Ann Hamilton: Individual and Collective Memory in the Subconscious

Melisa Discepola

As representations of history, the connection between photography and memory is undeniable. The artist Ann Hamilton explores this relationship with a particular emphasis on human senses and cultural history. She examines tactile experience through visual images and stimulates memories in the viewer, either rooted in the body or in the subconscious. Her images are also impregnated with cultural symbols and memories and therefore can act as sites of memory. In many ways, Hamilton’s images refer to both the individual and the social, as well as the relationship between the them. In addition, the manner in which one develops memories based on cultural factors plays a significant role in Hamilton’s art practice.

Ann Hamilton’s work operates on a subconscious level by referencing memories rooted in the body. Procedural memories are the ones formed through the use of objects or movements of the body, such as riding a bike.1 Hamilton’s Untitled series, comprised of four silent colour videos, explores sensory experience through memories rooted in the individual body, while also speaking of human experience as universal. In the first image, Untitled (Dissections…They Said it Was an Experiment) (1988-93) (figure 1), water drips onto a neck, evoking tactile memories of either cold or warm water trickling down one’s skin. The image of water pouring into an ear in Untitled (The Capacity of Absorption) (1988-93) can conjure discomforting feelings in the viewer. As water overflows into a mouth in Untitled (Linings) (1990-93), or rocks impede it from speaking in Untitled (Aleph) (1992-93) (figure 2), sensorial experiences can be elicited in the viewer.2 The visual impression of the work summons in the viewer all kinds of archetypal memories based in human tactile experience. In this way, the work is both personal and universal. More importantly, however, it demonstrates an inherent ability to excavate memories of tactile sensation.

Sigmund Freud divides our mental states into three categories: the conscious “ego”, the preconscious, and the unconscious. Preconscious thoughts can easily be brought to consciousness at will, while the unconscious “Id” lingers in darkness and needs to be brought forth through psychoanalysis. The “Id” is a place in our minds where chaos dominates, and intense impulses pursue pleasure and illogical sensations.3 The Untitled images are themselves intense depictions of sensations without a logical context. One could argue they represent in some manner the irrational and impulsive nature of the “Id”. In their abstract form, which refers to intense tactile sensations, the images can act as “sites of memory” to unearth buried memories in the “Id” or the preconscious.

Pierre Nora coined the term “site of memory,” which is essentially a place where cultural memory condenses and deposits itself due to its historic or spiritual significance.4 Catherine Keenan suggests that personal photographs can also be invested in as sites of memory for an individual.5 I submit that the Untitled series is a site of memory representing archetypal unconscious thoughts which have crystallized into images. As such, they act as monuments that can, when visited, recall in the viewer’s mind past memories, either preconscious or unconscious.

I use the word archetypal because tactile sensations such as water dripping down one’s neck, or the feeling of suffocation that can ensue from having water poured into a mouth, are a part of the symbolic imagery received from the past collective experience and are present in the individual unconscious. Therefore, in a way, theUntitled images are documents of our collective experiences and are symbols that could fit into Nora’s definition of a site of memory.

They can also represent individual experience. Through association, a person could view the images and a memory from their past could be conjured up. For example, someone could see Untitled (Aleph)and be reminded of himself or herself as a child, when their curiosity impelled them to taste rocks. This would of course be a memory in the preconscious that can be activated at any time, but has remained dormant until it was sparked by the image of rocks in a mouth. It could also recall a more traumatic memory buried in the “Id” due to its discomforting nature and relationship to the senses. In this way, although public photographs, the Untitled images could be personal sites of memory.

This close connection between memory and image can be seen even in historical times, as it is such an essential part of how our brains remember. Frances Yates spoke of the method of loci or “art of memory.”6 This technique for remembering has been practiced since classical times. It was often used when an orator had a long list of text to remember. The speaker would walk around a locus (a physical location, usually a market or church) several times, making a mental note of all the distinct places within it. After having done this many times, the orator would be able to visualize all the elements on the path he mapped out for himself. The text was then broken up into parts, each one representing an image in the loci. The orator would then mentally walk through the images in the mapped out space while communicating his speech; text would then be delivered more easily and in the proper order. The memory structure composed of images of a physical place can be entered at any point. The images or memories can thus be shuffled around to suit the needs of the orator.7 This procedure exemplifies how essential images are in the process of remembering.

