Ann Hamilton’s textile art: mute bells and dervishes whose whirls are to no end

At the Fabric Workshop and Museum here in Philadelphia, the textile artist Ann Hamilton installed an exhibition called habitus.  The artist, we were informed, was thinking about the relationship of text and textile.

One part was installed on and in one of the city’s old, shabby, long piers butting into the Delaware River.  There was a second exhibition, separate and distinct, at the Fabric Workshop itself.  This was an elaboration of the artist’s definition of habitus.




We were invited at the pier to an installation of what looked like mechanical whirling dervishes.

In play here was the rope and pulley mechanism customary with British change ringing which results in bells tolling out wordless but melodious and named tunes, evocative of part of the history of a people.



Here the mechanism began a circular motion of the circular structures from which were hung sheets of thin white material. 



When I was there  a slight wind off the river ruffled the hems of these same sheets. 



I felt a disappointment when I pulled down the rope.  One of the mechanical dervishes began to move slowly.  No bells tolled.  No-one came walking up the church path.  No swallows took flight from the bell tower.

The wind ruffled the dervish skirts.  I stopped and allowed myself to be encircled within the material.



I did not feel anything of any interest. 

From close and from far, the mechanical dervishes were uninviting.  Maybe it was the white. Just white. Like the curtaining round hospital beds, you thought. Or a shower curtain in the bathroom of a giant. Or the field of Agincourt bleached in the sun after these 601 years.

A mechanical whirling dervish is what I settled on.

Your eyes kept straying to the complicated pattern of sun on broken panes of glass like moonstones high up in the pier;  or on the sunglint on the Delaware River.  So much more interesting, you thought……….



Three-quarters of the way into the pier, sat a young woman separated from us by visible soft fencing.  She sat on a stool spinning cotton from triangular piles of raw cotton on the floor to her right. 



That this was an installation and nothing to be taken seriously as in life was clear from the way the pristine white cotton was piled on the floor as though it was not pristine and white. Raw cotton, once carded and pollutants removed,  has to be protected.   Just a performance.



On our side of the fencing a wooden table placed to one side of a large screen on which two poems were being unscrolled.

At the table a young woman was sitting unpicking the knitted stiches of a child’s sweater.  


I asked each if I could take photos:  yes.  Could I ask questions?

The spinner asked me to talk to the guide.  The unpicker, circling her open mouth with her right finger, soundlessly indicated that she could not……not her…….



I began to feel a heaviness of heart when I realized that I was expected merely to watch this young woman and she was to continue her work, mute.  

This muteness raised a discomfort in my body and the start of a panic in my mind.

Both young women: mute.  No looking at anything but their work.




Why would anyone want to watch two mute women working?  Take apart something so essential as a child’s sweater?   Spin cotton from a big dirtying pile on the floor?

As to the two poems, my patience did not last to reading them unscrolling slowly. 


This installation was for me an example of the heady and often incoherent formulation of an art gone conceptual.   An art here carried into the world of textiles, fabrics.

But vacuous.

That is to say evacuated of textile values:  comfort, protection, intimate communication, sensuality, colour.

Textiles are a world conforming – I think uniquely in the universe of made objects – to the complex shape and immense flexibility of the human body and to all our traditional rites of passage without exception.  A world where women have played a large part both onerous and enlivening, to be richly rewarded.



From the Spring 2017 show of Simon Porte Jacquemus, Paris, Autumn 2016


Evacuated also of some of the traditional values in the artistic tradition:  telling a story; imparting a pattern of beauty or a disturbance; expanding on a mystery or on possible worlds, affirming a reality; leaving a suggestion or a question.  Pointing the way.

Was there artisanship here? 

Yes:  in the making and installation of the mechanical whirling dervishes.  But to what end?

This installation told me nothing.  The question that it left me was why do people fund this kind of nonsense?    The answer lies in Pierre Bourdieu’s  explanation of a seminal concept he called ‘habitus’.


Ann Hamilton says this about ‘habitus’Habitus is the landscape made from letting go and holding on, from reelings and turnings, unravellings and gatherings, spinning and scrolling, continuous and discontinuous threads, in circles and in lines.’ 


The celebrated French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu,  1930-2002, said this about ‘habitus’

Much of his work sought to detail how we are made, constrained and enabled in the context of money and political and cultural power operating always on us. 

Habitus for Bourdieu refers to the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess because of our life experiences.   He  thought of habitus as a social rather than individual process.  It is not the result of fee will.  It is made by an interplay between free will and structures and institutions which exist all around us and which we live.  It can be changed over time.

And for me this exhibition is an example of cultural and political power operating in our environment, having nothing to do with our will or our well-being.  There because the artist is well known and can command the resources to mount exhibitions from an idea.  A concept.  A game.  Without more meaning than that. 

Not all such exhibitions have no meaning for me.  The misuse of cultural capital is not inevitable.  But its use requires much more thought and care in design and implementation than this one had.



A floor of the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia where the artist has displayed the real thing:  vitrines displayed all kinds of vintage and antique textiles.  On the wall vintage and antique woven bed coverlets.  Beneath them a shelf holding single sheets of paper with printed text taken from a vast number of sources.  The text dealt with textiles.

The artist’s own expertly worked coats were also on display.

This part of the artist’s exhibition continues until mid-January 2017.


It goes without saying that I prefer English change ringing  – and miss it – to the evacuation provided here. 



And as to real Whirling Dervishes: they are soul and life and movement and also the still point.  I prefer above most things to be in their presence. 



habitus, an installation by Ann Hamilton, born 1956, American. September 6, 2016–October 10, 2016 (Municipal Pier 9) for The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.  Also at The Fabric Workshop until mid-January 2017.






2 thoughts on “Ann Hamilton’s textile art: mute bells and dervishes whose whirls are to no end

  1. C’est le problème avec “l’art conceptuel’
    On se dit que, souvent, il suffirait de décrire le concept sur un bout de papier et de s’éviter la peine d’une installation creuse.

    1. C’est tres interessant que vous avez dit exactement ce que j’ai entendu: c’est pas necessaire de faire quelque chose; le concept suffit. C’est une idee qui me desespere. Mais il y a toujours les grands de notre passe et quelque jeunes gens qui continuent dans la tradition. Dieu merci!

      Merci de votre interet!

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