sat 28/03/2020

Art in Action, The Tanks, Tate Modern | reviews, news & interviews

Art in Action, The Tanks, Tate Modern

Art in Action, The Tanks, Tate Modern

An impressive new space for performance art

The Tanks: A handsome new performance space that will have curators licking their lips

You now have two choices when you roll down to the bottom of the Turbine Hall's slope.

You now have two choices when you roll down to the bottom of the Turbine Hall's slope. You can go left to the established Tate Modern collection of paintings and sculptures in white boxes, or right to a warren of performance and video art that fills two new large concrete barrel rooms - two options in gallery geometry and art practice. With the help of architects Herzog and De Meuron, Tate have incorporated the two disused oil drums into the gallery to provide a permanent platform for the immersive and interactive art forms that have come to dominate the visual arts over the past half century. The aim is overdue and the result impressive.

Most impressive is the way Herzog and De Meuron have left the bare barrels pretty untouched. The lovely fresh smell of concrete that hangs in the air is proof. Neat little design features like the textured black ceiling and moulded concrete overhang for the lighting box window notwithstanding, the spaces are offered in all their unvarnished glory. They are honest rooms, open to possibility. "Imagine a classical painting hanging in the round raw concrete," suggests Jacques Herzog. That would be something. But then so was the performance of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, which we got a preview of on Monday.

Sung Hwan Kim's film Temper Clay is rich in beauty and atmosphere

Freeing modern dance of the stage almost always works. It seems right that we should have as much freedom to do as we want with our own bodies as the dancers have with theirs. The whole ad hoc nature of the viewing experience - some people seated cross legged on the floor, some crowding the performance in a square, others walking round the outside - also seemed right for a work that is an apotheosis of the 1960s New York music and dance scene.

The confusion of start times and ingoing and outgoing scrums as the floor was prepared for each number meant I only caught two of the four pieces. Come Out, one of Steve Reich's earliest tape pieces, was set to an appropriately embryonic scenario, made up of two women (including De Keersmaeker herself), two chairs and machinist gesturing. The dancers only fleetingly get up on their feet before falling back, their movement cut off in the same way that the words of the young man on the tape (a 1964 Harlem rioter) never quite resolve themselves into a sentence. Like his words, their actions are staggered and their bodies begin to phase in and out of sync.

De Keersmaeker dances alone in the other work, Violin Phase, her movement following a circle. She is now in innocent dress, sporting girl's sandals and a white chemise that, periodically, she flings up above her waist. A smile ushers in a jump or a slap of the floor. There's an aggressive moment, a drunken moment, expressiveness in equilibrium with formality. That said, after seeing Lucinda Childs's breathtaking realisation of musical phasing in Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach recently, Keersmaeker's approach came across as a little earthbound.

Only this single righthand tank will be dedicated to live events, it appears. Two other rooms are dedicated to performance art in general. They showcased works that exemplify the reasons why it is so difficult for museums to keep tabs on this genre. Suzanne Lacy's The Crystal Quilt is a classic that sees 430 women over the age of 60 gather in a shopping mall atrium on Mother's Day in 1987, talk about their lives, reconstruct an 82-foot quilt, and in the process create a slow moving tableau as they sit at tables and hold hands. It is a seminal work, a powerful symbolic event, but one that was no doubt more enjoyable to take part in than to witness as a gallery video.

Lis Rhodes's Light Music, a thrilling black-and-white piece of cinematic neo-constructivism, is an earlyish example of extended cinema. It's also a hugely ambitious work, being both a musical composition and a two-screen moving display, and explaining how it works is a feat. I remain baffled (despite reading both the crib sheet on the wall and Rhodes's own programme notes) as to how sounds inform and shape the images, how images in turn shape the sounds and how we the audience shape both merely by walking in and out of the projections of the two rostrum cameras that face each other lovingly on the floor. But this (apparently) is how it works.

They missed a trick by not exploring the height in these drums in either show

Despite its moments of strobing wonder, the piece is somewhat hoist by its own petard. For only when we, the audience, are not interacting with the projectors can we witness the full geometric display. So, a nice idea in theory but in practice a little flawed. I imagine curators will be faced with this conundrum quite a lot when excavating hit-and-miss early interactive art for The Tanks.

The other drum contained what was the most consistently interesting work on show. Sung Hwan Kim's Temper Clay, which includes several films and installed moments, is a new commission. It has little to do with performance but a lot to do with cinematic beauty. A Lynchian miscellany of spoken facts and fictions - including strange female obsessions, political asides, documentary conversations with his family and a charged soundtrack (composed in collaboration with David Michael DiGregorio) - floats over the top of some striking visuals. Much of the interest comes from Kim's manipulation of images using see-through acetate to create trompe l'oeil oddnesses. It's been done before but rarely with as much suggestive appeal.

I'm not, however, quite sure why Kim found himself in this space. His work doesn't show off the possibilities of the room very well and it could have worked just as nicely in one gallery's white boxes. The curators also missed a trick by not exploring the height of these drums in either show. Perhaps they will in due course as the impressively full and varied 15-week programme unfolds. But there's plenty to excite visitors in the shows currently here. Most exciting is the fact that central London has a handsome new performance space. Those from theatre and music will no doubt be eyeing them up, licking their lips, seeing what the possibilities could be. Watch this space.

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