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Charlotte Jansen, 2018

Perception is a fragile thing. Helena Hamilton demonstrates with her laconic works that with a few simple tweaks and manipulations, the most familiar objects can produce a surprising level of disorientation. Before the doors to her solo exhibition at Millennium Court Arts Centre, Semblance and Event, (6 April - 23 May 2018),  opened the artist spent two hours alone, inside the gallery, blindfolded, painting her thoughts. The act was recorded on video, the only document left behind, played on a TV standing in the place of the artist in MCAC's Gallery 2.


The work, titled ‘NOTETOADISTANTGOD’,  “is more about the presence and process of me in the space performing rather than the finished outcome,” Hamilton explains. It typifies, in many ways, the central concern of her practice: to bring the viewer into the present, to exist in an in-between space where reality, if not suspended, is at least submerged in lights and sound.


Hamilton’s materials are mostly immaterial, and atmosphere is, in a way, her art. She sets up paradoxes and synesthesiac conditions in which the intangible and the non-visual (sound, space, time) are compounded by the visual and the physical (drawing, installation). The ideas and works of Semblance and Event had been germinating for almost a decade. When the opportunity arose to present a solo show at The Agency Gallery, London and in Portadown shortly after, “I thought it would be an interesting experiment to exhibit similar works in very different spaces, since space is a very important element in my work.” The result was a fluid evolution of previous work, that elucidated the impact of environment and atmosphere on interpretation and understanding.


In her early experiments with performance art, “I was especially interested in durational performance and how this pushes the artist to create something very authentic and in tune with their natural self and surroundings.” Hamilton says. Later, following a year long residency in 2009 at Flax Art Studios, Belfast, (where she now has her permanent studio) she began to introduce sound to her work, at first with multiple cassette tape players. “Sound then slowly began to play a more influential role in my art practice”, Hamilton recalls, “even though I had very little knowledge about it.”


This intuitive approach was formalised with an MA in Sonics Arts - the point at which Hamilton started to listen with intent, composing scores with audio and text, and using Max/MSP - a visual programming language for music and multimedia - used in her more recent performance pieces and installations. Once she was able to master her tools - sometimes working against their intended use - Hamilton opened up “to learn new ways of imagining through hacking or manipulating familiar objects.”


Those familiar objects are often also selected for their simplicity, and materials like chalk and paper recur. “I feel an affinity with simplicity, and this is expressed in forms of minimalism in my work.” Working with ephemeral sound and light as well as more traditional mediums, its an intersection of the senses that interests Hamilton most: “I explore the visual through the sonic and vice versa.” Understanding her process is important as the final ‘works’ themselves. Between her currently “ridiculously messy” studio and her home, her working method involves collecting a sketchbook of sounds, samples she records on different types of microphones, composing her audio work in the same way as a collage. This is in symbiosis with the visual side to her practice. 

One example is the series of larger, sculptural works, crumpled paper pieces such as ‘Order, Effect_01’ and ‘Order, Effect_02’. To make these, Hamilton studied the material’s sonic properties as closely as its visual qualities, listening to it with different microphones - the audio recordings are not part of the final work, but they are integral to the process in creating Hamilton's object-centred works.


“I work in a very process based manner, I find repetition of simple acts very therapeutic and creatively stimulating - I often discover new aspects of the material through this process even if the outcome of this process is not the work itself.” Recording these acts on video, sonically or as photographs help her to subsequently “re-familiarise myself with the material outside of it’s normal context.”


Setting physical and psychological limits is also paramount in Hamilton’s practice. Each of her works, whether audio, visual, or performed, is meticulously constructed around a set of conditions. “I don’t like to over complicate things.” She reveals. “If too many variables are included in a work it just makes the work unintelligible.” These constraints yield greater clarity: in Untitled (When), three performers each holding a fluorescent tube light were handed the same set of instructions, in an environment with controlled light and orchestrated action, to facilitate a very direct engagement between the viewer, artist and the art. Derived from this previous performance, in Gallery 1, meanwhile, the installation Untitled (With) was programmed to slowly evolve with subtle changes in the light caused by any movement in the room, “to encourage individuals in the space to stand and let themselves be in the space.” 


“I sometimes struggle when describing this work as ‘interactive’ some think that this means any movement they make will immediately change the work, this isn’t true.” Hamilton reflects. “Any changes of light within the space will result in the audio slowly evolving - if this change only lasts for a few seconds the resulting audio output will not be heard. It takes patience.” 


“I also purposely placed some of the audio ‘triggers’ in front of the other works, therefore when viewing them you are also interacting with the other work in the space.  In Gallery 1 I attempted to promote a peaceful and contemplative atmosphere, both sonically and visually.” She adds.


In our frenzied and fast-paced world, this is the beauty of Hamilton’s work: if you aren't present in the moment, you might miss it altogether.

About Charlotte Jansen 

Charlotte Jansen is a British/Sri Lankan journalist and author born in London, UK. She received an MA (Oxon) in Modern Languages from Oxford University in 2008. Charlotte is currently editor-at-large and columnist at Elephant magazine. She writes on contemporary art, social issues and contemporary culture for publications including the Guardian, The Financial Times, ELLE, Vice,  Wallpaper* and The British Journal of Photography. She is the author of Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze, (Laurence King, UK, April 2017).

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