Each of us wears a costume on a daily basis. Trust me on this. It could be as simple as a smile when you are glowering within, perhaps brightened by a slash of red lipstick. It could be a tailored suit, a carefully assumed posture, or a tense nod of the head. Consider, just how far does your outward appearance reflect the reality within?
“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous bug.” It is an absurdist metamorphosis memorably brought to life by Franz Kafka in the opening lines of his 1915 novella. In the tale that unfolds, Kafka’s protagonist is stripped of the power to perform any role but that of his new insect self, no matter how hard he tries.
Of course, the resonance of the story lies in its fundamental, nagging implication. Could any of us wake up one day transformed beyond all recognition? And just how much control do we truly have over how others perceive us? In the work of Anthea Hamilton, this shift takes on a new life. The British artist has long adopted vegetable forms as a means not only of representation, but of translation. The squash vegetable is of particular importance for Hamilton, whether that is the pumpkin, the bean or the gourd — motifs she has used since her student days.
At the Tate Britain in 2018, she covered the iconic Duveen gallery in bright white tiles: part bathroom, part kitchen, entirely wipe-clean. This dazzling, gridded space was then populated by a troupe of performers as part of an installation known as The Squash. Dressed in resplendent, bizarre costumes, a single dancer was instructed to occupy the gallery each day. Part human and part vegetable, they were at once trapped and freed by the role that they had assumed. The oversized, gourd-like head served both as a mask to conceal the identity of the person inside, and yet would ensure that they remain the centre of attention throughout—not unlike the predicament of Gregor.
The imagery that informed The Squash was taken from a photograph found by Hamilton in a book on improvisational theatre and participatory art practices in the 1960s and 1970s. It showed a person dressed as a vegetable, with an oversized, striped gourd-like head and slender leggings. For Hamilton’s reimagining of the scene, the costumes were created in collaboration with British fashion designer Jonathan Anderson, creative director of heritage Spanish label Loewe. Frilled sleeves meet sleek marbled patterns, and hues of green, orange and black meld together.
This collection has emerged once more for the first major survey exhibition of Hamilton at M HKA in Antwerp (17 February - 15 May 2022). When the squash performers commence their progression through the gallery space once each week, they begin their journey in what the artist has named the ‘fashion garden’. Hamilton’s connection with the Loewe fashion house runs deep (she has collaborated with Anderson for almost a decade), as does her longstanding interest in the world of fashion at large.
Female legs are a recurrent motif in her work, from platform boots (which sprout fungal growths or are rendered in cast concrete) to splayed thighs (presented in resin or shiny plastic). These works are modelled directly on the artist’s own legs, and the guiding influence of her own direct, personal experience is never far out of sight.
In her latest exhibition, Hamilton references Antonin Artaud’s call for the “physical knowledge of images”. She aims to elicit a bodily response to an idea or an image when encountering her works. Just as the scent of a just-missed perfume can trigger feelings of elicit desire, or the slippery feel of a thin viscose fabric can trigger powerful recollections of a former lover, so does she draw upon almost imperceptible cues to communicate with her audience. The emotional qualities of physical materials, and the ephemeral yet enduring nature of pop-cultural references, inform the skilfully patchworked world that she conjures.
The effect is a collision of disparate reference points, like the spilled contents of a handbag on a sticky bar floor. In any one room one might find a youthful headshot of John Travolta; a hand-blown glass vegetable; a drawing by the American cartoonist R. Crumb. Fittingly, Hamilton’s Antwerp exhibition is titled ‘Mash Up’. The unique conditions of an image are key to their presentation in this gallery context, unpicked and laid bare. She is at once drawn to and repulsed by particular moments in popular history, conflicted by the multiple narratives that they contain.
“I try to teach myself how I look at things,” she has stated, “and how that looking has been informed, and how other people might look at things.” Some of our most powerful childhood memories are rooted in the posters, advertisements and television that we encountered at a formative age, touchstones that are at once personal and yet by their mass-produced nature impersonal. The way in which we see and encounter the world, she seems to suggest, can be manufactured as synthetically as bubble gum. More importantly, our way of presenting ourselves to the world is influenced by these same cues.
For Hamilton, fashion is never just fashion. An image is never just an image. As a female artist, she is acutely aware of the conditions in which her own self-image has been pushed and pulled, sexualised and desexualised. Her skill lies in destabilising this trajectory, and following it to its roots. There are never easy answers in the work of Anthea Hamilton, and she prefers it that way. Instead she hints through objects, play and common motifs, using them as invitations to delve into our own, ever-shifting relationship with the things that surround us.