Amanda Hamilton’s Study of a Beautiful Disaster
Review by Gala Bent
February 5, 2009
One day, an enormous Russian lake with an already peculiar history disappeared. Yes, disappeared. In the morning, it was there—the lake that had once, they say, swallowed a church from its banks. The same evening, it was gone. When artist Amanda Hamilton read the story about White Lake in the Los Angeles Times, it haunted her. The simplest explanation for the 6!2-mile-wide, 48-foot-deep lake glugging down into the earth in a matter of hours is that an underground cavern had collapsed. But this, Hamilton explained at a recent artist’s talk in Seattle, doesn’t help quell the effect such a disturbance has to the human psyches and imaginations that are connected to the lake. It doesn’t draw out the meanings of the event– one of which, for Hamilton, is the distinct sense that human beings are clearly not ultimately in control of the universe in which we live.
When she ran across the article, Amanda Hamilton had been busy constructing scale models of childhood homes– deliberately allowing them to be flawed and fake in reference to the unreliable nature of human memory. She would then photograph them (which reminded me a little bit of Ross Sawyers, whose work I reviewed here a while ago), or paint or draw them, paying attention, again, to the fabricated details–and the limits of her own capacity to replicate them. As the lake story tumbled in the back of her mind– with a dark poetry and unavoidable attraction– it occurred to her that she wanted to remake it.
And so she built a miniature White Lake. A complicated process of trial and error with new materials and technology yielded a final film of an eerie winter landscape– “Beautiful Terrible.” The piece’s power is as much linked to its soundscape as to its Tarkovsky-slow visual pan of foggy trees and snow… and the ice covered lake. A soft white noise is punctuated by distant birdsong, which becomes increasingly frantic (birds and other animals have been shown to uncannily perceive a coming disaster) until a frightful crack booms convincingly. The screen is black at this moment, so that the full measure of the disaster is in our imaginations, where it has the most hold. In the aftermath of the crack, the camera pans to a starry sky—as if referencing a divine distance. Is this a picture of indifference? Or is there hope to be found in the immense and quiet steadfastness that the stars imply? The film itself leaves this question unanswered.
Listening to Hamilton talk, and experiencing “Beautiful Terrible,” played a surprising note in my consciousness. I was inexplicably comforted by the directive to surrender to the sublimely frightening and invigorating wildness of the world as it is. In times like these, when our news-friends have ever more bad news to deliver about our own collapses, art in various forms can ground us (or give us the freedom to be groundless with less fear)—especially work that acknowledges that there are realities unaffected by the catastrophes that confront us as temporal, vulnerable creatures. It is not a matter of escape, but of facing the void collectively, with our spirits intact. Human beings have always made incredible music when faced with such a predicament.