Dancing marrows and Tudor pumpkins: Anthea Hamilton and Jonathan Anderson on their bizarre Tate Britain installation

Artist Anthea Hamilton and fashion designer Jonathan William Anderson pictured at the Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain
Artist Anthea Hamilton and fashion designer Jonathan William Anderson pictured at the Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain Credit: Rii Schroer

“I wanted these huge Tudor sleeves,” says the artist Anthea Hamilton, showing me a costume design on her iPhone. “Like a cross between Henry VIII and a pumpkin.” In fact the costume, which includes a black jacket with bulbous shoulders and a large black and white striped, snouted mask, more resembles something a member of the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars might wear. “It looks very alien,” I venture. “Yes!” says Hamilton, clearly pleased. 

The costume is one of seven that will appear as part of Hamilton’s installation for the annual Duveen commission at Tate Britain from tomorrow. It’s her second major outing after being nominated for the Turner Prize in 2016: last year the artist, who is still only 39, reimagined the contents of the Cambridge museum Kettle’s Yard for a show at the Hepworth gallery in Wakefield. Her Duveen piece places her in illustrious company - Mona Hatoum, Martin Creed and Phyllida Barlow are just some of the artists to have created site-specific work for the grand, neo-classical space since the commission was founded in 2000. 

Tate Britain Commission 2018:Anthea Hamilton: The Squash, install view Credit: © Tate (Seraphina Neville)

Working in collaboration with the fashion designer Jonathan Anderson, who brought her costume designs to life in hammered silk, suede, leather and velvet, alongside master craftsmen at the Spanish fashion house Loewe, Hamilton, 39, has turned the light filled Galleries into an anonymous, white-tiled space where all day, every day, for six months, a single dancer from a rotating cast of 14 will hang out, wearing one of Hamilton’s elegantly fibrous designs.

Hamilton’s ‘set’ boasts a recessed bath, an elevated stage and nine sculptures, eight of which have been borrowed from the Tate’s permanent collection, one from Hepworth Wakefield, but there will be no script, and no narrative. “One of the dancers said the space made them think of a sauna,” Hamilton says. “Another said a disco. It’s up to them what happens. It’s their playground.”

Fiber glass head covered in green stretch fabric with ruffles and light gold sequins. Jersey gauze tracksuit with ruban in light gold sequin. Reconstructed leather braided cord cod piece.

There is nothing new about artists turning the human body into a living sculpture: David Blaine and Tilda Swinton both invited members of the public to ogle them living – and in the case of Swinton, sleeping - inside glass boxes, while in 2014 Marina Abramovic spent 512 hours as part of an ‘durational performance’ at the Serpentine Gallery. 

But if these installations cast the audience in the role of voyeur, invited to witness the performer at his or her most vulnerable, Hamilton’s exhibition is intended to do no such thing. Not least since Hamilton has conceived of her dancers not as people, but vegetables. She was inspired in her endeavour by a black and white photograph that she found 12 years ago while studying at the Royal College of Art, featuring a person in a striped body suit wearing a giant marrow for a head.

Fiber glass head covered in white and black stretch velvet. Black leather bolero. Tracksuit in white swimwear jersey and black velvet stripes. Printed silk crepon scarf. Long gloves in white napa and tabi long socks in white calf with black and white hand painted stripes

“The problem is that, back then, when I photocopied the image, I cut off the caption by mistake,” says Hamilton, who regularly incorporates arresting ‘found’ images in her playful, multi media pieces – her Turner exhibition included a giant pair of buttocks based on a Seventies design by architect Gaetano Pesce for a New York doorway. “So I don’t know if the photo is from a dance performance or a fashion show. How was that body supposed to move? Was there a potato person next to them?”

Dancing marrows; bathing squashes: it makes Creed’s 2008 Duveen commission, Work no. 850, in which someone ran the length of the gallery every 30 seconds, look positively humdrum. What did Anderson, creative director of LOEWE, make of being asked to create clothes inspired by the plump, succulent form of vegetables rather than stick thin models? “Ha!” says the Northern Irish designer who is no stranger to contemporary art: he met Hamilton in 2015, when he commissioned her to create a trio of works as part of a Loewe Foundation project. In 2017, he also curated a well-received exhibition at Hepworth Wakefield, exploring the ways in which modern artists and fashion designers respond to the human form. 

“When you design a fashion collection, you inevitably hit a lot of restraints,” he explains, “but working with Anthea, it’s all about the abstract imagination. What I love about [her] show is the way it re-contextualises familiar objects. So you see this piece of leather, or a Victorian ruff, on one of her costumes, and it looks like something completely new. Some of the sculptures she has included in the show I’d never even noticed [in the Tate] before.”

Artist Anthea Hamilton and fashion designer Jonathan William Anderson pictured at the Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain Credit: Rii Schroer

Both Anderson and Hamilton share a magpie obsession with texture: as a designer Anderson has worked with 15th century damask napkins, J-cloths and tea strainers, while in her work, Hamilton often reconfigures every day objects in unexpected ways: a suit made out of bricks; a book covered in lichen; a (not so everyday) chastity belt fashioned from perspex. They make an unexpected pair: he is garrulous and imperious – at one point during our conversation he clicked his fingers and, as if by magic, his assistant appeared with an expresso; she is nervy and, when she talks, very careful and precise. 

Yet both are deeply interested in the immersive, more experiential side of the industries they work in. Hamilton in particular intends her superficially playful, dare I say, bonkers installation to ask deeper questions about how one experiences a space other than through sight – and, unsurprisingly, has a vegetable-based example to illustrate her point. “Pumpkins and marrows navigate by touch, using tendrils that reach out for something to wrap themselves around,” she says. “I chose the sculptures in the exhibition because of how they feel to touch [they include three Henry Moores and Bernard Meadows’ 1953 Crab]... during a rehearsal, the performers were all allowed to run their hands over them.”

Fiber glass head covered in dark grey ostrich leather. Orange handpainted leather bolero. Knitted tracksuit in vegetal hand painted texture with Swarovski hand stitched stone.

Alas, neither performers nor audiences will be allowed to touch the sculptures at Tate, but how the latter interact with the space and the performers is up to them (presumably a quick nibble on a costume is not encouraged). 

“There is a video of Barbara Hepworth at home in her studio in St Ives where she says, in this very proper BBC voice, how much she hates the fact people can’t touch sculptures,’ adds Anderson. “She gets very angry. And I think that it’s one of the most catastrophic notions that we as a society have established: this idea that certain objects should not be touched. Because it’s only by touching that they become something. You see a Henry Moore in a gallery, and it looks like an exhibit in a gallery. But you see one in Kew Gardens and it’s rubbed down after years of being touched, it has become society. You want to grab hold of it. That’s what sculpture is about. A physicality.”

Anthea Hamilton is at Tate Britain from Mar 22 to Oct 7. tate.org.uk