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Artist's examples

The artist Ann Hamilton is very successful at using sensual and process-oriented materials in large-scale, site-specific installations. She combines sound, movement, smell, and often living things into large, metaphorical works that are evocative and subtle, but all have underlying and powerful meanings.


Mvein by Ann Hamilton. 1999. Venice Biennal

Hamilton often conceals the mechanical controls of her works to allow the material complexity to come through.

For this piece, the artist worked with engineers to create walls that sifted red pigment down the sides and onto the floor below. There was an intimate and site-specific play between the bleeding walls and the Jeffersonian building, a type of architecture tied to democracy, but also to the emotional pain of slavery. The walls were covered with large Braille dots, which captured the pigment that trickled down, and in the process, the Braille dots were stained with the red-blood powder.

Todd Slaughter has explored materiality in many of his sculpture works such as "Beyond the gate of the Animal Kingdom" in which he used Denture Material to construct cats and impregnated teeth in the works. In the large scale installation "landscape Hats" he has used paprika, which filled the space with the smell and intensity of this spice.

Paul Kos, a conceptual artist recognized as a pioneer in video, installation, and performance, has always had a sensual, creative, and strong materiality in his work. In the work The Sound of Ice Melting (1970), Kos put seven microphones next to two blocks of ice to record the melting. In the work Guadalupe Bell (1989), made of bronze, steel, phosphorescent pigments, and a strobe light, the viewer could pull a large rope hanging from a bell and the sound would activate a strobe light, which would allow an image of the Virgin Mary to appear. The image of Mary was painted in phosphorescent paint, so immediately after the bell rings you can see her, but she soon fades from sight. Many of Kos’s works involve play and interaction.

Kos says: “I have always been intrigued by materials and the way their indigenous characteristics have a certain poetry . . . I like the poetry of materials…the way ice behaves or the way cheese behaves or the way a chair behaves.”


The Sound of Ice Melting 1970. Two twenty-five-pound blocks of ice, boom microphone stands, microphones, speakers. Installation view: Museum of Contemporary Art, San Francisco, 1970 / © 1970 Paul Kos


Xan Palay is an installation artist who has also engaged the use of material and form in her installation at the Aronoff Center for the Arts (2004), in which she coated a plane in black feathers. The dark feathers and the orientation of the plane (pointed down) are foreboding and become a metaphor of chance; disaster and loss of loved ones.


How Nature Works "Here We Go" by Xan Palay. 2004. Aronoff Center for the Arts.


As humans, we tend to favor the vision system, but also think about how your project may involve the senses of sound, touch, and smell. You could design something that engages the full spectrum of senses available to the human animal. Think about the daily experiences you have and the logic of your involvement, both emotionally and sensorially. This will provide many clues for you to pursue your ideas.