Jamie Hamilton’s Physical Properties


Jamie Hamilton’s recent major work The Incompleteness Theorem at Chiaroscuro Gallery in Santa Fe (2015) was, as always, completely amazing and a total delight. I have experienced this bio-mechanical wizard in his sculptural installations many times during the past ten years. Though they vary widely in use of materials and structural arrangements, all share a quality of precise intention with a musical embracing of the oscillations inherent in matter+energy. Each is tightly crafted to the smallest detail. Each taps into whirls and coils of the cosmos and rhythmic arcs of dance and song. Take a look at these titles: “Field Study,” “Up Is Down,” “Proton Decay.” Jamie doesn’t just paste on labels. They are intrinsic descriptions of his engagement with the works as they develop, progress, and change through time.


I thank Jamie Hamilton for his diligence and integrity in making his gritty, inventive, thoroughly challenging body of work—holding together and suspending precarious fragments of the universe. An accomplished pianist, a perspicacious and courageous climber and high-wire artist, a dedicated engineer of mind and muscle, he is witness to the physical and invisible forces in earthly forms. ARTnews described him as a “free-wheeling, modern-day Leonardo.” He says his work “arises from curiosity about the limits of the body, knowledge, and materials.” Aptly stated and true.


In addition to his sculptural innovations, Jamie becomes a kind of rigger superhero when he performs solo on the aerial structures he designs and builds. His high-wire endeavors are sculptures in time using gravity and space as tools.


— Melody Sumner Carnahan, Santa Fe, 2016


Jamie Hamilton Interviewed by Burning Books, 1 August 2016, Santa Fe

[excerpt edited by Melody Sumner Carnahan]


In creating your sculptures, how much is preconceived and how much is improvised?


I think of the process as somewhat like a jazz musician, you know, they practice for improvisation for a really long time. And so I’ve made all these physical parts and I’m sort of practicing by thinking how I can arrange them in space, but then when it comes to actually installing, I might bring along my preconception, but usually it fails in some way. There is some sort of failure in the translation from my idea to what actually works in the space or how things feel. It might seem like something familiar that is too familiar. So, out of that failure a kind of improvisation takes over, at that point it becomes a lot of doing and looking and designing and modeling on a full scale. What’s interesting is that improvisations are usually temporal and fugitive, like in music, they disappear after they’re created. But the funny thing about this work is after you’ve arranged the parts it just sits there until something happens or the show gets taken down. I can think of it performatively during the making, yet the work itself becomes a statue of sorts. However, I do have the ability to keep changing it up to and even after the opening, and in fact some of these structures actually change themselves—they often succumb to gravity. And the magnetic pieces are in a sense self-forming because there are certain ways in which a magnetic field wants to conduct itself through the metal parts. You’ll be in the process of building it and then nope, it wants to go over there instead, which is interesting to me because then it starts to make something invisible visible.


Your large-scale exhibition at CCA featured the words “Eros” and “Thanatos.” Can you explain what those words mean to you and how the materials figure in?


“Eros” and “Thanatos” are intimately related. I think of everything as a relationship and now quantum physics is saying it is in a weird way with “entanglement.” So this is kind of the eros vision with the male and female parts, the creative force. Then thanatos is more the destructive force, the death force. With copulating and birthing, genes will be carried forth into the world. There has to be a kind of structure between these two parties who are creating offspring. Eros is about that, but Thanatos is about the collapse of something. And of course creation and destruction are never separated.

    I think of this work as kind of a ship being blown apart in a storm. On both sides of the event, creation and destruction are married. There is an arc in the creative/destructive cycle. It depends on what you’re focusing on, so that if you put your sights on the creative aspect you will call it creative, even though it is probably coming from the destruction of something else. You watch this footage of nuclear detonation tests, as spectacular a phenomenon as I’ve ever seen. This tremendous release of energy and this kind of control of energy that has been achieved through maybe a couple thousand years of pursuing an understanding of energy, which culminated with the nuclear bomb. We have made the thing that happens in stars, where we come from. We’ve harnessed it in a micro way.

    I think of the materials as part of an overall arc of what I’ve been trying to do with my emerging aerial practice: the idea of taking sculpture—the creating, building, and the athleticism I’ve been interested in through rock climbing—into a single practice so that some of the materials enter in, like the nylon webbing, which is common in climbing.