The virtual mapped out space of the loci method, with all kinds of connecting associations, is reminiscent of John Berger’s radial memory. His concept explains that memory works radically, with a large amount of associations converging on one event.8 Although the loci technique consists of walking through a linear area, the associations made in the mind between image and text are based in numerous connections within the orator’s various memories. Certain texts were more easily remembered through certain images, thus indicating that memories are created through multiple associations – some that we may not even be aware of. These associations are not arbitrary; they are based on already formed connections in our minds. Also, the act of walking through an area from any possible point, in any direction, creates a somewhat visual image of what Berger’s radial memory would look like.

The characteristics of the images used by the orator were very important. If they were unusual, vivid, or emotionally charged they would be more easily remembered. Hume has said it is obvious that we can form more vivid ideas of things thst are close to us, either in space or time, or both, than of things that are distant.9 Images have extremely close ties to emotional responses.

Untiled (Aleph) demonstrates how emotionally charged images can create strong associations in our memory. Personally, when I view Hamilton’s image,with its heavy reference to bodily sensations and metaphors, it conjures in me emotions of pain and torture. Since I have never actually had rocks in my mouth, I conclude that my emotional response is based on other, less concrete memories. The experience of viewing the image makes me feel uneasy and somewhat violated, as if someone else had forced the rocks into my mouth. This phenomenon is possible through the image’s associations to other memories, events or feelings.

Imagination also plays a huge part in deconstructing the Untitledseries. It is rooted in the subconscious and in memory. Our dreams and desires influence the path it will follow. It is also dependent on our observations of reality and our somatic responses.10 TheUntitled images are based in bodily responses and subconscious memories. The imagination takes these as a starting point and develops new layers of thoughts and emotions. As an abstract image rooted in the body, Untitled (Aleph) opens the door for imagination to draw its own narrative and context, one that will be layered with emotions. Author Mary Warnock writes: “it would be inadequate to describe imagination merely as that which produces images or representations of objects; one must add that these representations will almost always be accompanied by emotions.”11 Untitled (Aleph)acted as a kind of site of memory, where symbols of my past memories lived. The site of the image, through various associations of several past memories and along with my imagination that produces its own new emotional layers, unearthed an emotional response.

With its link to the subconscious and the imagination, the Untitledseries’ connection to Surrealism is undeniable. Surrealists used automatism, the act of letting thoughts flow freely without rationally thinking about them (as one does with “free writing”), to excavate unconscious thoughts or memories.12 The Untitledimages act in a similar fashion. The act of photographing, letting a machine take control of the self, is arguably also a form of automatism. When the photomaton was developed, it arrived with the idea of letting an objective machine (without the biases of a photographer) take an impression of the self. Its automatic qualities were immediately linked in André Breton’s mind. The founder of the Surrealist movement then implored his peers to have their pictures taken in a photomaton booth.13 Against a plain white background, their psychological states would freely seep out and imprint themselves on a photographic image. The Untitled images also work in the service of extracting subconscious thoughts from our psyches.

In order for an individual to have a complete and well-structured sense of identity, the memories that constitute one’s life story must make sense and provide unity and purpose within a socio-historical context. An individual’s social background establishes the parameters for life stories. Therefore identity is psychosocial, since life stories are a joint product of individual and environmental factors.14 Similarly, Hamilton’s Face to Face series (1999-present) (figure 3) asserts identity by creating a photographic memory of an individual’s encounter with her environment. In the photographs, the artist uses her mouth to act as a camera with her lips as metaphorical stand-ins for the aperture and shutter.15 By recording her interaction with her social environment, Hamilton points to the development of identity through individual and environmental factors. She documents a life story as an individual whose impressions are being formed by an external environment. This duality of internal and external, as we shall shortly see, is a common element of Ann Hamilton’s work. For Face to Face, the spectator is placed in the mouth of the camera operator, therefore engaging in the work not only by interacting with the photograph, but by re-enacting the activity of speech. We too are participating in the formation of identity through the social engagement that make up our life stories.

