Saturday, 26 January 2013

A Bigger Splash, Tate Modern

If there was a spread of schools emerging in the post-war international art scene then the predominant trend may well have been performance art. This is the subject of A Bigger Splash, Tate's composite exhibition at the Modern. Hockney's eponymous painting which is one of the two big draws of the first room is probably the least appropriate work on show! The juxtaposition of a two-dimensional background to the contrived (and, yes, fairly effective) dynamism of the splash that suggests a recent dive into the pool is meant to involve the viewer in the action of the scene. However Pollock's drip painting on the other side of the room has all the visceral vitality that Hockney's lacks and connects the piece to the action of the artist, even without Hans Namuth's short film showing the manner in which Pollock set about his work. It's that lack of calculation - or, more accurately, the manner in which Pollock takes it out of his own hands - that is a characteristic of the exhibition.

Consequently, one of the other characteristics of the works of the show is that of naturalism in all its chance and chaos*. There is a difficult Rubicon in these facets of the art, replacing representation with recording, interpretation with capturing. This resulted in two distinct impression through the rest of the exhibition: the first, one of post war artists trying to re-establish an aesthetic/ethical framework for their art; the second, the art becoming increasingly personal - therefore corporeal - therefore disturbing.

So chance in painting would come through the shooting of canvases (Nikki de Sant Phalle) and dripping not a brush but one's feet on a swing arrangement (Kazuo Shiraga). Damien Hirst used both of these techniques in his butterfly works (hatching cocoons on a canvas) and with the spin paintings (using centrifugal forces to dictate the flow of paint).

Direct human intervention is most famously essayed by Yves Klein, where (female) models would dip themselves in paint and roll on a canvas. A film available in the exhibition shows the important addendum to these works, that is an audience at their creation (complete with a string trio playing music, literally underscoring the importance of the event itself).

Finally with Viennese Actionism this direct recording in paint of the action of the artist matures. The artists wrestle with one another and enact all manner of (mock-)violent and sexual encounter in paint and other media but without producing a final work. The performance is the work and photographs of the event in place of final canvases in the room attest to this. With no end objectivity to these events or happenings it becomes difficult to see what the end result is intended to be, let alone what the conclusion of the argument actually is.

Inevitably the transformation or annihilation of the self would be an extension of this technique, redundant though it is. There are a pair of rooms in which artists reconfigure their own gender or take on alternative personae. Marc Camille Chaimowicz's imaginative reconstruction of Cocteau's apartment tries to do that to another artist. Only Edward Krasinski's application of a blue tape (noteworthily close to Yves Klein's Blue) at a fixed height across a room, re-configuring the perception of depth and dimension, succeeds in really re-appropriating one's sense of the nature of action in space. Equally, Helena Almeida's mixed media works, like Inhabited Painting (1975, right) re-touches photography, with a simplicity not unlike John Stezaker, in an obvious but nonetheless pleasantly confusing manner (more YKB!).

There are records of political acts as part of performing art with videos of the IRWIN group placing a black square in Moscow's Red Square, not to mention Chinese artists re-appropriating the culturally complacent calligraphic art with their own body-and-ink performance acts. The exhibition ends with the trompe l'oeil works of Lucy McKenzie twisting the screw of contrivance once again by creating a constructed space for actual inhabitants. This is also the art of the matte artists in film; on reflection I was surprised not to see the background of such familiar films as Hitchcock's The Birds or the like.

This exhibition is an enlightening but by no means comprehensive inventory of performance art. Though there are many tributary schools and pieces, I'm not sure one can do this exhibition without mentioning Fluxus. It stands as a useful catalogue of the post-war cultural struggle to re-appropriate art and aesthetics. The works themselves - when there are any, itself an indication - are rarely of intrinsic aesthetic appeal. I found the greatest value in the exhibition was the conversations the different rooms and exhibits initiated between me and my companion.

*One also notes that the music of this period was about to get the same treatement as the likes of John Cage began to experiment with guidelines for improvisation and the construction of musical works through chance operations.

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