The Tate’s exploration of performance and art

Steve Dinneen
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Tate Modern

They say you should never see how sausages are made if you want to carry on enjoying them. The same doesn’t always go for art. The last exhibition of the year at the Tate Modern, A Bigger Splash (named after the David Hockney painting, pictured above), focuses on the relationship between performance and art, observation and creation. It suggests that art is a bit like quantum physics, changing when you observe it and changing even more when you see it being made.

It opens with a signature Pollock, encased in a glass cabinet on the ground, as it would have laid as he painted it. It is accompanied by a video of the artist dancing around the canvas – very much a work of performance (albeit one he renounced, saying being filmed made him act differently, making the experience “phony”).

The Central European actionist movement of the ‘60s is well represented, with videos of (mainly female) models writhing in paint like giant living brushes and buckets of red oil-paint being poured over animal carcasses and left to drip on to naked women lying below. It is safe to say not many of these works will adorn the walls of even the most pedestrian of feminists.

The feminist answer came the following decade; one of the highlights of the show is the hypnotic video of Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic smearing her face with make-up.

The second half of the exhibition is made up of installation works – a sleigh under neon lights, a surreal front room – which, while more visually arresting than the photography and video, lacks the ability to take the performance into the real world, which, in the context of the exhibition, castrates it somewhat. The final room, though, created by trompe l’oeil artist (painting photo-realistic renditions of things like wood and marble panelling) Lucy McKenzie, is like walking into the final scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, making you part of the creation: a personal performance.

While the exhibition’s central tenet – that performance and art are inextricably entwined – is something of a truism, there is enough fascinating work here to more than carry it.