Action Replay

Live museum events

Live events have figured prominently in London's public galleries and museums of late. They have ranged in scale and kind, from ambitious re-enactments of milestones in performance history to hit-and-run cabaret-style offerings by young artists, from straightforward gigs by highbrow rock stars at Tate Modern and Tate Britain to cross-artform collaborations between artists, composers, choreographers and filmmakers. Add to this programmes of both underground and mainstream films at Tate, Whitechapel Art Gallery and in the Serpentine Gallery's temporary pavilions (designed by celebrity architects - currently Oscar Niemeyer), and it seems everyone is eager to edge in on the ICA's traditionally interdisciplinary turf. The reasons for all this appear mixed; in one sense it can be seen as being prompted by new directions that art is taking; in another it can be seen as a reflection of the ambitions of venues competing for profile and audience share. In general, it seems founded on the assumption that the liveliness of a gallery programme is now in direct proportion to the degree of live art input.

Of these events, the Whitechapel's recent 'A Short History of Performance' was the most curatorially ambitious. Over the course of a week the gallery hosted re-enactments of seminal performances from the 1960s, each for one night only. (A second season is due later this year devoted to performances in the form of lectures from the 1960s to the present day). 'A Short History' inaugurated the gallery's programme under its new director, Iwona Blazwick. Although much more labour-intensive than organizing two month-long exhibitions, the rapid turnover of events was an effective way of announcing a new era of energetic programming. Works ranged from actions whose reputation, if anything, have grown over time, such as Carolee Schneemann's Meat Joy (1964) and Jannis Kounellis's Untitled (12 Horses) (1969), to barely remembered performances by Stuart Brisley and the Kipper Kids. Together they brought into focus a set of philosophical questions more or less particular to our relationship with a historicized, ephemeral medium. With most art the notion of the original is tied up with an object that usually undergoes little physical transformation over time. But where does the original reside in performance? Is it gone once the performance, in its original location, overseen by the artist, is over? Are film and photographic documentation, relics and physical residue - of the kind Paul Schimmel assembled for 'Out of Actions' at MOCA in Los Angeles (1998) - the most authentic connection we now have with the original event, or do these fragments pale next to a faithful re-enactment? Is the reconstruction still a copy or appropriation even if the artist performs or directs it, or should performance be regarded as a reproducible medium, like a play or musical score? If the latter, then the work probably won't have undergone any immanent change. Instead, differences in the ways it is now interpreted would be attributable to changes in historical circumstances. Then again, wouldn't these changes equally affect readings of a Roy Lichtenstein painting or an Ed Kienholz tableau, say, of the same period?

Meat Joy, for example, answered all these questions with an ambivalent 'yes' and 'no'. On one hand, seeing the full performance made you realize that your understanding of the work, based on black-and-white images of the climactic scene, was extremely slanted. Its slow, mesmeric quality, its long narrative arc, its references to gestural painting and Jungian archetypes, and its olfactory intensity are absent from the photographs, whose static iconography and documentary edge have transplanted the work from the context of late 1950s and early 1960s happenings to feminist action-based works of the 1970s. On the other hand, the artist had made slight but significant alterations to the content of the piece for its re-enactment. Her own role changed from main orgy protagonist to party hostess or cult leader, reflecting her maturity, while the young men and women were no longer naked, because the nude body, according to Schneemann, has been drained of its emancipatory significance since the original event, and now operates as little more than prurient spectacle.

A more radical transformation had taken place on the level of audience reaction. The return of Meat Joy felt triumphant, a cause for celebration, like the reunion of a legendary rock group. The entrance of the meat and fish to music felt as if it should have been greeted with applause, like the appearance of a special guest during an encore. Meat Joy, this time around, functioned as entertainment, albeit for a relatively rarefied audience. In this sense it appeared to connect with an ongoing series of free events, curated by Catherine Wood, that forms half of the 'Egg Live' programme at Tate. In contrast to the 1960s performance legacy arising from the contexts of Post-Minimal and Conceptual art, Wood has identified a widespread vein of performance that blurs the boundaries of art, dance, music, fashion and theatre, in which the artists care little, it seems, whether what they do is perceived as high art or mass entertainment, preferring to contaminate one with the terms of the other. The programme has a global spread, featuring Mark Leckey and David Thorpe from London, Kyupi Kyupi from Japan, Carlos Amorales from Mexico, hobbypopMUSEUM from Dusseldorf and Gogol Bordello from New York. As well as involving sound systems (Leckey), pop video aesthetics (Kyupi Kyupi) and even wrestling (Amorales), several works are in dialogue with, or emerge from, the traditional media of painting, drawing and sculpture, sometimes referencing the Tate's own collection. Leckey, for example, staged a confrontation between his speaker stack and Jacob Epstein's Jacob and the Angel (1940-1), whose form it echoed; Lali Chetwynd devised a performance around Richard Dadd's The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke (1855-64) in the Pre-Raphaelite gallery; and Thorpe's and hobbypopMUSEUM's performances relate to their own collage and painting practices respectively.

The curatorial aims of the more publicized, star-studded half of Tate's 'Egg Live' programme seem confused and opportunistic by comparison, as if pieced together in response to a development department's fundraising coup rather than an artistic zeitgeist. Instead of artists whose works already span art forms and media, various Turner Prize winners have paired up with, or been paired up with, luminaries from the worlds of music and theatre such as Arvo Pärt, Peter Sellars and Jessye Norman. The partnerships operate with varying degrees of coherence and effectiveness. This strategy was reversed in the Barbican's recent 'Only Connect' series, whereby concert hall events spanning Jazz, Punk, the Classical avant-garde and dance were interpreted visually by artists, designers and filmmakers. Somewhat predictably, the visual arts were represented by famous 'young British artists': Sarah Lucas provided props for Michael Clark's dance troupe, and Jake and Dinos Chapman's came up with an almost fascistic aerobics video that acted as a backdrop for seminal punks WIRE. Neither was a collaboration as such; in both instances the artists' input was secondary, lending a sympathetic extra dimension to the performances. This level of involvement follows the precedent of artists commissioned by Rock acts to produce album covers, videos or concert sets - recent examples being John Currin for Pulp, Wolfgang Tillmans and Sam Taylor-Wood for the Pet Shop Boys and Damien Hirst for Blur. Conventionally - and this goes back to Peter Blake's and Richard Hamilton's album covers for The Beatles - artists and rock stars exchange different kinds of credibility in these arrangements: the one highbrow and exclusive, the other much broader and younger in appeal. Now though, 'young British artists', having outgrown the art world, and Rock bands of more or less 'alternative' persuasion, exist in a similar cultural sphere. When they come together in collaboration, the convergence of art forms and audiences is less dynamic than it once was.

In its place we're left with the acoustically poor and decidedly un-rock-and-roll spectacle of Nick Cave and PJ Harvey playing the Tate's Duveen Galleries and Turbine Hall, the environment cramping everyone's style. What next: Georg Baselitz at the Brixton Academy; Cindy Sherman at the Shepherds Bush Empire? Gigs in galleries, where visual art has no intrinsic role in the music, come across as little more than cynical, synergistic brand-building ploys on the part of art institutions and their corporate sponsors.

Issue 77

First published in Issue 77

September 2003

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