ANN HAMILTON, the installation artist who will represent the United States in the 48th Venice Biennale, is a slight woman who dresses in the art-world uniform, black pants and jacket, her salt-and-pepper hair closely cropped.
But if she looks like a pixie, she also has a mind as imposing as an Oxford don's -- and much more imaginative. Her works are known for being sensory and cerebral at the same time. They are, she says, "an accumulation of gestures" that speak in a language that is hers alone.
Typically, Ms. Hamilton fashions a variety of materials -- massive amounts of everything from honey and cut flowers to wool coats, canaries, peacocks, soot, bread dough and horsehair -- into complex, evocative installations encoded with layers of meaning. She (or a stand-in) is often part of the work, and she regularly includes a text or audio component. Her work is very difficult to collect, though many museums have shown it.
Much more than with many artists, viewing an Ann Hamilton creation is like peering into her mind, stepping into a temporary world she devises in response to a specific site.
Outside the neo-classical United States Pavilion at the Biennale, which opens on June 13, Ms. Hamilton is placing a veil of water glass that will frame and distort the image of the building seen through it. Inside the pavilion, she will have fuchsia-colored powder sifting down the gallery walls, collecting on Braille dots that spell out verse about human suffering. Barely audible in the background is a whispered recording of an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address.
The installation, called "Myein," deals with how we know what we know and what we blind ourselves to, how the invisible affects us and how the visible can be veiled, how we learn from seeing and from touching. It is also about dualisms, like our longing to be alone yet our need to be part of a social unit. And it is about looking very hard at the things we as humans do to other people.
While Ms. Hamilton does not explain her titles, "Myein," a Greek root of the word mystery, refers to an abnormal contraction of the eye's pupil, and to a rite of initiation.
"I'm thinking that I am the American representative, and it's the eve of the millennium," she said in an interview in early February, when her ideas for the piece were starting to crystallize. "I want to bring to the surface the questions we should be asking."
If the work sounds strange, well, that is not unusual. Katy Kline, one of two curators who nominated Ms. Hamilton as the American representative and thus drafted a proposal, said it was difficult to describe Ms. Hamilton's work. "She has an approach that almost deliberately tries to circumvent the verbal," said Ms. Kline, who is the director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine. "She invites the viewer into a set of visible and auditory conditions where their entire bodily experience is activated. They are swept into a state of awareness beyond that of the normal viewer. She tries to intrigue the whole body."
For their part, critics are usually engaged, mindful that Ms. Hamilton reaches beyond her grasp and often -- but not always -- succeeds. At 42, she is acknowledged as a top artist of her generation and her work, at its best, is lauded as poignant, poetic and theatrical.
Still, the Fund for U.S. Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions had to make something of a leap of faith when it chose her from a field of 15 nominees. Unlike most past representatives -- the painter Robert Colescott, the video artist Bill Viola and the sculptor Louise Bourgeois in recent years -- Ms. Hamilton was not offering to fill the pavilion mostly with existing work.
RATHER, Ms. Kline and Helaine Posner, an independent curator who collaborated on the nomination, essentially suggested that the panel commission a work by Ms. Hamilton. First, though, they described her past work and her general approach, which is about as distant as one can imagine from a painter putting brush to canvas or a sculptor casting metal.
Here are some of the things Ms. Hamilton has been doing over the last nine months to make the work, as related in a series of interviews:
"I'm reading wildly."
"I've been on the phone for the last three days with makeup companies."
"I tell people what I'm thinking about, and they send me things."
"I'm gathering stuff on Braille."
"I've made two walls in my studio, with different size dots for Braille."
"I spent three solid days on the phone talking with chemists."
"We're figuring out how close the holes should be, how big the orifices, and the speed of motion."
"I use the Thomas Register -- it's my bible, it's a registry of companies and manufacturers."
In the end, she created several parts for "Myein," beginning with the veil of rippled glass, which spans the pavilion's 90-foot length and rises 18 feet from the ground to its pediment. Set seven feet from the entrance, the steel-and-glass wall will distort the view of the pavilion, making it something of a mirage.
Inside, gallery walls will be covered in a Braille translation of passages from Charles Reznikoff's "Testimony: The United States 1885-1915," verse that he published in the 1960's recounting court cases involving random acts of violence. The fuchsia powder will slowly descend from the top of the gallery walls, dropped by an auger system normally used by bakeries and pharmaceutical companies to control the flow of ingredients. As time passes, the powder will accumulate around the white Braille dots, making them visible, yet still frustrating the viewer's ability to read what they say.
Meanwhile, from invisible speakers, Ms. Hamilton's voice will whisper Lincoln's message about healing the schism caused by slavery. It, too, is indecipherable to casual visitors because she spells out his words letter by letter in international alphabet code (alpha, bravo, charlie, delta and so on).
