Anthea Hamilton Takes on the Ideals of Classical Beauty

At MHKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, the artist questions how cultural artefacts are transformed by their mode of presentation

BY Hettie Judah in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 02 MAR 22

British diplomat Sir William Hamilton was a supreme tastemaker of the late 18th century. Over 30 years in Naples, he amassed Florentine paintings, Etruscan pots, plunder from Pompeii and Roman glassware. Sold to museums and wealthy aristocrat in the UK, these ‘discoveries’ helped shape fashion in the arts for over a century. As per Enlightenment ideals, Hamilton was also a geologist, detailing volcanic activity in the area outside Naples known as Campi Flegrei: the ‘flaming fields’.

Over two centuries later, Sir William’s namesake, Anthea Hamilton – lover of puns, coincidence and false trails – used a poster of the Campi Flegrei in Olympian (2006), an assemblage on view in ‘Mash Up’, the artist’s first museum survey. Olympian is a pointedly abject take on the (white, male, non-foreign, able-bodied) ideals of classical beauty, but it’s also a visual pun. Against tourist pictures of Athens – city of Athena, an anagram of the artist’s name – stands a polystyrene head on a ‘column’ (made from the rolled-up poster of the Campi Flegrei), roughly painted black, and with white-paper eyeballs and teeth. Jamming together allusions to Athena and (Sir William) Hamilton, Olympian is a kind of mashed-up classical self-portrait.  

Anthea Hamilton, Olympian, 2005, cello tape, magazine collage, paper on painted Polystyrene, teapot top, rolled up posters, ceramic mat, variable dimensions. Courtesy: the artist and Collection Nicoletta Fiorucci Russo De Li Galli, London

The question of how a cultural artefact is transformed by its mode of presentation resonates throughout this beguiling and omni-directional exhibition. In the earliest piece, Over the Rainbow (1999), black-and-white footage of the artist singing the titular song is projected in negative onto a black floor-to-ceiling screen. With the audio track slowed right down, the sweet tear-jerker becomes sludgy and ominous, and presented in negative, the artist’s indistinct face and girlish plaits become a monstrous spectacle, like the image of the ‘great and powerful’ Oz himself.

The series RPD (2019) plays with the legacy of another great British tastemaker, mid-century curator Jim Ede. Ten sexually charged black-and-white photographs show performance artist Carlos Maria Romero naked in Ede’s house in Cambridge, Kettle’s Yard, posing with jade and brass rings made by artist Richard Pousette-Dart. Recalling intimate snaps from the 1970s they inject a queer, erotic sensibility into a space from which sweat, spit and other good-time fluids feel far removed. As the backdrop to these photographs, Kettle’s Yard becomes charged with sex potential (could you, would you, on those narrow, splintery benches?).

Anthea Hamilton, ‘Mash Up’, 2022, exhibition view, M HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp. Courtesy: the artist and M HKA

Two things are worth noting here: firstly, that Pousette-Dart’s jade ring is a reimagined bi disc, a form of jade artefact found in profusion in ancient Chinese tombs. Valued for over a millennium, the significance of bi is unknown: robbed of context, an artefact can become mute. Secondly, Hamilton not only samples, but she also collaborates and commissions: the Kettle’s Yard photographs are taken by Lewis Ronald; a plastic inflatable of Brancusi’s Torso of a Young Man (1922) was made with her artist partner Nicholas Byrne; and an irresistible installation of giant slumping pumpkins was stitched and dyed by leatherworkers from the fashion house Loewe.

Anthea Hamilton, ‘Mash Up’, 2022, exhibition view, M HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp. Courtesy: the artist and M HKA

The pumpkins – life-sized leather replicas of gargantuan competition vegetables – shrink the viewer to Peter Rabbit size. On the wall alongside them hang botanical glam rock costumes from Hamilton’s performance installation The Squash (2018), which is reborn at M HKA on Saturdays. M HKA’s rotunda now has modernist gridded sanatorium tiles on the floor and blue and green ombre walls with stylised wisteria trellis patterns.  In here performers will follow their vegetal instincts, before moving through the space to a metallic and monochrome ‘office’ suite decorated in slanting plaid where they don suits and are invited to ‘perform’ executive masculinity. In this corporate environment an outsized desk makes us feel corporeally small all over again. At stake here is how things are transformed by a change in scale, perspective or material. Hamilton is like an optician, offering us lenses: Which is better, A or B? How about a different frame? Now try looking with a different eye, a different kind of body?

Anthea Hamilton’s ‘Mash Up’ is on view at M HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, until 15 May 2022.

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.