Inside/Outside: Materialising the Social was the first symposium at the Tate Modern’s Tanks, a new space open for fifteen weeks and devoted to “Art in Action”: live art, performance and intervention. A self-reflexive conversation interrogating the role of the museum within art production and the social, the event presented the Tanks as the gritty subconscious of the gallery, in which its anxieties and delusions could be untangled and explored. The stark, industrial bowels of the building, then, became home to an ambitiously self-critical task.
The title of the event, which also presented its central thread, was alighted on by several of the speakers as a somewhat misleading opposition between the ‘interior’ world of the museum and ‘exterior’ social reality. As Claire Bishop memorably declared, “I have always resisted the idea that there is a real world outside the art world.” Far from a blinkered artist’s fantasy, Bishop’s statement asserted the collapse of those distinctions, the refusal of art’s separation from the social on any grounds.
“Materialising”, in this context, took on an intriguing ambiguity. In its sense of apparition, the conjuring or spontaneous realisation of the abstract (or absent) in physical form, the word evoked conceptions of the art object as the materialisation of the artist’s subjectivity, imagination or genius. The title of artist Liu Ding’s series I Simply Appear in the Company Of… seemed a provocation in this direction: is what way does the artist “appear” through his/her works? Can there be anything simple about it?
Such questions hint at the alternative connotations of “materialisation”: in particular those associated with materialism and commodity, Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter, labour and objectification. This second strain infused the symposium (and its title) via questions surrounding the matter exhibited within museums; the secret life of artworks that traffic into the apparently exempt space of the gallery the social materiality inherent in its construction. It was from the audience, not the speakers, however, that the question of museum sponsorship arose, and the imbibing via those channels of economies of visibility and spectacle into the gallery. Curator Kathy Noble’s response was candid (if not noble): “I have a lot to say about that,” she confessed, “but should maybe wait until I’ve left Tate.”
While material and commodity is tentatively discussed in relation to visual artworks (in a gallery exhibiting Damien Hirst, how can it not be?), the arguments of theorists like Peggy Phelan have been influential in the fraught attempt to shelter performance from those categories of value by virtue of its ephemerality. Since performance cannot be reproduced, argues Phelan in Unmarked, it cannot become part of the economy of reproduction that capitalises on images and objects. These influences resurfaced in Dorothea von Hantelmann’s designation of the Tanks as a transitional space, a hybrid and performative environment that did not necessarily “call for objects.” Von Hantelmann’s definition of “object” in this argument, though, was problematic: can the labour of performance excuse itself from systems of commodification? Is a performative artwork not also a kind of object in these terms?
This limitation was succinctly pointed up by Claire Bishop’s talk, “Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity,” which looked at the transferral of performance tasks from the artist to the public, the amateur and the non-artist professional. Discussing works from Martin Creed’sWork No. 850, in which athletes ran through the Tate Britain every thirty seconds, to Artur Zmijewski’s Deaf Bach, in which a group of Deaf students were filmed singing Bach, Bishop spoke about the outsourcing of artistic labour and the conditions that make art possible in its creation and institutionalisation.
Focussing on practice that refigured the relationship between artist and performer (since they were not the same person), Bishop’s talk also raised important questions about presence, a complex notion which the symposium shied away from fully discussing, despite further provocation from Liu Ding. This artist apparently failed to arrive at the symposium; his presentation was expertly delivered by his collaborator-wife, and his seat in the discussion was taken by an enigmatic Mr. Liu. The delegation of the artist’s presence was also a strong theme in his work, in particular Liu Ding’s Store, which presents found objects signed by the artist; more of a curatorial than an artistic practice.
Liu Ding’s exploration of the blur between artist and curator reminded us of the elephant in the room: despite the presence of three Tate curators at the event, the embodiment and materiality of their role within the museum was never held to account. Liu Ding himself described the curator’s role as based on “instinct,” a term inevitably haunted by the spectres of taste, distinction and even prejudice. The erasure of the curator’s body from the museum space, the translation of his/her disembodied voice onto the inscribed walls and the neutralisation of his/her subjective knowledge by the professed objectivity of the museum is surely, however, one of the biggest obstacles to true auto-critique.