In Anthea Hamilton’s 2018 Duveen Commission, The Squash, a gourd-like figure dressed in couture struts around a newly tiled Tate Britain, but what does it mean asks Gonçalo Birra?
After exhibiting her Project for a Door (After Gaetano Pesce) installation at the 2016 Turner Prize exhibition, Anthea Hamilton returns to the Tate Britain with another monumental installation entitled The Squash. Commissioned especially for the Duveen Galleries, The Squash is a continuous 6-month performance of a single character situated in and around the central skeleton of the building. And it is exactly with this building’s history that the artist proposes to work; for the symbolically charged galleries carry in and on their walls Britain’s imperial past. As an artist concerned about the legacy of imperialism, I am interested in the ways in which Hamilton delves into this building’s past, present and future; I am fascinated by the statements she makes when superimposing her work onto the marbled floor of the gallery space.
The first encounter with The Squash is a rather surreal one; the familiar halls of the Duveen Galleries are now covered in a carpet of white domestic tiles that take over the entire floor. From the floors grow geometrical plinths and other unfamiliar structures, almost as if one has entered the set of a Tetris game. These scattered and irregular platforms are topped by sculptures of historical relevance (a clearly western relevance) which belong to the Tate’s permanent collection. The artist has so far shown us her ability to warp our perception of this grand place, while proposing a new backdrop for these secular works of art. It is in the midst of this whitened jungle of cubes that The Squash lives. A performer/dancer (the distinction is not made clear), clothed in high-fashion garments that allude to different types of squash, navigates the space freely. Its squash-shaped head really is the glitch in this pristine (at times sterile) setting.
I am left with the feeling of an arranged and polished absurdity (not really absurd — rather fashionable). Hamilton’s creative process happens extensively in the experimentation with photographs and other visual references. This time, the artist elaborates on an imagined scenario for a character depicted in an old photograph of which the source has been ‘lost’. The entire installation is the result of the artist’s proposed world where this squash lives – how it occupies the rendered space, its relationships with the objects and seemingly random architectures and its choices are set in motion, but not necessarily directed, by Hamilton herself. Thus there isn’t a set choreography; instead, there is a definite lexicon that the performer-come-squashes share. Only one of these beings occupies the space at once; each day the squash does enters the space it chooses its own clothes (very human for a squash one could say). It is important to underline that these ‘clothes’ have an aura of more than mere attire; that is, they define the very luxurious body of the squash. Hamilton designed the outfits in collaboration with the creative director of Loewe (a Spanish luxury leather house owned by LVMH), Jonathan Anderson, who is also the director of the homologous brand J.W. Anderson. The work loses its potential for absurdity and imaginary worlds when the expensive fashion label takes centre-stage. The very intention to protest against an imperialistic architecture and to propose a gap in the space is somehow undermined by the exclusivity of the clothes that dress the thing which is central to Hamilton’s work: The Squash. This collaboration is not aesthetically unsuccessful, but the decision to introduce the logo of the fashion house transpires something which is more than a creative collaboration — status as currency perhaps?
The sculptures from the Tate’s collection have been selected by The Squash itself — or by what the artist sees in the sourceless (history-less?) photograph. A blind squash can only touch and it is because of the seductive attributes of the surfaces of each one of these sculptures that The Squash chose its préférés. Potentially one of the most interesting narratives in this tiled stage is exactly that negation of sight and seeing; this essentially heightens the potential of touch in an untouchable scene (after all, one still can’t touch the sculptures or the squash itself). It seems to me as though the references to a dismantling of the imperial traces contained in the architecture are reduced to white tiling. This aura reminiscent of a domestic environment is not sufficient to stop me from feeling stunned by the architecture of the Duveen Galleries — I am half dreaming, half awake. At the very back of the galleries, a simplified stage emerges from the grid of ceramic squares. Here, The Squash ‘performs’ (The Squash doesn’t actually perform even though it is clearly performing) to its audience, the Tate and the sculptures.
This grand installation is at once inspiring and deceiving. Threads left hanging in the discourse make me feel confused – and not in a suggestive way. It is almost as if time has run out and this is it. The humorous (or incoherent) discourse is at once exciting and irritating, and significant questions remained unanswered. What about the performers/dancers? Are they just flesh to be dressed in fancy garments? What about Imperialist Britain? How does it all relate to the renovated Duveen space? Nonetheless, for the eyes of those who enjoy pure performative imagery it is a success.
Anthea Hamilton’s 2018 Duveen Commission The Squash is free and will be shown at Tate Britain until 7th October. For more information on Hamilton’s previous work at the Tate see here: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/anthea-hamilton-4789/anthea-hamilton-turner-prize-2016