In a recent interview, British artist Anthea Hamilton described her sculptural installations as ‘performative spaces’. ‘Gymnasium’ (2008), her current exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, is certainly infused with a feeling of latent theatricality. Hanging from an ocean-blue ceiling, ropes and fishing nets comprise an intriguing set of ready-to-use sports equipment, while on the floor bright red tatami mats wait for some martial arts competition to start. At first the athletes appear to be missing, but various scattered assemblages and found objects provide this semi-functional space with its missing performers. Broken vases, lone shoes and light shades form a somewhat surreal tableau which seems about to be set in motion, a crowd of everyday object-gymnasts choreographing the mundane.
Hamilton’s signature motif of the cut-out leg – modeled on her own – crops up throughout, its simple, almost comic-strip-like graphic silhouette bringing to mind the alluring pins of ’50s calendar girls. The legs are reproduced in a wide range of materials: wood, mirror and bright PVC among others. One, cut from a Cibachrome seaside poster, is half-covered by a school-girlish paper skirt blown upwards intermittently by a cheeky electric fan set on the floor. A pair of wooden legs equipped with a shiny penis is the male counterpart of this erotic image of femininity.
Hamilton’s cut-out legs give a visual rhythm to the installation, their anthropomorphic shapes inhabiting and activating the space. Not only do they strongly assert the presence of the artist within her production – and as such can be understood as a collection of self-portraits – but they also bring to the work an intensely sensual mood that verges on the sexual. This titillating atmosphere, very much in tune with the ancient Greek understanding of the gymnasium (‘a place to be naked’), is enhanced by the abundance of female shoes, perhaps the ultimate fetish object in the popular imagination. From the suggestive (a white vinyl platformed boot) to the romantic (a couple of cute Cinderella glass slippers), these shoes dress the naked legs to provide an intricate representation of desire.
Beyond the strictly thematic exploration of the sensuous body and its representations, ‘Gymnasium’ is also a rich investigation of the sculptural. Hamilton’s Dadaesque assemblages deftly combine matters and textures, the organic with the readymade. Sitting on the floor, the glass shoe is filled with water and topped with a fresh half of lemon; on the wall, a painted cabbage becomes a lonely desiccated brain. Every corner of the space is in some way occupied. The various materials covering (or revealing) the original concrete floor – faux marble vinyl, mats and cork panels – delimit distinct areas, each strongly identified by the distinct physical sensations provoked by these contrasting textures; a spider’s web of vertical ropes and fishing nets visually answers this complex horizontal pattern.
Hamilton’s concern with the female body echoes the works of an Eva Hesse, as do the materials that she uses, but the overwhelming presence of self-representational elements steer this vibrant installation away from any first-generation feminist political agenda. ‘Gymnasium’ is not only a stimulating take on the enduring issues of sexuality and desire, it is also an inspired and enticing mise-en-scene of the self.