Arts Beat

For Snails, The Slimelight Is Fleeting

Ann Hamilton's installation at the Hirshhorn, which features a vitrine containing live snails and handwritten notes on yellowed newsprint pinned to the walls and encased in beeswax floor tiles, is
Ann Hamilton's installation at the Hirshhorn, which features a vitrine containing live snails and handwritten notes on yellowed newsprint pinned to the walls and encased in beeswax floor tiles, is "a meditation on memory." The snails dine on heads of cabbage. (Photos By Jonathan Padget -- The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005

In a town awash in fuzzy panda love, it's hard for a slimy, hermaphrodite mollusk to get a piece of the action.

Still, for the past six weeks, nothing at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has been quite so attention-grabbing as a vitrine containing two heads of cabbage and about 20 brown snails.

This is the big time for snails with art-world aspirations, being part of a major work at a high-profile museum. Ann Hamilton's 1989 "Palimpsest" is a room-size installation that also features handwritten notes on yellowed newsprint pinned to the walls and encased in beeswax floor tiles. The Columbus, Ohio, artist calls it "a meditation on memory, its loss and our finitude."

The Hirshhorn added "Palimpsest" to its permanent collection last year and installed it in late October, part of its "Gyroscope" series. But there have been no snail T-shirts in the museum shop, or snail fan blogs, or a "SnailCam" on the Web. (" Pandas get Web time," you can practically hear the snails mutter.) "Palimpsest" is up through Jan. 3; after that, well, the snails are, how can we put this delicately?

The snails are doomed.

In return for their service to high art, the Hirshhorn snails must face . . . the autoclave. (Did anyone else just hear snails shrieking in terror?) The device, more commonly used to sterilize medical equipment, contains a highly pressurized steam chamber and sounds an awful lot like a convenient way to whip up a batch of escargots. In fact, the snails are actually Helix aspersa , a type of European snail, popular in French cuisine.

We learn of the snails' fate while chatting with Anne Ellegood, a Hirshhorn curator. "It's the most humane method," she says of the autoclave. "We really don't have a choice."

For the museum's first foray into art with live animals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had to grant special permission for the Hirshhorn to purchase the snails from a biological supply company, Ellegood explains, and the USDA requires the museum to destroy the snails -- considered an agricultural pest -- when "Palimpsest" closes next month.

The Hirshhorn's snail permit wasn't lined up in time for the installation's October debut, though. Despite the artist's specification to display 20 to 25 large snails feeding on two heads of cabbage, slugs actually stood in for the snails for the first two weeks in the vitrine (which is like a terrarium on tall metal legs). Slugs, you see, the shell-less relatives of snails, are free to pursue art gigs without USDA intervention. Hirshhorn staffers found slugs in gardens near the museum on the Mall and returned them once the snails were finally in place.

Hamilton, 49, who has made installations using peacocks, canaries and sheep, says she finds snails "fascinating creatures. There's a sense of wonder when you slow down to watch animals," she says.

Hirshhorn regulars may recall her 2003 work, "At Hand," in which a mechanism showered visitors with a constant rain of paper scraps. "Palimpsest" (it means a manuscript that has been erased and rewritten on, with traces of the original writing still visible) had its premiere at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art and was last seen in 1996 at the Des Moines Art Center. Hamilton hadn't faced USDA regulation when displaying the work in the past.

Conservator Tatiana Ausema, who has primary responsibility for the snails' care, shows us the terrarium in the conservation lab where the snail B-team is kept. (The Hirshhorn initially acquired 48 snails and awaits the arrival of 16 more to offset several deaths, attributed by Ausema to old age.) The snail squads are rotated between the installation and the lab, where they have a more diverse diet and were even given small Christmas stockings by staffers.


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