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[WATCH] Collecting experiences

Philippa P.B. HughesBy Philippa P.B. Hughes on Jan 16, 2013 | Add a Comment Add a Comment (390)

[WATCH] Collecting experiences

[First published on Art is Fear on 4 January 2013]

Yesterday I visited an installation called “The Event of a Thread” by Ann Hamilton at the Park Avenue Armory in NYC. The piece consists of a large billowy white sheet suspended in the middle of a huge space. Swings large enough to hold two adults are strung up on either side of the sheet. The chains and pulleys holding up the swings are connected to the white sheet so that the harder everyone swings, the more wildly the sheet billows. I don’t know if this is art but I know I love that our collective ability could make something so beautiful happen.

I’ve been collecting art since high school. The things I collected when I was a teen-ager are very different from the things I collect now. In the beginning, I would often buy small prints and works on paper, which were usually more affordable for a very young, beginner collector. I felt like I had become a “real” art collector when I bought a painting from a New York City gallery. From then on, I started collected art in earnest and now have so much art that it doesn’t even fit anymore into the storage racks I had built by taking out the bathtub in my second bathroom.

I still love art objects and can’t resist buying them. But in the last few years, I have become very interested in street art, performance art, and relational aesthetic. One thing that these have in common is that there are typically no objects to acquire. You have an experience with them and then they are gone. I’ve become a collector of experiences!

Street art pieces often vanish within 24 hours as city street cleaning teams fan out across the city each day to buff it all way. Even though I take pictures of street art pieces that I see as I am walking around the city, this photographic documentation does not capture the delight that I feel when I’m just walking along minding my own business and then BAM! A lovely little vision of beauty and talent suddenly appears and makes my day. 

Sometimes there are photographs or videos of performance art pieces that document what happened. But again, much like street art, I don’t think it is possible to capture a performance’s emotional impact. I went to NYC to sit with Marina Abramovićwhen she performed “The Artist Is Present” a couple years ago. I arrived at the museum breathless with excitement and having jogged uptown from the train station because I couldn’t get a cab. Then utter despair set in because I’d arrived too late even though the museum had just opened its doors. The line had been forming since the wee hours and I would have been too far back to take a turn. My friend Kathryn, who is a performance artist from DC, happened to be near the front of the line so I waited with her until it was her turn. Within a few minutes of taking her place in front of Marina, tears began streaming down her face. And then tears began streaming down my face even though I was still standing on the perimeter! Apparently tears streamed down the faces of a lot of people who sat in that seat. These teary faced photographs do a pretty decent job of capturing the powerful connection many people felt with Marina, but I still don’t think you can fully understand the power of Marina as artist unless you feel it for yourself. You had to be there!

Something about the Ann Hamilton piece (which may be relational aesthetic, or not) I visited yesterday feels the same way. My friend Max made the little video of us swinging and you can hear us laughing and you can see the white sheet billowing beautifully in front of us. This is the last weekend you can interact with this artwork and then it may never exist again. I’ve been posting about it on Facebook and I’ll probably talk about it for weeks. But nothing can replace sitting on that swing and being part of making something so beautiful happen. And feeling connected to every single person in the room.


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