Compared with earlier works, Ms. Hamilton said, her description of "Myein" -- as it existed on paper and in her mind, for it is still under construction in Venice -- seemed minimal to some confidantes. But not to others. "I think this will be quite shocking," said Sean Kelly, her longtime dealer. "People think of Ann's work as intelligent, beautiful, demanding, sensorily charged, but not as very sumptuous, baroque and sexy, as this is. This will be a piece with a real richness, a voluptuous aspect."
Then again, it is hard to tell in advance: Ms. Hamilton's works come together only on the scene and often at the last minute, she said -- recalling times when she had had to run to a hardware store to fill some unforeseen need.
In early May, however, on the eve of her flight from her home in Columbus, Ohio, to Venice, Ms. Hamilton gave all indications that she was pleased with her conception. With much packing yet to do, she was calm. And despite some early misgivings about working in Italy for the first time, she seemed comfortable with the ability of her team of technical advisers, assistants and curators (about a dozen people at last count) to pull the project together.
She had clearly come a long way since May 1998, when she learned that she would represent the United States. Then, she said: "I felt very mixed. It's an incredibly wonderful recognition and opportunity, but I was also terrified. It's probably the most public thing I'll ever do."
Ms. Hamilton said that on getting the nod she immediately told her husband, Michael Mercil, a sculptor who teaches studio classes at Ohio State University, to sit down. "My first thoughts were that it's going to be a really, really full year," she said. "Initially, I was thinking very practically, because you're in denial about it. You don't want to look at it, the furiousness of the responsibility of it. Then I decided it should be a pleasure."
Also a culmination. Born in 1956 in Lima, Ohio, Ms. Hamilton grew up in Columbus, where her family -- her father, a businessman, her mother, a homemaker, and an older brother -- still lives. "I don't know if I ever said, 'I'm going to be an artist,' " she said. "I always liked to make stuff in the way you grow up making things." If she had to pin it down, she said, she probably chose her profession when she left St. Lawrence University, where she had studied liberal arts, for the University of Kansas, where she earned a bachelor's degree in textile design.
She began showing her work professionally in 1981, and later went to Yale to get a master's degree in sculpture. She taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara, then returned to Columbus. Nowadays, she shares both home and studio with her husband, with whom she has a 4-year-old son, Emmett. He spends a lot of his time in the studio, too. "It's his life. He will say, 'My mom made that,' " said Ms. Hamilton, a genuinely down-to-earth person who occasionally brings up the need to reconcile work with domestic duties like making dinner.
Indeed, last summer, the family made a Biennale research trip to Monticello -- because many people think the United States Pavilion resembles Jefferson's home.
That trip came after Ms. Hamilton, along with Ms. Kline, Ms. Posner and Mr. Kelly, went to Venice last summer to get the feel of the place. She came home with basic instincts about the pavilion's stately civic mien and thus its ties to American social and Jeffersonian philosophies. Viewing the space and its structure -- a central rotunda flanked by four galleries -- she immediately wanted physical changes, as she often does. False ceilings have been taken down and skylights uncovered to increase the volume and let in daylight.
But she said in February that there were, last summer, no thoughts about what materials might go into the piece. Or a clear idea. "I started thinking about where it's situated, about transparency and opacity, blindness, what is invisible," she said. "How do you evoke those things that are actually invisible to us? Some of the things that influence us most are invisible."
She discarded one early thought -- using mirrors to wrap the pavilion -- as too literal. (But she is placing a mirror inside the building.)
All along, Ms. Hamilton had been reading to stimulate ideas. Citing people like Ann Carson, the poet, she said that writers rather than visual artists have been the strongest influences on her work.
For this project, she devoured philosophy, social history, poetry. Things by Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau. "You float yourself in an atmosphere that makes you think," she explained. "It's not that you get ideas directly."
Ms. Hamilton sometimes writes or calls people whose ideas she admires, and over the years, she has corresponded with some of them. This time, Susan Stewart, the author of "On Longing," sent her texts from Lucretius, John Donne and George Herbert. Ann Lauterbach, the poet, gave her an essay by Philip Fisher called "Democratic Social Space: Whitman, Melville, and the Promise of American Transparency."
After reading Robert Pogue Harrison's "Forests: The Shadow of Civilization," Ms. Hamilton called him at Stanford University, where he teaches French and Italian; he sent her a text, "The Names of the Dead," that he wrote for the fall 1997 issue of Critical Inquiry, a scholarly journal.
