I’ve been seeing a lot of shows this summer, and it seemed pertinent to present a couple of little diary entries here on the blog, especially since most of the shows that really stood out can be more or less grouped under two headings: those exploring ideas of performance; and those exploring what I think can be called the ‘barabarous’.
First things first: in May I went to Glasgow’s Transmission Gallery, where Tino Sehgal had ‘installed’ a single work, a re-iteration of a piece that had been realised on numerous occasions previously, entitled ‘Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things’. Merely, the work consists of a single individual rolling around the gallery floor, only in truth there’s no ‘merely’ to it. Either Sehgal is chooses collaborates with a talented choreographer, because the movements of the ‘dancer’ that I saw performing (she was, I later found out, a professional, and the performers rotate in two-hourly cycles) were fascinatingly executed – suggesting crude puppetry or malfunctional animatronics, but realised with a magnetic and subtle artistry (it’s all in the hips) that lent the work a thrilling tension.
This was not the only source of tension, however. It is reputed that on a number of occasions, viewers of Sehgal’s work failed to realise the theatrical nature of the scene before them and took to helping the performer to her feet. Intriguing as this would have been to watch, it’s fairly evident that this is the most perfectly natural reaction one could have to Sehgal’s work, and that to engage with the work in a detached manner, ‘as the artist intended’, is to behave in a way that is shot through with shady ambivalence and intimations of aberrance. Faced with a work like Sehgal’s, one can’t help but feel a vague sense of unease at the post-human decadence it suggests. For want of a better analogy, it conjures up satirical take-downs of exploitation-chic like the rabbits hanging from harnesses in ‘m’, the yuppified revamp of Moe’s Tavern in the 2001 episode of ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Homer the Moe’.
The same sense haunted me at Pablo Bronstein’s fantastic solo show at the ICA, ‘Sketches of Regency Living’, where an ballet dancer flitted elegantly across Bronstein’s purpose-built ‘Tragic Stage’ before a body of viewers that was too sparse, mobile and disaffected to really be considered an ‘audience’. It haunted me even more at ’12 Rooms’, the Manchester City Art Gallery’s group show for this year’s International Festival, where numerous works – including one by Sehgal – reflected wonderfully on the problematic conditions of audience engagement in performance work, but none more powerfully than Marina Abramovic’s re-iteration of her 1997 work ‘Luminosity’. In this piece, a naked model (the piece was originally conceived for the artist’s own body) is suspended several feet in the air against a blank, bright patch of light. It had the appearance of a great, memorable, uncanny work of art, as filled-to-the-brim with inner radiance as any Velazquez painting. And yet these feelings of awe mingled uncomfortable with feelings of uncanny guilt – this was a real person after all, a person who was no doubt suffering to some lesser or greater extent. It came as a relief to learn that the models, as in Sehgal’s work for Transmission, rotate on a fairly regular basis.
Performance art is by no means a new phenomenom, but it’s rare to see works such as these performed for the casual viewer – in mainstream spaces, during normal opening hours, and for free. So it’s fascinating and eye-opening to witness three such pieces in such close conjunction. It’s works like these – works which invite feelings of aesthetic admiration as much as they invite feelings of human compassion and guilt – that can truly make individuals stop and think about the ethics of being a member of the audience.
by Luke Healey