    In a way the materials might be more autobiographical than representational. And it’s also the materials I had around in the studio. I’ve got a lot of steel. And I love steel as a sort of weird material that goes between states: it’s a liquid, it’s a solid, it’s ductile, it stretches, it can be strong and rigid, and it has this ability to be worked, in ways you can’t work wood. I mean, you can literally pour metal and then it becomes an engine or an airplane. I basically developed a facility with these materials in order to make my living and then I was able to take that back into a creative place with more quixotic explorations.


With some of your larger installations, are the drawings on the floor a plan for assembly or part of the piece?


Yes, they are absolutely a part of the piece. I’ve always been fascinated by the sort of palimpsest of building, you know, the master craftsman marking the joints and labeling, the sort of “valences” of how constructions come into being. 

There are different ways that information is extrapolated into the world—like one could be a 3D model and one could be a drawing but they are all related to a desire, an intention, to create something. The object manifests from that. I think of the drawings as all part of the reality of that thing. Like this thing that we see on the table, a recording device, is not just the thing but there’s a lineage of technology a lineage of energies that have gone into the production, even coal-fired power plants. There is this incredible connectedness between all things that we think of as separate. My “career” or “art” is totally dependent on machine technology. I couldn’t do any of this shit without a saw blade: a 4,000 year lineage from China. That’s why I think of these as valences. Reality is not distillable into a single phenomenon or emergence but it is incredibly connected, shells inside shells and fractals and such.


Your clandestine high-wire walks?


Steel can also become a flexible cable, with a strong rope-like quality. But I’ve started to use these basically plastic materials, these high-modulus ropes that have the same diameter but about a seventh the weight. When I’m setting up clandestine wires in Los Angeles, I don’t have hundreds and hundreds of pounds of equipment anymore but more like eighty pounds. It’s been interesting to see how that has evolved with the technology. I’ve been setting up wires between train bridges in Los Angeles, and one between two highways. And I walked on them really really early in the morning and got out of there before I got arrested. They’re totally wild, completely terrifying, no net, just a little tether. On one walk there was a train going beneath me. I tried not to notice it or be noticed. I had an accomplice who took some photos. But it was basically dark. That’s the first time I tried to balance in the dark. Much of balancing comes from the visual, noticing that parallax shift as you sway back and forth. In the dark, you still are trying to use your eyes, it’s just harder.

    [How do you balance?] I imagine that a lot of people think that balance is an end result that occurs with a practice or a life change, or like the right self-help book or whatever. But balance is really constantly falling. With the high-wire, you are trying to fall back on top of the wire. You are basically trying to destroy the falls with a new motion that then will birth another fall. You are never in a place of stasis, or comfort.

    One of the really interesting things for me about walking on the high-wire is that in life we often face the unknown, unfamiliar. You can think of it as a precipice, you come to the edge of a precipice, there is a potential for all of this energy going over the precipice, and back behind you is this solid ground that you are familiar with. Very often that you will walk to the edge of a precipice and you will recoil in horror, with this possibility of being destroyed. And all the things you know will be destroyed. And then you get on the high-wire and suddenly you are struck with a void on each side. Like the dissolution of self, the destruction of illusion, all these things are riding on both sides. You can’t recoil from one because you’ll just hurl yourself into the other. So you have to, in a sense, give up trying to drive it. You just can’t drive that situation. You have to, I think, rather prepare for it by introducing things that are sort of like it but in many ways not like it. Because if you just introduce it you will tear yourself apart in the one way or the other. You need steps: I did 2 feet 8 feet 12 feet 20 feet 30 feet, a hundred feet, two hundred feet, whatever. After fifty it doesn’t matter, 50 or 300 feels the same. But under 50 you feel that if you hit the ground you might survive, you might roll out, it would be painful but you’d probably survive. [300 feet? Where’d you do that?] Well, it was probably more like 250. Pajarito Canyon, in Los Alamos. Here’s a photo. [And you are lying down there? How is it to get down and up?] It’sa little precarious. Once you are lying down, you are stable, butwhen you are getting down or up from the wire, if you fall, it’s a hard to grab the wire, so there is a moment when you are in a very dangerous situation.


Where are you in this photo?


That was in Berlin. Part of me saw this enormous space and I thought “this should be my studio!” It was probably about 200 feet across and I didn’t have a long enough rope to cross it. I had to go out on this little cord at the end. The space was almost a hundred feet tall. It’s an old train station and this is the place where they repaired old trains, and there were days when there was nobody there. I just went in through a broken window. That was a beautiful space. I was almost arrested there. The police showed up and I think the only thing that saved me was my not so great mastery of German. They were confused, I was confused, nobody really knew what to do. I was getting ready for a performance I was going to do the next day for my grad school in Berlin, and I figured this will be my thesis performance and that was going great until the police showed up and wanted to arrest me, but I wasn’t really sure because there is that tense thing, you know, we will arrest you, or we are arresting you, so there was enough confusion that they sort of just let me go.


