A Visionary Hits Venice

First, Ann Hamilton completely gutted the U.S. pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale exhibition of international contemporary art. Then she constructed a ripply glass wall across the courtyard. Seen through it, the building seems to dissolve. On the bare white walls inside, she's fashioned large Braille excerpts from Charles Reznikoff's "Testimony," a poetry epic recounting the sufferings of underclass Americans. To accentuate the text, fine, rosy-red powder continuously sifts down along the walls from above. The audio component--yes, there's a soundtrack--is a whispered rendition of Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural Address. The result is a stately, lyrical work of installation art entitled "myein" (from a Greek root meaning mystery).

It's also the official U.S. entry in the big artfest (open through Nov. 7) and one of the most expensive--her New York dealer had to raise about $650,000 to complete it. That was possible because Hamilton, 43, is a former MacArthur "genius" grantee and perhaps the only installation artist around who combines esthetics and message so adroitly. "My materials are beautiful, and I do want you to look at it," says Hamilton. "But part of the piece is about American culture insidiously filtering out into everyplace, like the powder." An all-American resident of Columbus, Ohio, she's been described as "pixieish" so often you expect her to have hummingbird wings. True, Hamilton is 5 feet 3 inches and cuts her gray hair short, but her arms display the musculature of the textile artist she was before deciding "space" was her real medium.

For "myein," she arrived in Venice with a handpicked crew, 24 electric motors for the powder, plans stored in a laptop and mobile phones to keep everyone in touch. "What I want now is something in the palm of your hand that will directly transfer the way you scan written information in your own way, so you can have a record of it," says Hamilton, an omnivorous reader. "Stopping to copy things is too self-conscious. I've already been talking to technicians about it." Twenty-first-century art, here we come.