The other night I went to the private view of Lucy Beech and Edward Thomasson’s performance that forms part of Tate Britain’s Art Now, an ongoing series of contemporary exhibitions.
Performance art was the starting point for some of the most radical ideas that changed the way we think about contemporary art. Artists turned to performance as a way of breaking down accepted categories and exploring new ideas and directions that could not be expressed through conventional means. As the artist Allan Kaprow suggested: “The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.” The roots of performance art are to be found in the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, particularly the anarchic movements of Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism and Fluxus. A discontent with painting and traditional forms of sculpture led artists to use performance as an alternative form of expression and protest, often presented outside the confines of the conventional gallery. The 1960s, that decade of upheaval and change, saw a flowering of performance art that mirrored the loss of faith in modernism and Abstract Expressionism. Primarily focused on the body it reflected the mood for the “dematerialization of the art object,” and a flight from traditional art materials that reflected the political ferment of the time. Central to its heart were feminism, with its merger between the personal and political, and anti-war activism, often centred on protests about Vietnam.
Performance art sought to challenge accepted aesthetic as well as political conventions. Its seeds often lay in other activities such as ritual or, in the case of Dada, cabaret and vaudeville. Joseph Beuys liked to call his performances ‘actions’, a term that distinguished his shamanic performances from more conventional kinds of theatrical entertainment. The label could be said to be something of a reinterpretation of the phrase “action painting,” in which the object of art was no longer to paint on canvas, but something else – often the use of the artist’s own body – as in the case of Yves Klein or Yoko Ono. Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, first performed in 1964, was a direct invitation to the audience to participate in the unveiling of the female body, much as artists had been doing throughout the history of painting. During this live experience, Ono hoped to erase the neutrality and seeming indifference associated with society’s objectification of women in both art and life. Instead of providing entertainment, the intent of performance art was to challenge the viewer, often provoking them to participate in a way that made them uncomfortable and, therefore, becomes a part of the work. Since the 1960s the genre has been absorbed into the mainstream and welcomed into museums and galleries from which it was once excluded, largely castrating its purpose and function.
It is against this background that Tate Britain have just unveiled Lucy Beech and Edward Thomasson’s new performance project that claims to “explore ideas of cooperation and independence through new live work”. And what a dreary thing it is. In a bright studio, the audience sat in rows opposite a blank white screen where there were 8 performers, paired off in couples, all mic’d up and wearing knee-pads. A woman with short hair and a Cheshire-cat-grin finger-clicked the mic of another performer, which she recorded. Then, continuing to beam, she announced that she was going to play this back to us with the forced enthusiasm of a kindergarten teacher. What then ensued was a series of moves that resembled an elementary Pilates class. There was the oyster, the sideways sit-up and down-dog. But these were no Ballet Rambert dancers. These moves were then followed by a number of pantomime actions: simulated slappings and kickings that mimicked aggression and violence, accompanied by some chirpy disco music. The supercilious grins never left the performers faces.
I don’t often quote press releases in reviews but the Tate’s claim that the: “performers construct a safe space where they can reject social standards and express unspoken feeling…..As their actions play out, the gradual build-up of theatrical illusions seems to operate as a therapeutic exercise.” Really?
Two minutes in it was obvious what it was about. The ‘normalisation’ of violence. It didn’t need another 20 minutes to illustrate this single point. The piece had not grit, not edge, no frisson. It posed no questions. If it had been done by a GCSE drama group, you might have said: good effort. This was performance art-lite. The performance with its teeth pulled, without any social or political backbone. We are living in a time of extreme political ferment. Fascism is on the rise, the planet is warming, there is global mass migration. Now is the time to be making passionate, visceral work that pierces the participant/viewer in the gut in line with Barthes notion of the punctum; that moment of stabbing recognition when a work strikes a nerve. There was nothing outré or avant-garde here. Just a rather pale corporate shadow of a once anarchic practice. In these worst of times, young performance artists should be shouting from the roof tops, challenging and engaging their audiences, making the hair stand up on the back of our necks. The Tate should be offering better than this.
Photo: Alice Rawsthorn, Art Now via Twitter