David Hammons

Phat Free

1995, 1999

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Not on display

David Hammons born 1943
Video, projection, colour and sound (stereo)
5min, 20sec
Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of the American Acquisitions Committee 2005


This work is a short colour video of a man kicking a metal bucket through the streets of a city at night. At the beginning of the film the screen is blank and a series of loud, metallic sounds can be heard playing in an intermittent rhythm. The screen remains blank for most of the first half of the film, with the metallic tones continuing and street sounds – including distant voices and traffic noises – progressively rising in the background. Footage then begins that shows a man from behind kicking a bucket along a street, revealing this to be the cause of the metallic noises. His surroundings are relatively empty, although some cars can be seen. Street lights give the footage a strong orange glow and it is shot in low resolution, making it difficult to discern many details in the scene. The man is wearing dark, baggy clothes and his face is never presented clearly, and although in most of the shots his full form is shown with the street scene around him, at some points the camera focuses on his feet as if seen from above. The man walks along the pavement, occasionally crossing roads, and the film ends with him kicking the bucket up into the air, catching it in his hands and then walking out of shot.

Phat Free was made by the American artist David Hammons. It is based on footage of a street performance that Hammons undertook in 1995, which he originally filmed in Digital Betacam format. The footage was subsequently edited and first exhibited at the 1997 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The version of the work in Tate’s collection has been transferred onto VHS, but it is not known exactly when it was made or whether it is identical to the film that was shown in 1997. Hammons was based in New York at this time and it is likely that both the performance and the editing took place there.

The title of this work involves a pun on the phrase ‘fat free’, which is usually employed to advertise healthy food and drink products. However, Hammons has changed the first word to ‘phat’, a slang term used in African-American communities in the 1980s and 1990s to mean cool, excellent or sexy. The word is also commonly used as a term of praise for the strong bass lines and drumbeats of hip hop and related urban music genres, and it is possible that the artist intended the rhythmic metallic noises in the film to reflect these musical genres. Hammons is of African-American descent and his works often playfully reflect on notions of black identity, especially through puns. For instance, in the 1970s he made a group of works that incorporated the spade motif featured on playing cards, stating in 1986 that he chose this symbol because the word ‘spade’ is often used as a derogatory term for black people (Jones 2006, p.238).

The art historian Manthia Diawara has argued that Phat Free is designed to refuse any clear explanation, leaving the viewer ‘working endlessly in pursuit of meaning’ (Diawara 1998, p.123). According to Diawara, this is achieved through the unexplained sounds and the lack of visual images in the first section of the film. Furthermore, Diawara notes that in the second part Hammons introduces several ‘recognisable motifs’ – including ‘kicking the bucket’ (a colloquial term for dying) and types of rhythm used in jazz music (which, Diawara argues, are suggested by the clanging of the rolling bucket) – that are deliberately not developed into a comprehensible message or narrative.

Hammons has been producing work in street environments since the mid-1970s, and although in general he has not filmed these performances, some have been photographed. They are usually unexpected events and viewers and participants are never given any indication that Hammons’s activities are works of performance art. In 1986 Hammons explained that he preferred the audiences he found in the street to those that attend galleries, stating that

The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize, not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience? The street audience is much more human, and their opinion is from the heart. They don’t have any reason to play games; there’s nothing gained or lost.
(Hammons in Jones 2006, p.242.)

Further reading
David Hammons: Rousing the Rubble, exhibition catalogue, Institute for Contemporary Art, P.S.1 Museum, New York 1991.
Manthia Diawara, ‘Make it Funky’, Artforum, vol.36, no.9, May 1998, pp.123–5, reproduced p.123.
Kellie Jones, ‘David Hammons’, in Miriam Katzeff, Thomas Lawson and Susan Morgan (eds.), REALLIFE Magazine: Selected Writings and Projects 1979–1994, New York 2006, pp.236–43.

David Hodge
December 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

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