"I still think the social function of art is that kind of negative aesthetic. Otherwise there’s no social function for it."
ART21: We were talking earlier about the possible connections between growing up and living here in the Midwest, in Ohio, and an aspect of your work that deals with being simultaneously at the perimeter of something and at the middle of what’s going on. Could you talk a little more about this?
HAMILTON: I think a lot of the very abstract quality of my work, and the literal quality of it, is always dealing with a state or a place or an edge, a border, a threshold, a place that’s in between. And I think that’s the place that I occupy within my work and that, perhaps, the work occupies. And so, it’s interesting to me to think about needing to work at that edge but then actually living, physically, in the middle. I had never really even thought about it that way. It’s just, like, if you think about the hair in the project at the Dia Center, or the way the pink powder sort of leeched and sought the perimeter in Venice—any number of pieces—it’s always the skin of the architecture, or the material is always seeking the border, remarking upon the border. And that’s not just a physical one; it’s also the way that we think about things, how we establish the habits of categories and, you know, all that. Those classical categories we inherit out of anthropology: the raw and the cooked, the container and the contained, what is inside and what’s outside. You know, we as bodies inherit ourselves as both containers and as being contained. And the paradoxical structure of my work is often to engage that place of betweenness: to engage it, not to make a picture of it, not to make it its subject, but actually to try to work at that place in a way that demonstrates it, that’s demonstrative, that occupies it. You know, it’s very abstract but concrete.
ART21: Could you talk about the notion of the perimeter and the center in relation to the work you’ve been doing with pinhole cameras?
HAMILTON: Well, there are a couple of threads of work that come together in the pinhole. One of them [is that] I can look at where my work took the shift from being a total surround, so that when you walked in, you’re physically immersed in whatever the material piece is. And I think it’s actually this other stuff—the mouth as being the room. And I first started doing it when I was actually taking self-portraits. I was wanting to capture that moment of, I guess, unselfconsciousness—when you’re so absorbed or immersed in an activity, whether it’s reading or making something, that might have some rhythms, so that it becomes an immersive experience. And what do we look like when we’re not concerned with actually how we look or what we project? And so, I started thinking about when you’re really immersed in what you’re doing, often your mouth falls open. And you know you’re never supposed to have your mouth open in public. Like, you don’t see people standing around, you know . . . (LAUGHS) It’s a vulnerable position; it’s a place where you’ve relaxed and you’ve let yourself be open and vulnerable in a way. And so, I started thinking, “Well, I want to take my own picture in that situation."
So, I devised, over a number of years—it was sort of something that was in the background for a long time—a way of making pinhole cameras (which is very simple) but to make my mouth the aperture. I don’t go into the darkroom and load the film in my mouth and then come out and do it, so it is actually still an object that’s inserted into my mouth—but to have the orifice of the place where speech exits the body actually become the eye and to just play with that. Then it was in the process of actually taking those pictures, seeing what they looked like, seeing in fact how the shape of the mouth is very much the same shape as the eye, and seeing myself become almost like the pupil within. The image of my head becomes almost like the pupil in the middle of the mouth, which is eye-shaped. Then, through another set of “What if?” questions, I started thinking that it would be very interesting to turn and not face oneself but to face another person. And so, with Chris here in the office and Brenda, we started trying it, and in the act of actually doing it, it became very interesting to register this time of standing quite still, face to face with another person, and to make oneself vulnerable, in fact, to another person.
In some ways, I think of my earliest work, the very first piece I did when I was in graduate school: I had taken a generic, gray man’s suit and covered it in toothpicks, so that the whole hide, the whole skin of cloth, became like a hide. It looked like a porcupine. And then I stood very still wearing this, which was how it came to be presented. It wasn’t until I was actually standing there in a social situation, where I was on display as an object, that I realized how interested I was in that live time of standing very quietly and that, in some ways, you put yourself on display. And maybe it’s a way of making yourself vulnerable, but there’s another kind of strength that comes forward in allowing yourself to occupy that position. So, that was the last piece that I did where I actually stood and faced the audience. And now, what is it, fifteen years later—after doing a lot of works in which there’s been a performative element, or I’ve been live as part of the projects but always, in a way, you came from the back to join the activity of the person, or you entered from the side—I’m now turning in the work and standing face to face, as I did in that first project. Which is an interesting thing to me, to then wonder where that will go.
I think the other thing about it is that I’m in the middle of, or the beginning of, working on this project with Meredith Monk, and I have long loved her work. And I think there’s an aspect of my work that is wanting to give voice. So, how do I literally make the place where song, as well as all other words, exit the body—become my voice by becoming my eye? So, to sometimes invert the location of one sense to another part of the body, those kinds of dislocations or slippages is one way that we come to see something differently. That’s been a way that my work has actually grown and moved at different times.
ART21: How do you feel, experiencing the other person in this way, taking their portrait with your mouth?
HAMILTON: Well, it’s very interesting. I think it’s not so different than other experiences when I work with a lot of people or working with a crew. You know, when you’re making anything, even if you don’t sit and get someone’s sort of autobiographical story—very early, very quickly, when you work side by side with someone, you have a sense of their presence and their weight in the world. And a sensibility that is not something that you can sort of name but is the quality of someone, how they occupy space. And, you know, we have all sorts of words; we say, “Oh, they have a (such-and-such) presence” or “(such-and-such) presence.”
And I think that I was very aware and really enjoyed that part of my earlier work, when I worked with very large groups of people. And often a lot of volunteers would come and work these long, dedicated hours for an intense period of time. And how quickly in those moments you come to know someone, even if you know nothing of [his] story. I think taking the [portraits] has some of that same quality. Obviously, if I work with Chris or someone in the studio who I work with all the time, we already have a relationship. But even in situations where it’s more or less a stranger, that being willing to stand face to face or to turn and allow that kind of odd, formal, but very intimate act—that it’s about opening. I mean, I don’t know if it’s, like, soul to soul—or if that would be a word I would use—but I would say it’s about revealing something that’s not the surface stuff that we usually allow out to the world.
I think some of the pictures, some of the images that come out of this that I’m most interested in have a sense of registering something other than someone’s physical features. And yet when I stand, especially those very long exposures, and sometimes have that exchange, you can have what feels like a very profound, oddly profound, moment, and yet you know there’s nothing of that on the film. So, you know, it’s kind of a bit of magic, I suppose—what you actually end up holding in your hand as a result of that.