status gives it an astounding power to make anything art.

My wife and I are members at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, and we took my Mom and Dad there to visit. Their first reaction was to laugh at sights of slabs of metal capriciously strewn against walls and floors (installation art, by the way, is completely comfortable with these kinds of reactions). It was really inspiring, though, to watch us continue through the museum and begin to remember again how liberating it is to be okay with the fact that anything that is intended to be art can be art.

What is so beautiful about time, space, and participation as art mediums is that they can never remain as single traditional objects, but are transient and self-redefining works. What is the art in Corpus? Is it the warehouse? Is it the constantly-changing paper stacks? Is it the mix of the sun's ephemeral rays cast over the paper? Is it the empty floor or the full floor? Is it the people shuffling their feet through the space, or the crumpling sound they make, or the trail they leave behind? Is it the people standing on the perimeters, unsure whether they should disrupt the "art?" Is it the piles of paper in the recycling bin? Is it the entryway that houses the first glimpse of the experience?

One thing we can say resolutely about that first glimpse of Ann Hamilton's Corpus is that it immediately exposes you to Corpus's exhaustive process. That same first glimpse of exhaustive process is woven into all of Ann's works. In every piece you become immediately aware of what has transpired in her art space over the previous days or weeks.

In Indigo Blue, a 14,000-pound pile of blue-collar workman's clothes stands stacked, impeccably organized. A man at the desk in front of the pile scratches out 3-inch-thick military regulation manuals, line by line, page by page.

In Privation and Excesses a spacious floor is smothered in honey and delicately covered in 750,000 pennies. During the exhibition of the piece, Ann sits at the edge of the space, wringing her hands in a felt hat filled with honey.

In the end, art is a beautiful piece of work, but it's more than that. It's an object. But it's not an object; it's a process. But it's more than a process; it's an idea. But it's more than an idea; it is you. It is your reception of a piece of work, the change you allow it to create in you-your watching of that falling leaf-that is the greatest form of art. And that, to me, is truly inspirational.

Learn more about Ann Hamilton's works.

If you are interested in other installation artists, check out James Turrel, Arthur Ganson, Richard Serra, Doris Salcedo, Marcel Duchamp, Carl Andre, Richard Tuttle, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Claus Oldenburg, Ai Weiwei, and Camille Lemmolo, to name a few. Many of them actually have pieces here in Chicago, especially at MCA. Art21 also has a fantastic series of documentaries about various contemporary art topics and artists.

Also, I wrote my MFA thesis about creating new forms of installation art through post-digital interactive design.