Maker of huge art builds a 'mystery'

A week before the opening of the 48th Venice Biennale, the United States exhibition was still under construction. Stacked before the onion-domed United States pavilion were glass panes and steel frames. Inside, a crew was installing panels of Braille and an engineer tested mechanisms that would sift 10,000 pounds of fuschia-dyed powder over the pavilion's white walls each day.

Calmly guiding the activity was Ann Hamilton, the artist who represents the US this year. The Venice Biennale is the oldest and most prestigious international exhibition of contemporary art in the world. Works from more than 100 artists from 56 countries are now on view through Nov. 7.

Ms. Hamilton is a small, slender woman with a graying brush cut and slate-blue eyes. She appears fresh and energetic despite a series of 2 a.m. nights. As drills buzz, hammers pound, and the bells of St. Mark's ring in the late afternoon hour, she surveys the ruckus with satisfaction.

"I wish my son could be here now," she says of four-year-old Emmett, due to arrive later in the week. "He would love this."

Considered one of the most important artists working today, Hamilton is one of only three women to present a solo exhibition here on behalf of the US. Her installations, photos, sculptures, and performances have been shown in museums around the world. In 1993, she received a MacArthur Fellowship, awarded to a handful of individuals viewed as geniuses in their fields.

Hamilton is known for ambitious projects that use massive amounts of manually assembled material, such as 48,000 indigo-blue work outfits stacked by hand, 5,000 square feet of horse hair, and 50,000 hand-annotated library cards. Rich in literary and historical references, Hamilton's installations veil the obvious and evoke what is forgotten about a place, an era, or a society.

Undergraduate study of geology and weaving trained her to pay attention to the particular details, she says. After earning a bachelor's degree in textile design at the University of Kansas, she obtained a master's degree in sculpture from Yale University and taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Her preparation for the Biennale began with an exploration of the neoclassical pavilion in Venice. Its resemblance to Monticello called to mind Thomas Jefferson and his ideals. "I decided very early on to treat the pavilion as a civic building," she recalls.

Soon after, Hamilton envisioned the sifting fuschia powder.

"We had very little time, and I had a very preposterous idea, and I had no idea how it would happen," she says. "The logistics were very complex."

Searching for a nonflammable compound, she conferred with chemical companies, tested various compounds in her kitchen, and worked with polymer researchers to formulate the powder. The name Hamilton chose for her Biennale installation, myein, is the Greek word for the contraction of the pupil and also the root of the word "mystery."

Hamilton screened the pavilion with a 90-by-18-foot wall composed of a rust-prone milled steel grid and panes of textured glass that creates a rippling effect. Viewed through the ribbed glass, the pavilion seems afloat. The wall also creates an inner courtyard, and as people gather there, the space resembles a town square. At its center stands an oak table filled with hand-knotted white cloths, which in Hamilton's visual lexicon suggest cleansing and healing.

Inside, sights and sounds obliquely recall personal and national tragedies. Braille panels recount turn-of-the-century chronicles by poet Charles Reznikoff of social injustices. The pocked Braille characters become more visible as the fuschia-dyed powder collects on the walls in the course of a day (it is vacuumed up nightly for reuse). Hamilton's recorded voice slowly whispers the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, about binding the wounds of a nation rent by the Civil War.

From within, a visitor can view the courtyard and, through the wall of textured glass, view the park beyond the pavilion. Above, trees and sky are visible through newly exposed skylights.

"We've taken the building and in one sense veiled it," Hamilton says, "and in another sense totally opened it up, bringing in the light." Her preoccupation with light and air, rather than massive volumes of material, is a turning point for her, she says.

"My process is changing," she says, recalling "aleph," her 1992 project for the List Visual Arts Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology "that used thousands of big, heavy books."

Closer to "myein" is "whitecloth," her 1998 installation at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Conn.

"It is a very old building with a Colonial faade," she says. "Its windows had been covered for years. Erasure is the first gesture of American history. The goal was to erase the erasure.

"We live in the 19th and 21st centuries at the same time," Hamilton continues. "We don't just leave one period and enter another. How we form meaning through the material world is important to carry forward."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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