Friday, 12 October 2012

Performance as Punchline at Tate Britain

Tate Britain used to be the top gallery in London, but then Tate Modern turned up with a better location and more interesting collection. Since then, the original Tate has been trying to find its place in the contemporary London art world, proving that it’s still relevant and cutting edge by holding the attention-grabbing Turner prize and the occasional special event.

I had come to see one of those special events, a performance art showcase in the Late at Tate strand. First off was Ellie Harrison’s The Redistribution Of Wealth. Music was playing and some coloured lights shone onto low stages in the large gallery space off the Sackler Octogon. I hung out for a while, waiting for something to happen, whilst the artist took photos of children dancing under the spotlights. When I read the description of the artwork it turned out that the lights and the stages were it, so I wandered back into the main hall.

Ellie Harrison

I hung around for a bit, sticking my head into the 20th Century section to look for Jordan McKenzie and Aaron Williamson’s performance, but neither the attendants nor myself knew where to find it. I waited patiently for art to happen in that fancy marbled corridor between 20th Century and Old Stuff, and before long Hunt and Darton did a neat piece that I enjoyed, touching on sport and fandom.

I finally found McKenzie and Williamson performing Veneration X. Dressed in robes, the artists lay face down in the gallery. The object of their idolatry was a piece of gallery information about the work on show. It was a great visual joke, mocking the seriousness of the gallery, but it didn’t seem like it could go anywhere beyond that. 

I made my exit via the Turner galleries, where Fiona Templeton’s Bodies of Memory was taking place. An artist was slowly walking around and telling a story, another man was singing Staying Alive in a falsetto from under one of the gallery’s seats, and a loud, angry talk was being given in Spanish by a young woman. Checking the guide, I saw that these were the ‘collective recollections of many past performances’.

For me, one of the problems with performance art is that it's too often it's own punchline. Where can you go from singing ‘ah ah ah ah, staying alive, staying alive’ next to paintings of Britain’s greatest painter? What did succeed was the chaos brought into the otherwise staid environment, turning the gallery into a living space, no longer just dutifully venerating Turner. Finally, the night felt alive with the possibility that something weird could happen.

Turner Galleries at Tate Britain

A gallery space is, by necessity, a staid space, where a static status is imposed. It’s a simulacrum of a bygone era when people would commission oil paintings of great events rather than re-tweet them. One of the biggest functions of Tate-type galleries is to force you to see the paintings in a way that makes sense, and in this the Late at Tate event failed. The surroundings were too grand, and despite the momentary excitement at disturbing Turner, the material delivered suffered from comparison to the linage of classical paintings.

Performance art is something relatively new, hardly related to the art of Turner-style landscapes. Performance artists can carve out their own new spaces, where work can be examined without the pressures of gallery-style conformity.

Pete Hindle

Late at Tate: Acts of Legacy
Programmed by New Work Network
Tate Britain
5th October 2012

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