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Interview with Ann Hamilton: The Biennale and seeing through the American dream

The American artist, forty-three, represents the US at the Venice Biennale this year

Ann Hamilton's installation “Myein” brings together the artist’s ongoing concerns about how we perceive the world and what we are blind to, about the relationship between seeing, hearing and touch. The American pavilion has been described as “Colonial neo-Classic, halfway between Monticello and Howard Johnson” and Hamilton deconstructs its neo-Classical architecture with a collage of image, text and sound, in which fuchsia-coloured powder falls down the white walls over braille texts while poems are whispered. Often described as a philosophical artist, Hamilton has been making ephemeral installations that combine art, architecture and language for the past two decades. She won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1993, which helps to fund her largely uncommercial work. Born in Ohio, where she still lives, Hamilton trained as a textile designer before going to Yale to do an MFA in sculpture. She speaks to The Art Newspaper about her installation at the US Pavilion, which was sponsored by the fashion house Gucci.

What was it like to participate in the Biennale?

Ann Hamilton Intense. Everyone burnt the midnight oil, so we didn’t have a lot of opportunity to meet the other artists here. But now I’m satisfied; I don’t feel depleted. I’m coming back next week to see everyone else’s art!

Did you feel a particular responsibility to represent the US when you were making this work?

I felt an enormous responsibility to be asking the right questions. As you turn the corner into the next millennium, what are the things we need to take forward? How are we absorbing information, how are we the agents of that information? What are the schisms that are fundamental in our society?

Your work mixes up words, image, texture and sound. Can you describe your artistic process?

It is a wedding of so many thoughts and influences. Everything I do is site-specific so I begin with a basic orientation to the site. In Venice, I climbed on top of the US pavilion and uncovered the skylights. I always do a lot of research. I am not looking for a particular piece of information; instead I create an atmosphere of reading around the work. For Venice, I was reading a lot of US history at the time I was nominated. On the plane coming to visit the pavilion, I was reading “Testimonies”, the poems by the nineteenth-century writer Charles Reznikoff—they are so visceral, you almost can’t read them.

I looked at the American pavilion, a neoclassical building that looks like a mini-Monticello and tried to understand what it means. How does this classical ideal work and not work and for whom? It exemplifies Jeffersonian ideals of land distribution, but it also reminds one of slavery.

So do you see this work as pointing to ruptures in American society?

Someone said this work was like an abstract temple. It’s not about one thing; the structure is poetic rather than literal. My background is in textiles and I have always been interested in exploring the borders between container and contained, in making something without a beginning or end.

But what are you trying to do in changing the way we perceive this classical space?

In this installation, the braille text on the walls stands for everything that we don’t know; it makes present the things we can’t see. My voice whispers the Reznikoff poems so you are never sure if you heard the right words. The glass grid in front of the pavilion bends its geometry. The deep pink powder both veils and reveals the white walls—I wanted a colour that felt foreign to this building, that had an artificial quality but that also evoked the feminine.

Most of your installations are temporary, but is it ever possible to buy one of your works?

I’m trying to understand how that would be possible, how the work can be recycled or re-sited. The scale is not easy for most people but the Van Abbe Museum in the Netherlands just bought a large installation, so I am beginning.