Helena Hamilton
Untitled (With), 2018. Interactive, site-specific light and sound sculpture, dimensions variable. Photo: Simon Mills

Helena Hamilton: Composing in Space

Helena Hamilton, a young Northern Irish artist based in Belfast, extends the scope of sculpture by eliding drawing, installation, performance, sonic art, and interactive digital media. Meditative, immersive, and atmospheric, her interdisciplinary work places everyday physical objects such as neon tubes in counterpoint with the immaterial and the intangible. Unlike Kevin Killen (another Northern Irish artist whose work shares some of the same qualities), Hamilton prefers industrial units of neon to the handcrafted variety. Her background in performance and interest in duration—in finding a way to record or recognize the time signature of a performance piece—parallels the approach of a more mature artist, Peter Richards, who uses pinhole cameras to “record” onto a single image the entire length of a performance. Six elements, in various combinations, make up a Hamilton work: performance, light, sound, visuals, an interactive element, and finally the viewer.

As a child, Hamilton was always taking things apart, intrigued by how they worked. At one point, she merged a pram and a go-cart into one hybrid object. In secondary school, she took technical drawing, art, and design as her subjects. When she went to art college at the University of Ulster, she had “no guidance at all,” and she left without having been taught any of the principal sculptural techniques; indeed, she says, she felt “intimidated by the word ‘sculpture,’ as I hadn’t been given any fabrication skills.” But Hamilton had found an interest in performance. She started to experiment with the layering of sound and voices, which led to her an MA in Sonic Arts from the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast. It was “a jump into the deep end technically, she says. “I wanted to learn skills, so I learned how to record, to program, to navigate audio—I love problem-solving.”

Order, Effect, 2018. Paper, 170 x 150 cm. Photo: Simon Mills

Hamilton’s first major exhibition was at the Agency Gallery in London (2015–16), where she presented an untitled neon-tube piece for which she had produced 30 minutes of audio. She made the tube into a speaker and suspended the tube-light in the space. The audio consisted of sounds emanating from the light, which were played through a transducer attached to the metal part of the tubing. There was no interactive element as yet, but the tube served as a forerunner for much larger works to come.

During a residency in Tokyo, Hamilton experimented with crumpled paper works that hung from the ceiling. One piece in particular captivated her, so she tried to capture the energy of the moment by taking photographs and trying different lighting. She experimented with various papers—rice paper in particular, because she liked its texture and fragility. Once back home, she started to develop an idea: How big a sheet of paper could she use? The crumpled forms led her to produce three-dimensional works using photogrammetry, whereby she would take approximately 400 photographs of an object that she could compose into a high-quality, three-dimensional object. She then used this idea to create videos, animating them by using the free version of the animation program Blender.

Her next major project was a second exhibition at the Agency Gallery (“Semblance and Event,” 2018); a “more honed” version of the show then appeared at Millennium Court Arts Centre in Portadown, and part of it was included in a group show at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast. The crumpled paper works, which were “floated” off the wall to make them appear more solid, were shown with a suspended tube-light work, alongside photographic giclée prints on Hahnemühle rice paper.

Untitled (Paper Study_01), 2016. Giclée print on Hahnemuhle rice paper, 153 x 112 cm. Photo: Simon Mills

A second room featured a video piece projected on the wall, which documented a “sound performance.” Acetates were suspended in a corner, with a light at each end and two of the Tokyo drawings to the side. A station with headphones played a two-channel audio composition created during her residency in Tokyo. Hamilton made all of the recordings, which include sounds of rain, bikes, trains, paper, and drawing. The video was created by positioning a camera next to the glass top of the projector—where the acetates were placed—each interaction highlighted because of the extreme proximity of the camera.

A final, key work, Untitled (With), stemmed from the single neon tube in Hamilton’s first Agency show. As with many of her productions, this one originated in performance. Originally it was a durational piece using three performers, each with a tube and a lapel mic. When the performers went on stage, they were given instructions: lift up the tube, face the audience at eye level, then turn on the lights in unison. When the lights went on, live sound (controlled by a program that Hamilton had written) came from them through speakers attached to the tubes. The program picked up even minor hand twitches, and filtered frequencies created harmony. As the performers became tired, they lowered their lights, and the program, detecting that, changed the frequencies, a gesture influenced by the composer Steve Reich’s use of frequency phrasing.

Untitled (With), 2018. Interactive, site-specific light and sound sculpture, dimensions variable. Photo: Simon Mills

As exhibited at the Agency, Millennium Court and Golden Thread, Untitled (With) became more expansively interactive, a live, evolving, sound device. “I always loved the look of tube lights,” Hamilton says. “When I suspended a tube at the Agency, it clicked that I could encourage people to move around them. It’s important that the sounds naturally develop and are peaceful.” Thirty-six tubes form a composition in space. Hamilton works with another person and pre-drills the tubes with wires: “As they are suspended, I walk around and we do six or seven in a day. It’s composing in space and from all angles.” The sound is usually left for last. Hamilton builds the program with Max MSP software: “It imparts a visual field around the lights by using a webcam, which I try to hide. Depending on where people are, or if there is a change in the lighting, the frequency will change.” In other words, the work responds to an individual’s movements as he or she walks around it, under it, or goes to the side. Potentially this is a very rich area for development, and it parallels the work of artists like Ian Cumberland, who seek to control the viewer’s progress around a gallery by placing three-dimensional works in such a way that there is no option but to take specific routes. Hamilton’s work is visually spectacular, though the sonic aspect is so subtle that I suspect many people do not even realize what is happening.

Hamilton is currently developing the Golden Thread work as the basis for a new public art project at Queen’s University. This time, she is designing the lights herself and using a local company to manufacture them. Ironically, factory-made tubes are becoming too quiet. She needs the louder buzz of custom pieces to allow the sonic elements to emerge more clearly. “My end goal, the reason I create, is to understand the world around me both sonically and visually,” Hamilton says. “I want to find my narrative, and where that fits in the world. I don’t meditate, but I do like repetition and peaceful atmospheres, and I do like creating space…Maybe it’s the viewer now—how people interact with things.”

Archived Interactions (detail), 2018. Acetates from live performance with The Butterflies In My Brain, 2014–18, dimensions variable. Photo: Simon Mills

Recently Hamilton has been working in collaboration with the composer Shiva Feshareki (who recently performed at the London Proms) on an ongoing project that she says is “very much in the beginning phase.” Together, they are trying to create “a new media, audio-visual work, one in which the visual will react in real time to Shiva’s live audio performance. The video work is being made up of 3D digital, sculptural works of imagined spaces, taken from my drawings and also from 3D scans of real-world objects using photogrammetry. The first step is to create these digital spaces; the second will then be to build the interactive end.”

All of the elements that Hamilton uses may have been used before, but she is at the beginning of a journey in which sound, light, and performance are coming together in new configurations. There might be fewer “sculptors” today, but there are certainly more artists producing sculpture.