By actually being in the body of the person recording the images, by being Hamilton’s “mouth’s eye,”16 we are fully enveloped in the conversation. The spectator partakes in the relationship between individual and environment and therefore enacts his or her own role as a social being. Hamilton is largely interested in this process of participation. She was once quoted as saying: “That’s why I don’t do paintings. You can’t be inside a painting and I want people to be absorbed into a physical kind of mass.”17 By engulfing the viewer in a tactile world, she not only stimulates the viewer’s senses, but also points to the fact that knowledge can be gained both corporeally and intellectually,18 since the sensory experience is complemented by the intellectual process of dialogue. Hamilton absorbs the viewer into her work by giving them the sense of reliving a memory. Engulfed in the image, the viewer is then given the incentive to insert his or her own thoughts and memories into the work.

Ann Hamilton is both absent and present in the image, as we cannot see her but know she is there through the outline of her lips. It would seem that the two individuals in the photograph (Hamilton and the sitter) are attempting to speak to each other, but have been muted. The silent conversation then conveys a sense of absence that is also inherent in photographs themselves; photographs being representations of people, objects, and moments that have died and will never occur again. It would almost seem that the impeded speech of the two subjects is crying out to a lost moment in time.

Ann Hamilton has said that her work often deals with a shift in the sensory experience, where one perception blends into another.19Here, the sense perception of vision blends with that of speech. On another level, however, the gazes of the two participants in the work reflect one another and blend into each other. She brings something from the internal (herself), and reflects it onto the external (the other person in the work). The transformation is done through the lips, “the edge where sound or language exits the body.”20 The artist has remarked that we are both insides and outsides, simultaneously containers and contained21 (here once again drawing a parallel between the intellectual and the corporeal). This duality of the body as a “container” and the impressions that melt into our psyches and make up the “contained” is reminiscent of the duality of the two people in the photograph. With our perspective from inside the body, we see the external experience Hamilton is being imprinted with; impressions that are essential to the development of memory. In addition, as social beings we are a reflection of our external environment (or vice versa). Meanwhile, photography has the characteristic of reflecting the external world onto us as spectators.

Alan Radley has argued that the development of personal perception has not included the study and understanding of who sees, how they see, and the significance of seeing in the social world. Rather, we currently see people as individual perceivers, with the perceived omitted.22 In other words, we are individualistic beings whose personal perception is based on how we see the world rather than how the world sees us. I would suggest that the Face to Face series negates this claim by presenting two people both as perceiver and perceived.

The idea in Face to Face that our sense of identity as political beings is tied to a socio-historical context is perfected in Ann Hamilton’s installation piece Myein (1999), a work featured at the 1999 Venice Biennale where the artist was asked to represent the United States. Hamilton has said the tensions of the sites she creates in are plucked from the history of the site.23 Before she exhibits her work in a space, she first walks around in it several times to decide what she will install. She feels the historical significance and pulls out from the area what she feels needs to be shown. Hamilton has said her work aims to “make them visible and “experienceable,” the things we can’t always see but are always there.”24 From an invisible dark matter, she plucks images from our collective memory and history, just as photography plucks an instant from the passage of time. Also, the way Hamilton exhibits her work as site specific demonstrates a kind of site of memory itself. The area is charged with historical meaning that Hamilton makes visible.

With Myein, set in a Jeffersonian neo-classical building, she wanted to engage in the stains of American social history, primarily slavery. In a very abstract way, she dealt with the fact that democratic America had been founded and based in slavery. Streams of intense pure fuchsia powder sifted down the walls and caught on plaster dots that were fixed on the wall and spelled out poems by Charles Reznikoff.25

The history of a site informs the work produced by Ann Hamilton. She takes what is preconscious, dreamt, or felt and translates it into a visible state. The site references a historical place, influenced by decades of political and economic interests. Art now interprets that historically charged area as a zone of energy and positive adjustment. It transforms the aggressive past into an image of sensitive introspection. The room thus functions as an “echo-chamber for the invisible.”26

A set of twelve photographic prints were made on the site of her installation at the Venice Biennale. Hamilton created a glass wall that stood in front of the American pavilion, distorting the view into and out of the building. She created twelve photographs of herself behind the wall over a period of one hour, pressing the shutter every five minutes in order to capture a series of moments over time.27 One can make out a distorted outline of the artist’s face in the images, conveying the same sort of altered image one sees when looking at their reflection on water. The images invite the viewer to ruminate on their status as American citizens and their cultural history. As individual parts of a greater historical context, the images refer to American culture and instigate the spectator to question their place in it.

