Helena Hamilton at Catalyst Arts
The conceptual artist hopes to 'make you feel a little bit sick' with her current exhibit in the Belfast gallery, which features multiple audio recordings
Anyone who’s ever been caught short in the Black Box in Belfast has, in a way, experienced the dizzying, immersive quality of Northern Irish artist Helena Hamilton’s work. One of her installation pieces decorates the gent's toilets there, and when you view it you are, literally, caught with your pants down.
'Lock your soul in the brain of my world…', which is indefinitely on show in the Black Box, is exhausting – an MC Escher checker-board, trailing black on white glossolalia up the walls and ceiling, producing impossible perspectives, an explosion of words and ideas draped across every surface and everywhere snaking, sneaking language.
It is language as gnomic anti-communication: words push one way and then double-back on themselves or flip up, disappearing into ellipses. This effect is monomania, words that fail to signify anything beyond the proliferation of words themselves. It is a heady, bewildering experience.
Hamilton’s current exhibition piece, 'Climb through the holes in my brain to get to my soulluos, I promise to wake up soon', is part of Catalyst Art’s OUT / TUO exhibition, which runs in the Belfast gallery until February 7.
It is concerned with language in a very different way. It is a white cube set into the centre of the exhibition space and fitted with a large sub-woofer speaker which plays the bass frequencies of the artist’s voice repeating the words 'I am'.
On top of the structure, three kilograms of salt dance along with the bass resonance. The voice has been overdubbed 65 times (like 'Bohemian Rhapsody') but with the top and middle range removed (unlike 'Bohemian Rhapsody'). The resulting industrial rumble renders the words unintelligible, the tooth-rattling bass growl filling the exhibition space.
Does it matter to you that what you’re saying in this piece – 'I am' – becomes inaudible?
No, I wanted that. That’s why the piece is accompanied by a text. I don’t always do a write up, but there is a lot of significance in the numbers and you wouldn’t necessarily get that whenever you look at the piece. We did the recording and we layered it 65 times – equivalent to my weight in kilos – but then we changed the sub-harmonic generator to create low frequencies so you couldn’t hear what I was saying even if it was just one layer.
You wouldn’t have a clue that it was a human voice. It’s this big, scary, industrial rumble.
I like the way it makes the doors shake when you’re walking in. I wanted that, I liked the idea of it making you feel a little bit sick.
In some ways it reminds me of your permanent installation in the Black Box, Belfast, though it seems almost the opposite in its intent. With this piece there is a deliberate occlusion of language; with the installation there’s too much, you can’t really make out what’s going on.
And I like that. Words are essential to the way I work. A big influence on me would be the dictionary. A dictionary and a thesaurus: I always have one with me. This Black Box piece is the first piece I’ve done that actually will continue to exist. It’s something I struggled with, the idea of it staying, because I like the idea of the piece dying. If a piece is important to an individual they’ll remember it through memory and I never want to force any artwork on anyone. But I’m comfortable with it now. It is what it is.
A unique lavatorial experience!
Exactly, and I think it’s an interesting space. I’ve always wanted to work in a toilet. I think it’s the perfect place to put an installation. It’s very personal.
So why the use of salt in your exhibit in Catalyst Arts?
There are a lot of associations with salt – the salt of the earth, worth your weight in salt. It used to be a wage, hence the word 'salary'. But it’s also a corrosive; if we eat too much it kills us. And there’s also the purity of it. I was obsessed with it falling. I placed some at the top of my studio space and it just falls so slowly, you couldn’t see it unless you stuck your hand out. It also dries up the air around it and you can actually taste the salt. It affects the atmosphere.
Do you see this piece as a self portrait? Especially as it has part of you, your voice, contained within it?
There’s a quote on my website from Arthur Schopenhaur: 'Every man takes the limits of his own field or vision for the limits of the world.' You can’t see the world through anyone else’s eyes, no matter how hard you try. So I very much like to explore that idea of 'I' and who 'I' is, because everyone refers to themselves as 'I'.
All of my work is basically an exploration of myself and my ideas at the time. Some people have said, 'Helena, it’s a bit egotistical'. But I can only explain things through my experience.
What are you doing next?
I’m actually working on a piece down in Cavan, in Bailieborough, though I’m not sure what it's going to be. I always jump at the chance to be in exhibitions, it’s not everyday you get to try out what’s going on in your head. You can try it out as much as you want in your studio but you really need something to work towards. And you get feed-back, which is essential to your growth as an artist.
I want to make pieces that are relevant to anyone, whether it’s a teenager, or someone in university, whether it’s an artist or an older person, I want it to be something that anyone can engage with on a certain level, so they can enjoy it. I like it when kids come go up and feel the top of the box and go, 'Hey, what’s this? Is this salt?', or 'What’s that sound?' I like the layers.
OUT / TUO runs in Catalyst Arts, Belfast until February 7.