Slowlife Chats with Alexander James Hamilton

Alexander James Hamilton – founding artist, Distil Ennui Studio ® since 1990

What does true ‘sustainability’ mean to you?

I truly believe that the word ‘convenience’ is destroying our natural world. We must learn to shed this concept and live in harmony with the natural world, rather than forcing our will upon it.

For me, true sustainability is the capacity to endure in a relatively ongoing way across various domains of life, where the Earth’s biosphere and human civilisation co-exist. For many sustainability is defined through the interconnected domains of environment, economy and society. According to Our Common Future (Brundtland Report published in 1987 by the United Nations), sustainable development is defined as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Moving towards true sustainability will involve social challenges that entail international and national law, urban planning, transportation, supply-chain management, local and individual lifestyles and ethical consumerism.Ways of living more sustainably can take many forms, such as:

• reorganising living conditions (e.g. eco villages, eco municipalities and sustainable cities);
• reappraising economic sectors (permaculture, green building, sustainable agriculture) or work practices (sustainable architecture);
• using science to develop new technologies (e.g. green technologies, waste technologies, renewable energy and the possibility of sustainable fission and fusion power);
• designing systems in a flexible and reversible manner; and
• adjusting individual lifestyles to conserve natural resources, and making personal choices that make a difference.

How does your own ethos complement that of Soneva?

It was a revelation for me to discover Soneva, which was purely by a chance introduction, and seeing how the founders regard themselves as ‘guardians’, with a genuine respect for the environment. Their range of community, education, water and recycling projects is to be applauded. They are rethinking architecture to work with the landscape; are recycling every available resource; and have a cultural education programme so that guests can be shown how they can make real change and have a direct impact on the environment, before taking the message back home with them.

As an artist, why is it important to use your platform to advocate for the environment?

For some people, accepting the world the way that it is is not enough. When faced with that knowledge, you still have to live your life somehow to exist within these confines, hoping to not go bashing into the walls too much. But life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact… and that is: everything around you has been made up by people that were no smarter than you or I. It is about shaking off this erroneous notion that life is just there and you are just going to live in it; versus the potential to embrace it, to change it, to improve it and make your mark upon it with your time here.

Once you learn that, the world for you will never be the same again. For me, using my work to further explore the natural world in a complementary and non invasive way, I hope to engage in the viewer with the need for a spiritual reawakening with nature.
My practice has always been driven by my interest in field observation and scientific discovery, with a prominence in exploring the liquid mechanics of water. Back in 1990, I stated that ‘water is the new oil’ and, as the years have gone by, that belief and public statement has become a firm reality. As in the past we fought battles over access to oil, soon those same wars will erupt over access to clean water. This, the great fate of humanity, consumes my thoughts daily. Continuing to explore its environmental signature is a conversation that I have made a lifelong commitment to: that of unencumbered fresh water to all living species and clean oceans that enable their vital ecosystems to thrive.

In tribal Tuareg culture, it is forbidden for a family with children to camp any closer than 5 kilometres from water, lest their children take water for granted. The modern world is losing these connections with the natural world a little more every day. Therefore, I believe it is my role is to make the concerns of art relevant to society at large, a crucial means for turning thinking into doing in the world. I believe it is important to not be limited by the architectural confines of the art world; instead my practice engages with the broader public sphere through interventions within natural landscapes and civic spaces alike, arts education, policy-making, issues of sustainability and ecocide.

Alexander James Hamilton

‘Vitreous Love’ dated 2012, from from ‘Glass’ 2011-2013

‘Ptolemy’ dated 2015, from ‘Oil + Water’ 2014-2015.

Many of my projects over the years stem from exploring current scientific research papers, for example in the series ‘Glass’ (2011–2013) where I developed a process that removes all the colour pigment from flower petals, replacing it with highly purified water using cellular osmosis. I believe it takes more courage to paint a simple landscape than it does to hang a side of beef in a gallery; this act of bravery is evident by the presentation of such an instantly recognisable subject and then to present it in an entirely new way. Originality is paramount even with something as commonplace as a rose.

Scientific research also formed the basis for the project ‘Oil + Water’ (2014-2015), which was created in the winter forests of Siberia. For this, I explored the scientific phenomenon ‘enthalpy of fusion’ by super freezing crude oil formations that were entombed in an ossuary of frozen river water. The results were quite extraordinary and only possible once temperatures dropped below minus 50 degrees, allowing the process to be instigated outside of laboratory conditions.

