“I want to see her face” repeats my four year old, her voice still peppered with uncertainty. She in unsure of what to make of this… not quite human thing, making slow, languishing movements in its lurid 70s orange and green paisley outfit. But one thing is absolutely certain in her mind – the Squash is absolutely, definitely a girl.
We are perched on a white tiled plinth, and I realise I am slightly holding my breath, waiting to see how my little girl will react. I’m surprised by how different she suddenly seems – quieter, more thoughtful, and more vulnerable than her usual rambunctious self. Much of the golden stone gallery has been covered in functional white tiling, creating a clinical backdrop to this somewhat unsettling experience. Museum Girl is fascinated, unable to take her eyes off the Thing. But she is also a little intimidated. We sit directly opposite it, and Museum Girl starts to nuzzle in behind me.
To begin with we get very close, then, when the Squash moves she quickly takes a few steps back. The mask the Squash wears is frighteningly oversized, covering its entire head. With its giant pointed nose it looks like a cross between Peppa Pig and a plague mask, although more pyschedelic. It is quite disconcerting to realise how much we rely on the face to ‘read’ people, without seeing the performer’s face it is like the Squash sees without being seen.
As she stares, I want to know what her little mind is thinking. Is the Squash happy or sad I ask. “Happy?” she says, an upwards lilt betraying her doubt.
“I want to give her a sticker” she decides suddenly, peeling one from the sheet she was cheerily welcomed to the museum with. Still unsure, she takes a few moments to gather the courage to step forward and offer her gift. Taking the sticker, the Squash gently places it on their neck, underneath the collar line so it can’t be seen. Our little secret.
Museum Girl retires to the other side of the gallery, needing a little distance. She’s not at all interested in the sculptures on the plinths which form part of the installation, she is still transfixed by the Squash.
After a while we meet a friend. Museum Girl takes her by the hand and leads her towards the Squash, wanting to see if a fresh pair of eyes will help solve this mystery. The tables have turned, the child is now the tour guide, the expert, the leader.
As we leave, the Squash fans out like a peacock on a new perch, lighting up the otherwise muted space.
This for me is everything contemporary art should be – captivating, provocative yet playful. Through our fleeting interaction, I saw the world afresh through my daughter’s eyes – and it was mesmerising, magical and mysterious.
The Squash is an immersive installation combining performance and sculpture by 2016 Turner Prize nominee Anthea Hamilton and was inspired by a mysterious photograph of an artist dressed as a squash vegetable. It runs at TATE Britain until Monday 8 October 2018.
Free, just turn up.
Some tips for visiting The Squash with children
- Suitable for all ages, but I think it children aged 3+ would get the most out of it
- There is no climbing (or sitting, oops!) on the white plinths
- Let your child take the lead on how close they want to get, and how long they want to spend there
- Find the family welcome trolley for a leaflet on visiting TATE Britain with children, as well as some basic art materials
- You can take your buggy around with you, or leave at the free cloakroom in the basement
- Scooters are not allowed and must be left in the free cloakroom in the basement
- You are welcome to breastfeed your baby wherever you feel comfortable
- TATE Britain cafe did not have any kids lunch options when I visited, but there is lots of choice on nearby Horseferry Road
- Combine your visit with a trip to nearby Horseferry Playground https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/victoria-tower-gardens/things-to-see-and-do/horseferry-playground. It has water and sand play, swings, climbing equipment and a great view of the Houses of Parliament!
- Read this article with your child to find out more about Anthea Hamilton and her work https://www.tate.org.uk/kids/explore/who-is/who-anthea-hamilton