Anthea Hamilton’s The Squash
If you ever chance to find your eyes fixed on the majestic outline of the Tate Britain, you could accurately predict the budding sights you would see on an expedition through the forest of tall halls and spiral staircases that intertwine within the art museum: neoclassical sculptures, Hellenistic pillars, spectacular galleries of British art, lavish exhibitions, and an equally lavish gift shop. Anthea Hamilton’s The Squash, which you can visit for free until 7th October, is an exhibition that not even an oracle could prophesy.
Your first step into the Duveen Galleries is met with a bright and white tile which has been cloned into a disorientating plenitude of identical square tiles that canopy the entire floor. The eerily sterile space remains encased within the grandiose environment of Tate Britain’s neoclassical architecture, creating a fitting yet uncanny mosaic of antiquity meeting futurity that resembles the temporally dislocated room featured at the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Standing in the room feels as if you have been transported to a counterfactual world in which an alien garden has buried its artificial roots into the heart of the Tate itself.
In the more fertile patches of the galleries, tiles sprout upwards from the floor and escape into the third dimension to form plinths, the most distinctive of which is an enormous monolithic stage that has germinated in the North Duveen gallery. And they bear fruits too: decorating the plinths are eleven sculptures hand-picked by Hamilton from the Tate collection due to their natural colours and organic form. These sculptures stand in kinetic poses and flaunt their earthy shades of brown, black and grey, thus breathing life and movement into an otherwise still and silent atmosphere by sharply contrasting with the synthetic gloss of the tiled environment.
But, of course, the sculptures only give the impression of life, as they too are grown from artificial soil. They are caught in a state of petrified animation: A state between existence and nonexistence. And the Squash itself is the living embodiment of this state, as it roams around the gallery seemingly petrified by its own animation. For context, a performer in one of seven squash-like costumes inhabits the gallery every day while the exhibition is on show. According to the official description of the exhibition, Hamilton invites the performer to interpret the life of something “other” – in this case, a living vegetable.
Indeed, as evidently intended, the character of the Squash is a chilling representation of an other-worldly being. It is a genderless creature with a long snout and hollow eyes. Clearly, it is something alien: perhaps it is something more than human; perhaps it is something less than human. But like a vegetable, it is clearly alive, yet it is not fully conscious. The Squash wanders across the environment curiously touching and stroking any object with which it comes into contact, including its face, as if it is equally unaware of its own existence as it is unfamiliar with its surroundings.
The suspicious curiosity of the Squash extends to its interactions with visitors. Some observers are greeted by the Squash with comedic and playful gestures, others witness it dramatically posing, and, occasionally, the Squash will try to hide from the crowd. Its unpredictable behaviour around visitors suggests that it is unsure of both how to act around other living things and whether people are friendly or to be feared. However, these feelings of curiosity and uncertainty are shared by the observers. Children tend to try playing with the Squash, some inquisitive adults try to touch it, many adults keep their distance from it while taking photos as if they are on a safari; and, in the most bizarre display of unwarranted trepidation, I witnessed a group of adults line up in a horizontal row to watch the Squash pose on the large stage plinth from a considerable distance away. Not a single person left the line, and anybody who entered the gallery joined the line. It appeared that nobody wanted to be left isolated with the Squash, just as the Squash itself was cautious about approaching some observers.
Essentially, Anthea Hamilton’s exhibition The Squash represents the unknown, which cultivates fear and awe and bewilderment within people. Yet what is doubtless about this exhibition is that eyes will follow the unknowable Squash wherever it goes, and as it moves, a dubious silence will infiltrate the gallery. So if you ever chance to find your eyes fixed on the majestic outline of the Tate Britain, and you suspect the expedition inside to be all too predictable, know that a wholly unique otherworld of performing vegetables awaits your discovery.
Words / JAMIE KONTIS