"You read things and they confirm a direction you're going," Ms. Hamilton said. When she sees something particularly resonant, she may share it with friends. "I have eight inches of faxed fragments," Ms. Kline reported. Ms. Hamilton explained, "Friends help create permission for you."
Even in mid-February, Ms. Hamilton did not know exactly what she would make. "Everyone's asking me, 'Do you know what you're doing?' " she said. "And they're all surprised when I say no. But I've never known at this stage. In some ways, I feel I must know somewhere in my body. Part of the process is trusting that."
A few days afterward, Ms. Hamilton made a second trip to Venice with Mr. Kelly to see if her ideas felt right for the space. "I need to see, 'Does this feel right, now that I'm here?' " she said a few days before leaving. "When I come back, I need to have a direct plan and put some things in production."
While there, the cold prevented her from spending too long inside the pavilion, but she walked around and around it, kept warm by her movement, looking at it from different perspectives. She took photographs and measurements. She talked to the architects who were fixing the ceilings. "I wrote down a lot of words," she said. For fun, "we ate simply great meals."
On the airplane back, Ms. Hamilton reflected; she felt that some of her feelings had been affirmed, others not. She vetoed an idea about a piece of paper falling, for example, and recalled the image of a substance falling around the galleries' edges, which she thought of on the flight to Venice. "That's when I thought of sifting," she said. "In Venice the horizon is always shifting up and down."
On her return, with her ideas jelling, Ms. Hamilton buckled down to figuring out "the how of it." On March 3, she again felt daunted by what she had to accomplish. "Two days ago, I was tearing my hair out," she said, "but I talked to someone and I felt better." Then she felt adrenaline kicking in: "It's a good adrenaline."
Materials research was a top priority. "I've spent most of my time trying to find a powder that is nonstaining, hydrophobic, nontoxic, not expensive, nonflammable, colorful, and has the property of falling and catching in the air, but not leaving particulates in the air," she said. "It has taken me into this whole world."
She started looking in the grocery store and soon began testing things with screens and sifters. "We ground up rose hips, tried sands, chalk, starches, all sorts of herbs -- hibiscus leaves are incredibly beautiful," she said. "I got above a screen on a ladder and sifted down." (Cremora, she said in an aside, fell very beautifully, but had other problems, like absorbing moisture.)
"It really looked like amateur science hour in my studio," she added.
For other suggestions, she called some chemists recommended by friends at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia; she called others cold, without introduction, pulling names from the Thomas Register. So many recommended others that she soon had "a labyrinth" of sources.
Ms. Hamilton learned that makeup powders had to be eliminated because they cake, that many plastic powders don't fall properly, that others do not bind well with color and other facts that are not the first thing one might have imagined an artist having to know. She settled on a vinyl powder: 20,000 pounds of it.
Meanwhile, she was experimenting with what the powder would fall on: Braille, or a cursive writing she had designed for another project? How high in relief should the dots, or the writing, be? There were more experiments.
Ms. Hamilton had also being doing "extensive" research on weather, but she said it did not turn into anything. "I think where that has gone is into the presence of voice," she continued. "I will experiment with the recording of whispering from speakers that aren't visible, but coming like wind. Weather comes from a lot of things that are invisible to us."
SHE also still had to search for a mechanical system that would sift powder from above. With help from technical advisers, she found an auger system that could fit flush against a wall, no easy trick, and could operate on the Italian electricity system. That required a trip to New Jersey for tests.
Next came work to figure out the size of the holes, the spacing between them and the pace of the system. The plan is to gently parcel out 10,000 pounds of the powder over eight hours. (At night, a vacuum system will sweep up the superfluous powder, which will be screened and recycled.)
With the mechanical aspects in place, Ms. Hamilton made the final selections of her text, worked out plans to transfer Braille dots one by one to the pavilion's walls and began recording the Lincoln address.
But she was not yet certain that the work was finished. So she prepared a final gesture, a six-foot-long wooden table with "massive, big fat legs" into which she cut slots. Between them, she plans to suspend knotted white cloth. "I sense it will be in the courtyard," she said in early May, not quite sure.
By Ms. Hamilton's clock, there was plenty of time to decide once she saw how her designs came together into a whole in Venice. It all has to be in place by 9 A.M. on June 9, when the press and special guests of the Biennale are allowed in for the first look at the work of participating artists from 59 countries.
Ms. Hamilton is hoping, she said, that people will be perplexed and intrigued by "Myein." She worries a little because "the piece is best experienced when there aren't crowds," an unlikely occurrence at the Biennale.
But her supporters are confident. "This piece looks back in a kind of lament for all the lives and losses that have been experienced," said Ms. Kline. "Yet it has a sense of redemption, too, a sense of possibility. It's completely magical and mysterious."