Art in the Present Tense

Published 6 September 2012

At Tate Modern the spaces that once contained oil tanks have been converted into galleries dedicated to performance, live art and installation. Catherine Wood explains the thinking behind the new development.

Tate has for some time now been committed to programming and acquiring performance work for the collection. But the very nature of the work – its ephemerality, its sound and movement and number of participants – fundamentally goes against the grain of the museum’s set-up.

Geared towards preserving paintings and sculptures, the institution’s structures, databases and procedures are not necessarily open to inviting performance in. It is the organisation’s ‘soft structures’ of human resources, communications and – most importantly – visitor services that have enabled us to stage events, hire actors, work after hours, make festivals and concerts happen.

The problem of performance

Over the past decade, the live programme at Tate Modern has constantly had to find space wherever it can for performance and installation – in the galleries when there are occasional gaps between exhibitions, on the Turbine Hall bridge, on the concourses, in the auditorium, the north landscape and the river.

Necessity has been the mother of invention, and we have tested the elasticity of the institution in myriad ways. But there is a need – fulfilled by the Tanks – for a more permanent anchor. Rather than having to rehearse elsewhere and bring work ready-made onto the site, we can use this space to test things out, to experiment.

The rawness of the Tanks makes them perfect as spaces in which to find new forms of working. We are able to cross over between performance events and discussions or workshops in ways that were not possible previously. Now that the oil that once powered the Turbine Hall’s generators has gone, we see these new spaces as the fuel for the rest of the institution, bubbling up new ideas.

Art in Action

The Tate Tanks opening programme, which began on 18 July, is a three-month festival entitled Art in Action, which includes a mix of collection works, installations and live events. In one of the round Tank spaces, Sung Hwan Kim presents a new immersive video and sound installation. He was a student of the mixed-media performance pioneer Joan Jonas, whose works were important early experiments in mixing live video with performance onstage.

The southernmost tank is being used for a changing programme of live performance. In the first week there was a performance of a minimalist dance piece titled Fase (1982), by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, set to music by Steve Reich. The piece was re-thought for the space by the choreographer with a very minimal set-up: plain lighting, no seating and no stage.

Subsequent weeks have seen projects by Japanese artist Ei Arakawa, who produced a playful ‘singles night’. Still to come are Boris Charmatz’s Flip Book, a dance piece made from pictures of Merce Cunningham’s choreography taken over 50 years, and Haegue Yang’s moving sculptural ‘dress vehicles’, which invite the viewer to dance with them.

The programme will also include a great many events, including symposia on various subjects. One of the important things about the Tanks is that they will combine showing historical work, producing new work, and analysing or discussing art – mixing primary experiences with reflection.

Living art

There’s a large community of artists in London and the rest of the UK, as well as internationally, who will be excited to see Tate bringing this kind of work into the museum. We know that we’ve built up an audience for performance and film in the past decade, but what we don’t know is what people who come for the first time to see this kind of work will make of it.

We hope that some people will just be curious about the new spaces and will experience work that they may not have thought was ‘their thing’. Although I began with the label ‘performance art’, in fact that term has become quite dated and specific to a particular period in the past. What we’re creating is space for living art, very often nowadays involving the live event.

We hope to show how that live knowledge and experience feeds back into our understanding of where art has come from, and the past histories that we can tell.

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