Everything was animated. Four years ago, at the secession in Vienna, a performer moved into a giant installation full of strangely static images. The walls and floor of the room were covered with a light-colored lattice: a tartan. There were black, half-dressed mannequins with cooking utensils in their hands. Giant butterflies hung on the wall, two huge, shiny grids balanced diagonally on the floor. In between, a man began to move. He snuck in, danced, walked around the statues and the spectators. He barely touched them, but connected them: art and art viewer. It seemed like he was launching a movie that everyone was a part of.
In Vienna, what is currently failing in the M HKA (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Antwerp. The ambitions in this first retrospective by the British multimedia artist Anthea Hamilton (1978) are great. Curator Anne-Claire Schmitz (formerly Melly in Rotterdam) has collected about seventy works from the last twenty years and divided them into ‘zones’ in the most difficultly decorated exhibition rooms at M HKA.
There is a kind of hip-hop lounge with the mannequins that could also be seen in Vienna, broken mirrors, a magic totem pole, small ritual objects, a pop-art-like lip sculpture, broken remains of a hand, branches of silver-gray cats, leaning up an upright brick. It is unclear what binds the works. What makes this space a hip-hop mansion remains foggy.
The space next door has been transformed into a gray ‘control room’ decorated in tartan. A (non-access) platform with office furniture, a checkered rug, a single piece of clothing and a tilting grille – everything has a business, e.g. ice cold look. Screenshots of female figures inflated to billboards look down on you from above. The key word, like in hip-hop, is alienation. Nothing is made to be used.
little to hold on to
The hermetic lame text that can be read before entering the exhibition does not offer much to catch up on, except that the exhibition ‘Mash up’ must be understood as a mash op† It is a potpourri of pieces from twenty years of art production, an all-inclusive installation that the visitor can wander through.
The second half of the course is clearer. Here you will find mainly sculptures. There are giant, half-collapsed rubber pumpkins, an echo of Squash (2018), as Hamilton showed at Tate Britain in 2018. From stunning, surreal ‘Leg Chairs’, the legs literally grow out of the seat. They are sexy and critical because they take the stereotypical female ideal to the absurd. The same goes for Hamilton’s useless, towering boots made of alabaster, walnut wood and furry plastic. They are beautiful and very funny. A semicircular room outside has been transformed into a kind of pleasure garden, with walls painted with twigs, purple lilacs and other flowers. A pool tile construction has been built in the middle, where two performances on Saturday afternoon take place almost imperceptibly – even the attendant does not know that the performance has started.
The men are dressed in two of the seven fabulous suits that hang along a wall further ahead. These also come out Squash† A man sits down very slowly on a tile tableau. His colleague drapes himself around the corner over a rubber pumpkin. No eye flashes, no connection suggested.
Hamilton says, following the example of French playwright Antonin Artaud, that he pursues “a physical knowledge of images.” Her artistic strategy is to mix styles and media, to blast objects and photos of disco icons like John Travolta into the air and of delay. The purpose of this, according to the curator, is to arrive at ‘an alternative and fragmented reality’, where notions of gender, sexuality, nature, food and various cultural traditions are undermined. It sounds pretty subversive, but in practice it is unruly. Hamilton’s overview should provide more than just a sum of its parts, a collection of elaborate props. You want it to make sense, to make connections, to make connections – but that is not possible this time in Antwerp.
A version of this article was also published in the newspaper on May 2, 2022