As an artist, my intention is to engage scientific explorations with positive interventions within the natural world, with a mind towards designing a more sustainable future. Photography is a tool I use to negotiate my idea of reality. I feel a responsibility to not contribute with purely anaesthetic images, but rather to provide those that are able to shake the consciousness. It is the language of nature that guides me; its texts were written far before our coming into being.

 How have you developed the recycling processes at Makers’ Place?

I formed the Distil Ennui Studio back in 1990. Since the very beginning, physical fabrication from recycling discarded materials has been a thread that I have continually explored over the years. This includes the use of sophisticated water filtration systems that I have used and developed over the years in my many water installation projects. The studio engages yearly with an artist residency programme, where young artists are invited to collaborate in the studio on specific projects. These residency projects always involve recycling at their core. In 2019, I hosted ‘Dark Vat’, where 12 young Siberian artists were invited to collaborate on a museum-standard public art exhibition. The space was a raw industrial factory, disused for over 40 years, which we transformed using only found and discarded materials. Together with the artists we hosted multiple recycling workshops and 3d printing design mash-ups, teaching these young artists how anything is possible with determination.


These threads have been an ongoing exploration of what is possible with current technologies and available resources. Makers’ Place is a natural extension of these principles, in an efficient working space that has its footprint examined and considered at every level. This encapsulates the closed loop wash station where the shredded waste is processed for a final cleaning, and a VOC filtration system that captures all harmful carbon emissions, chemicals and odour from the recycling production process. These systems all evolved from past studio designs, twinned with current technology to maximise creative possibilities from what are essentially the simplest of studio tools.

The amazing support from the entire team at Soneva has helped us overcome the many challenges of turning Makers’ Place into a reality. As with any project, it is not the limitations that pre-occupy me, it is the possibilities.

There is no attempt to be fashionable here, just an unmitigated apathy towards commercial mechanisation. In our digital world, I find fewer and fewer artists have a genuine connection with their work. From the smallest of details to the largest, a true artist really must have a deep-rooted connection with their materials. If, for example, a young artist today was working on a new piece that involved sand, then you can be sure it would be delivered to the studio by the local hardware store. If a piece involves paint, then rest assured that their particular purchased version of blue pigment is among many thousands of other instances of that exact same blue delivered to other artists all around the world.

I merely want to ask the question: how many of today’s artists create from nothing, by using what is around them to every possible extent using their technical (renaissance) knowledge? I imagine not many. So many skills are being lost as each new generation of digitally enabled artists stream from their themed educational institutions but are unable to mix their own pigments with surety, cannot master the stretching of an oversize canvas, nor process analogue films or photographs.

So, of course, Makers’ Place stems from my belief in the 3R strategy: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. A certain level of technical awareness can make an immense reduction in an artist’s (or indeed a commercial enterprises’) footprint, by adapting to what is readily available.

What is your favourite work you have created at the studio so far, and why?

The first collection of pieces created for Makers’ Place was a series of discarded drinks containers, such as a crushed beer can and water bottles, that were modelled from an original piece of rubbish and recreated in pure aluminium by upcycling drinks cans. They make a poignant message, I believe.

I am looking forward to my return in November, when I will be able to work on the plastics side of the facility. I am very keen to explore the visual possibilities of plastic recycling into lighting and architectural features that can bring the message into daily life – really exciting potential lies here that is yet to be explored. So, for now, I can say that I always have my eye on tomorrow and its possibilities. So my favourite work that I have created… that will be tomorrow’s news.

What would you like to achieve through the Makers’ Place – and what do you have planned next?

With Makers’ Place we now have proof of concept, the facility operates with a near zero carbon footprint and shows what can be done with these discarded materials. Specifically, I would like to see the facility replicated in island environments, consuming waste in places where the processing of single use materials can be responsibly managed, where currently it is not.

Right now I am developing a small machinery production line that can produce a well engineered ‘Life Can’, which is a water bottle made from discarded and upcycled landfill aluminium waste. Current technology will allow me to do this on a small footprint and low investment, and this simple set-up could have a real and quantifiable impact on society. Consider, if you will, a small facility where free raw materials (aluminium cans) arrive, and shortly thereafter a community changing product leaves.
You only have to pass through Malé airport to see how travellers could benefit from such an item – with more than 90 percent needlessly carrying single-use plastic water bottles that will ultimately be discarded. This innovation could have wide-ranging applications and further engage a cultural education programme for guests.

As an artist I am constantly evolving within the studio, and it is important not to lose this sense of urgency. I feel a proud sense of responsibility with what I know is possible with determination, that the real strength of a person is to be found in their hunger to act and be heard as it scratches their muscles, compelling them into action.

At every single point of the day we are writing the great novel of our lives. Let’s try at least to make it a good read. Or at least an interesting one.

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