Your recent body of work, “The Incompleteness Theorem”?


Well you know what is interesting about being human is that you are born with an almost universe-sized thing inside your head, which you get to inhabit and play with. This body of work offers a resonance with that idea. The title of one piece, “Divide by Zero,” speaks to the notion that when you divide by zero you end up with infinity, thatin a sense seems like cognition, which is sort of infinite. And that’s why we need more universes.

    This show came from a sense of my responsibility, in the aerial work, for whatever happened to me on high-wire, and yet in a way I was not going to be able to know everything. There would be holes in my knowledge. I might make a mistake. I started looking for philosophies about this vulnerability. And Kurt Gödel, a logician, had this notion of “incompleteness” and he proved mathematically that in the field of mathematical understanding you can have a theory that is complete, or consistent, but not both. The idea that if you do not have paradoxes or inconsistencies in your theory, it will not be a description of all phenomenon. By making your system of understanding consistent you become incomplete. He’s almost talking about dogma in a way. Which is also to say that if you have a system that works, which describes a broad range of things, inconsistencies and paradoxes will occur. It will work here but not here . . . which is what science is always up against. Which is what I think about curiosity or open-mindedness— when you are totally confused, and maybe in a state of modified despair, but at least you are open to the potential of the universe. I think of that as a spiritual by-pass in a way.

    My idea for this show was in a way trying to create visual paradox within sculptural objects revealing “inconsistencies” and all those fascinating things that happen when you try to describe and understand what’s going on in the world. So I see it created with the semi-transparent double-sided mirrors and the helixing shell-like forms, and there are these intervals that are being created where they are twisting off in different directions, and there are images being created that appear to twist and drift in ways that physically they cannot. And it creates a kind ofinfinity and a rotation and a chirality, you know the “handedness,” left and right. A sphere is a non-chiral shape, you flip it over and it’s the same. Or a symmetric shape is non-chiral. So the idea here is that it will flip its handedness when it hits the mirror and then it will start rotating the other way. And the next iteration is How this reflects on that, so that it is continually flipping and twisting as it propagates out into that visual field. 


What are your three favorite bodily positions?


My favorite bodily positions, oh my god. It’s a tough question, it’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I have three favorite positions. I have to say I spend an awful lot of time lying down, sleeping, so that’s a pretty good position to have access to. I’d be really screwed if they took that away. Walking, very important, the ambulatory position, again you are controlling a fall as you move forward. I guess falling itself. I like that position where you are not going past the cusp, a controlled fall, where you are sort of dancing with the fall. And then, handstand. I think it’s always good to see the world upside-down, feeling gravity reversed. And it’s really funny, like next time you are in an airport just flip your head upside-down and you’ll see the natural gait of people: they look like dinosaur chickens! . . . you see someone who looks really snazzy and just flip your head upside-down and they look absurd, lurching and bobbing and dragging those little suitcases on wheels. It’s bizarre, you realize we are just dressed up animals.


What are you afraid of?


I’m afraid of moving to L.A. Definitely. And lots of stuff. Afraid of being alone forever. Afraid of being an outsider. I guess one of the main fears I have is, will my talent ever plug into the world. Isn’t that like every artist. I have this funny thing I dance in my head to plug into this cultural stream and offer something people will like and are genuinely intrigued and curious and bewildered by. I rationalize, then ask myself, hey it is this ultimately the kind of thing I want to do, I want them to want me, I want to be the guy people pay attention to and that the women want to have sex. Or, no no no this is this really about everybody else. No no! I just want to get laid and drive around in a Maserati. And some of the whole questions is true, I do want to be part of something bigger than myself. I think that’s my fear, I am frightened by success but I am frightened by the other side of it too, ultimately.

    But it’s like when someone does something no one is expecting, like Philiippe Petit, stringing the wires between the twin towers of the World Trade Center [in 1974]. If there had been a bunch of hooplah, everybody would have said he was just trying to make money, but suddenly the bean counters looked up from Wall Street and saw a hole in the sky, and said, holy shit it’s a person! And it stops time. That’s really all I want to do, I just want to stop time for little moments, where people get a fucking break.