Encountering My Edges

This week’s blog post was written by Suria Markus, who has been interning this summer at the Henry.

Ann Hamilton. LEW wood floor at The Seattle Public Library. 2001-2004. Image courtesy of Ann Hamilton Studio.
Ann Hamilton. LEW wood floor at The Seattle Public Library. 2001-2004. Image courtesy of Ann Hamilton Studio. Photo credit: Carmen Montoya.

As the Henry prepares for the opening of Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E, I made a trip to the Seattle Public Library’s Central Library to experience the artist’s permanent installation on the first floor in the Literacy, English as a Second Language, and World Languages Collection. I stood upon 556 maple floorboards laid down to create a 7,600-square-foot walkable surface. Routed in relief on each board are sentences in different languages made up of letters in reverse, evoking wooden typeset. The content was collected by library patrons and staff, who Hamilton invited to gather first sentences of books in SPL’s collection. The resulting 1,543 sentences represent eleven languages which, during the making of the project, were the most frequently used languages in the LEW Collection: Arabic, Chinese, English, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

Hamilton’s website notes that the LEW wood floor (2004) “seeks to mark this moment of technological transition by imbedding in the membrane of the library’s surface work that in texture and form remembers and evokes a tactile experience of book production and reading.”

Feeling the raised floorboards under my toes, I was most drawn to the dynamic between the individual planks and the continuous field of the floor—an assembly of different languages. I was surrounded by indecipherable words and letterforms that I could not identify. This was a moment of dislocation and humility, an opportunity for me to recognize a world of distinct cultures beyond my own experience. Through this installation, Hamilton offered me an opportunity to encounter my edges, and consider my place in relation to a larger global fabric.

The centrality of language in the LEW wood floor conjured summer 2010 when I attended an accelerated German language program at the University of Washington. I had recently acquired a German passport, officially becoming a dual citizen, and felt overwhelmed by the importance of learning the language of my heritage. On my first day of German class, looking through my textbook, I saw familiar (and a few unfamiliar) letters patterned in ways in which I could not assign meaning—not unlike my experience trying to interpret the floorboards in Hamilton’s installation. As I became more comfortable reading, writing, and speaking German, I gained an increasing appreciation for its linguistic and cultural nuances. Similarly, the longer I spent in the LEW Collection, the more I understood Hamilton’s installation as a site to consider the divides of cultural difference and interconnection.

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