The cost of trade isn’t just financial. The goods we consume have historically been paid for in blood too, in actual lives. And this human cost of the history of trade is at the heart of this year’s Turbine Hall installation.
Ghanaian artist El Anatsui has draped the cavernous space in vast reams of fabric. The first is a huge red and gold sail, a symbol of the transatlantic trade of goods and people, and how ships ferried both across the ocean. Many of the slaves from West Africa were forcefully sent to work on sugar plantations to fuel the alcohol industry, creating spirits which would then be sent to Europe before making their way back to West Africa. Now look close: that gleaming golden sail is made of bottle caps. It’s a whole circular economy of trade, goods, lives, culture and history, billowing in the Turbine Hall.
In the back of the space, a vast black sheet hangs from the ceiling to the floor, made of brandy and whisky bottle tops, flattened and knitted together. It could be a fence for containing, a wall for defending, it could be a crashing wave. Whatever it is, it ripples with the same symbolism as the sail: Africa, trade, exploitation, countless bodies.
The central work – human-like forms which coalesce into a globe if you stand in the right spot – is too easily dwarfed by the bigger pieces. And those big pieces are in turn dwarfed by the Turbine Hall. It’s just such an enormous, impossible space to deal with, in this doesn't deal with it as others have.
But it makes sense that it’s here, in an institution founded on sugar money, by an artist who grew up with Tate & Lyle sugar; that sweetness later made bitter by the knowledge of what created it. El Anatsui’s installation is a shimmering, gorgeous, powerful elegy for a a half-forgotten past, and for the bittersweet taste of endurance in the face of colonial exploitation.