It turned out The Squash was on a break the first time I looked for it in the Tate’s Duveen Galleries. I didn’t realise this until I got to the end of the space, the main thoroughfare through the centre of the building, which had been covered in white tiles a bit like a public swimming baths, albeit a lot less grubby than most I’ve ever been in. Still, before reaching that terminus, there was an anxious rumbling in my stomach. Anticipation and fear roiling together in the pit of my guts at the thought that The Squash could be hiding behind the next corner.
Part of the installation side of Anthea Hamilton’s piece are plinths, display cases and stands — also covered in the pure white tiles — which emerge from the ground like little eruptions from a more “normal” gallery, exhibiting sculptures by Bernard Meadows, Henrys Moore and Laurens, FE McWilliam and Arnold Machin (thanks, The Guardian), among others. Mostly I did not stop to regard them, besides the moment the tendril-like hair of Laurens’s “Autumn” caught my eye. Mostly I was waiting to spot The Squash’s protruding snout to be poking out from behind one of them.
So I felt a bit of a tit when that feeling of nervous anticipation was immediately ceased on arriving at the back of the room and finding a recreation of an actual squash, the vegetable, perched on one of the plinths, with a sign hung on it informing everyone that the performer had “GONE TO LUNCH.” Which is a pretty brilliant joke, to be fair.
The statement at the door, along with some backstory for Hamilton’s piece and some behind-the-scenes info about the performer being able to select one of half-a-dozen costumes for the day, that The Squash occupies the Galleries for much of the day, but is allowed to pick-and-choose their break times. This was one of the time they’d decided to bugger off. Which was fine; I went and sat in the galleries and tried to write about film trailers while posh people talked loudly about renovations to their posh houses, like the second (worst) book in that Rachel Cusk trilogy.
Returning downstairs a couple of hours later, and after emerging from the “Human After All” exhibition which was just winding down, the feeling returned in the pit of my stomach; this time, with some pay-off. The Squash was reclining on one of the sculpture-less plinths. Its outfit involved flared trousers, and a paisley pattern waistcoat with no sleeves, allowing a view of the performer’s toned muscles as they lethargically stretched their limbs out, as if awakening from a deep sleep, as if trying to get old bones to crack, as if warming up before exercising.
They had garter-like tassels around the elbow joint; at one point, they (idk if “they” and “it” is the more accurate descriptor for The Squash; I don’t want to identify it with a particular gender, nor dismiss the contributions of the performers by reducing them to objects?) slowly lifted an arm in the air, holding the tassel for a moment, before dropping it back into place, like a maiden dropping a handkerchief between two potential suitors to signal the beginning of a duel.
The other plinths now served not as the imagined hiding places for The Squash I took them for my first wander through, but shields for which the gallery-goers to could place themselves behind, putting a physical boundary between themselves and the performer. More or less everyone kept a safe distance from The Squash as it continued its slow, restful movements (plus one incidence where it straddled the plinth it began on in a way that recalled both a pole dancer and animal holding onto a tree trunk).
One older woman with brilliantly dyed red hair walked straight up to The Squash. Where almost everyone else in the galleries seemed to keep their distance precisely because they could not quite reconcile the artwork with an actual living, breathing, costumed person writhing in slow-motion before them, this woman appeared to have completely divorced the idea of The Squash being a person, regarding them with the close scrutiny she may have gone on to do with the Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon paintings in the rooms adjacent.
My own recitence over getting too close wasn’t dissimilar to the impulse that keeps me seated way in the back, preferably near a pillar or something, at a comedy show, or with a good few metres and handful of curious tourists between me and a street performer. I still want to see the spectacle, but not engage with it, or worse: be dragged into some sort of enforced audience participation.
I was not worried about being “engaged” by the The Squash when I first saw it, because I didn’t think it could see me. Brave enough to inch a little closer — but not as close as the red-haired woman — I then realised there were two mesh peep-holes, almost indiscernible against the pattern of the fabric, and so I did start worrying a little bit. Causing anxiety is not the vibe of The Squash, however.
The mask has its origins in a half-remembered image of an avant-garde dance performance Hamilton had seen in art school but was unable to then track down the source for. Which is interesting and relatable for those of us who have failed to locate an indelible Photoshopped image through an increasingly complex Google search, but not particularly germane to “understanding” the work, I don’t think. The Squash is nominally a confrontational work, but one that is incredibly gentle, and chill to actually witness.
The clean, but crucially not clinical, space; the torpid movements of The Squash which, now I think about it, is a bit like the conscious slowing of our natural gestures and lowering of pose we cat lovers adopt when befriending a shy moggy on the street; the openness of the hallway; the gameness of the other gallery-goers. It’s on display in the free part of Tate Britain, and occupies the main part of the building you come across from the Millbank entrance. Anybody can happen upon it, and once you’re there, you have no choice but to (as a website’s GDPR-enforced privacy warning put it to me earlier in the week) accept the work and move on, or deny all and retreat for something a bit more normal.
There is nothing in-yer-face about The Squash, though, besides perhaps that massive great hooter it has. It’s relaxing. It’s ASMR-as-performance-art, if a lot of ASMR wasn’t already essentially performance art, weirder and equally as accessible. It’s bodies depicted not as violent, rip-and-tearing things, as in Bacon’s works across the way, but as thoughtful, meaningful things. It’s paradoxically anxiety-reducing. Nobody say “mindfulness.”