Robert P. Harrison’s book Forest: The Shadow of Civilization was a big influence on Myein. Harrison deals with the idea of the forest within the literary imagination, an idea that also translates to photography. Artist Polixeni Papapetrou explores the literary imagination through photographs recreating imagery from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Like Harrison, she is making reference to the collective memory. The images she created about the literary work are ones that have been tossed around our collective consciousness for years. They could easily have been developed in Carroll’s imagination. As Martha Langford explains: “Ces oeuvres présentent avec une intensité remarquable la complicité de la mémoire collective et de l’imagination individuelle.”28

Ann Hamilton’s work outlines various issues concerning the relationship between memory and photography. She deals with subconscious thoughts, collective and individual memory, and procedural memories that are rooted in our body. She also places us in a position where we are forced to reflect on our cultural history and individual situation within it. In this way she not only engages the viewer in her work by stimulating their senses, engulfing them in large scale imagery, or placing them inside of a body; she also engages them to contemplate their personal histories. She seems to reflect us in her work just as photography mirrors us as individuals and collective wholes.


1 Fred Delcomyn, Foundations of Neurobiology (New York: W. H.Freeman, 1998), 574.
2 Fiona Ragheb, Ann Hamilton, April 6th 2006).
3 Jonathan Glover, I: The Philosophy and Psychology of Personal Identity (London: Penguin Press, 1988), 120.
4 Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations 26, no. 1 (1989): 7.
5 Catherine Keenan, “On the Relationship Between Personal Photographs and Individual Memory,” History of Photography 22, no. 1 (1998), 61.
6 Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1966), xi.
7 Ibid., 3-7.
8 John Berger, About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 60.
9 Mary Warnock, Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 1976), 39.
10 Francine Dagenais, “Les yeux et le regard, la peau et l’empreinte: l’imagination créative ou le suffixe au corps,” trans. Denis Lessard and Marie-Cécile in Image et imagination, ed. Martha Langford (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 39.
11 Warnock, “L’imagination creative”, 40.
12 Marilyn Stockstad, Art History, Revised Second Edition (Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005), 1064.
13 Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, <> (accessed March 18th 2010).
14 Dan P. McAdams, Power, Intimacy, and the Life Story: Personological Inquiries into Identity (New York: Guilford Press, 1988), 18.
15 George Ferrandi, “Interview with Ann Hamilton,” National Forum 18, no. 3 (2001): 18.
16 Ibid., 21.
17 Ann Hamilton quoted in Sarah J. Rogers, The Body and the Object: Ann Hamilton 1984-1996, Foreword Sherri Geldin (Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center for the Arts 1996), 4.
18 Ragheb, Ann Hamilton.
19 Robert Enright, “The Aesthetics of Wonder,” Border Crossings 19, no. 74 (2000): 19.
20 Ibid., 20.
21 Ibid., 24.
22 Alan Radley, The Body and Social Psychology (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1991), 75.
23 Enright, “Aesthetics of Wonder”, 21.
24 Ann Hamilton in PBS video, Ghost: A Border Act, (accessed April 6th2006).
25 Ann Hamilton in PBS video, Myein, (accessed April 6th 2006).
26 Bernhart Schwenk, Ann Hamilton: The Picture is Still (Yokosuka, Japan: Akira Ikeda Gallery; Ostfildern, Germany: Hajte Cantz, 2003): 53.
27 Jennifer Bayles, Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, <> (accessed April 6th 2006).
28 Martha Langford, “D’Après Alice. Angela Grossmann et Polixeni Papapetrou,” trans. Denis Lessard and Marie-Cécile in Image et Imagination, ed. Martha Langford (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 80.

Works Cited

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Glover, Jonathan. I: The Philosophy and Psychology of Personal Identity. London: Penguin Press, 1988.
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Rogers, J. Sarah et al. The Body and the Object: Ann Hamilton 1984-1996. Foreword by Sherri Geldin. Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center for the Arts, 1996.
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