Anthea Hamilton is not known for her subtlety. As a finalist for the 2016 Turner Prize, Hamilton presented Lichen! Libido! Chastity! in the exhibition at Tate Britain, covering the walls with illustrated bricks and idyllic skies. These motifs mimicked her sculptures, which included metal chastity belts and a much-talked-about gigantic pair of buttocks, entitled Project for Door (After Gaetano Pesce), that protruded out of fabricated brickwork.
Now, as the 2018 recipient of the prestigious Tate Britain Commission, for which an artist is invited to respond to the Duveen Galleries, Hamilton has returned to the museum with The Squash, 2018, an immersive installation inspired by a found photograph of a man dressed as a vegetable.
The genesis of Hamilton’s project, which transforms the famous gallery space through a combination of sculpture and performance, is particularly striking. “Essentially the whole commission is about investigating this image,” says Linsey Young, curator of British contemporary art at Tate. “Anthea found it when she was at art school. She’s lost the credit so doesn’t know where it came from, but she thinks it’s about performance art.”
The photograph depicts a male figure languishing among theatrical set-piece vines while wearing a striped, skintight body-suit and a matching squash-shaped mask over his entire head. Despite having no supporting information about its context or history, Hamilton has created a body of research that grapples with the notion of what this image “might feel like.”
This stems from her interest in French avant-garde playwright, director and theorist Antonin Artaud, who sought to convey the emotional, physiological and psychological power of an image through performance. He was the architect of the Theatre of Cruelty, which favoured primal expression and visceral experience through intense movement, sound and light.
Hamilton adopts some of Artaud’s methods in her multifaceted interpretation of the mysterious photograph. For The Squash, she has commissioned fourteen dancers from fields as disparate as drag, street dance and ballet to embody their own reading of “the Squash Man.” Each participant interacts with a display of sculptures drawn from Tate Britain’s collection while wearing elaborate costumes designed in collaboration with Jonathan Anderson, creative director of the fashion house Loewe, who also oversees his namesake brand. Naturally, their aesthetic is inspired by a selection of gourds, squashes and other autumnal vegetables.
This fluidity makes it impossible to anticipate exactly what will occur within the galleries. Hamilton encourages the dancers to treat the space as their home, to rest and interact as they see fit. In a sense she has given the space over to her performers, but that is not to say she hasn’t treated the entire process with intense rigour. Particular sculptures in Tate Britain’s collection, including pieces by Frederic Leighton and Henry Moore, were chosen with the squash man in mind. Due to his impermeable mask, he cannot see, so the works were selected based on what their form feels like, and the physical and sensual reactions they might evoke.
These sculptures represent the institution’s power in shaping the canon of art history
Beyond their tactility, these sculptures represent the institution’s power in shaping the canon of art history, a subject Hamilton often looks to subvert and redefine. With the sculptures on a range of uneven modular plinths, viewers can draw connections between these sedentary objects and the living, breathing performers – and perhaps question how and why these historical works of art are celebrated.
Hamilton has also overtly reimagined the Duveen Galleries’s physical environment by covering the grand terrazzo floor with white domestic tiles, with the aid of Direct Painting Group. The tiles change the feel and sound one encounters upon entering, while their utilitarian grid offers a system for plotting a viewer’s interactions. By obliterating the ornate flooring, Hamilton has managed to erase the space’s heritage and replace it with a material associated with alternative communal locations such as nightclubs and local swimming pools. “These spaces inhabit a different set of rules to those found in a museum,” says Young, “one that is more egalitarian and approachable.”
Upending accepted structures and experimenting with space is nothing new to Hamilton, whose Turner Prize buttocks sculpture, Project for Door (After Gaetano Pesce) was an imposing 18 feet tall. The Squash shares that work’s comical air, and is rooted in similarly intense research. The concept grew from a model by Italian architect and designer Gaetano Pesce, who intended the absurd sculpture to be a flamboyant doorway to a Manhattan skyscraper. Hamilton’s version involved meticulously scanning the original maquette before recreating it at its proposed size.
For another exhibition that occurred almost simultaneously in 2016, the Kettle’s Yard House and Art Space in Cambridge invited the artist to reimagine a display of the university’s works at the Hepworth Wakefield gallery during the latter’s extensive renovation.
Once again, Hamilton’s subversive and collaborative leanings were evident as she reinterpreted the predominantly modernist Wakefield collection with new works inspired by Kettle’s Yard and its holdings. She invited artists with whom she had previous worked or whose practice she admired, including Ella Kruglyanskaya and Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann, to contribute. The result was a surprisingly harmonious mishmash of pared-back forms and explosive contemporary intervention.
The more you look, the more your are going to understand
Both of these exhibitions occupy a common ground with the new Duveen Galleries commission. In each case, intense, vibrant and arguably humorous aesthetics confront and seduce the viewer, but the longer one spends within these dynamic and surreal environments, the more multifaceted they seem. The largely spontaneous nature of this commission in particular will encourage viewers to devote ample time with the installation. Hamilton’s interest in time and drawn-out work is perhaps a reaction to the considerable and somewhat misplaced attention around Project for Door during the Turner Prize exhibition, when social media feeds and sensational reporting focused intently on the oversize posterior, while providing little context.
“It’s absolutely not about Instagram likes,” Young confirms. “Anthea has said visitors might walk into this show, take a picture and think, ‘I’ve got it,’ but it’s actually impossible because you’d have to be here every day for six months to understand the work in its entirety. I have a strong suspicion she will be here a lot, because she wants to see what this image looks like as a whole.” This principle of a long and intense exploration of an immersive environment is similar to Hamilton’s summation of her time at Kettle’s Yard, and one she continues to pursue in her own practice: “The more you look, the more you are going to understand.”
Holly Black is an arts writer based in London.
Tate Britain Commission 2018: Anthea Hamilton, The Squash, is on view through 7 October.
Support for the Tate Britain Commission is provided by Sotheby’s.