Features Diana's ColumnPerformance Published 8 August 2012

Live Art and the Institution: Tate Tanks

Tate Tanks are potentially a major institutional statement from one of the world’s most visited galleries, keen to capitalise on the now historicized era of participation emerging within visual arts in the seventies. They are an interesting potential for live art and its relationship to the institution, but Tate’s lack of engagement with the obvious cultural context which it is trying to capture is problematic. An institution making such a statement is symptomatic of a wider, problematic discourse between live art and cultural operators. So what then do the Tanks mean?
Diana Damian Martin

In Hudson, New York, Marina Abramovic is developing The Institute for Long Durational Performance Arts, a laboratory dedicated to the preservation, teaching and research of performance art. Performa, a bi-annual of ‘performance visual art’, is an institutional engagement with a particular infrastructure of live art. PSI functions as a dedicated venue for performance and live art, whilst MOMA and Guggenheim have dedicated themselves to the exhibition of live art since the early nineties. The British cultural landscape is no novice to live art; institutions such as the Live Art Development Agency have been creating and developing an infrastructure to support, preserve and engage with this ever-changing cultural cross-section; in addition, producing organisations from Artsadmin to Arnolfini, festivals such as Spill or In Between Time, nomadic organisations such as Forest Fringe , have grown over the years, and serve as important players in the growing infrastructure of this landscape. This year, however, is the first in which a major institution- Tate Modern- is opening its doors and dedicating part of its remit to the collection and showcasing of live art. This holds the potential to be an important step in the history of British live art, but in its current portrait, it’s a much more fragile and problematic institutional statement that seems to have chosen to deliberately omit any engagement with this growing infrastructure. So what does this mean, and how has this come to be?

Certainly live art has always had an confrontational relationship with the institution, both in its origins within both visual art and avant-garde theatrical practice, and by its very nature, as a public, subversive and nomadic form of art that seeks to engage directly with its immediate social and political context, be it in its capacity to empower a community or to create confrontational critique- from the work of Franko B to that of Bobby Baker. In addition, a cross-section of artists arising from a variety of backgrounds have chosen to engage with the politics of live art in a more lateral manner, and they play equal part in the construction of this cultural landscape. With a legacy which has been institutionalised by visual art history over time, from the work of Yves Klein or Chris Burden, as well as Marina Abramovic, Orlan, Keira O’Reilly or Tehching Hsieh, live art both functions within and in reaction towards institutions, bearing the confrontational weight of critique which naturally excludes the possibility of a localised, fixed and rigid home.

That being said, it’s important to acknowledge the crucial role which institutions can play not only in creating an infrastructure for live art- and here Live Art Development Agency for example has been instrumental- but also in canonizing a practice which doesn’t necessarily hold allegiance to the dominant visual art histories which seek to kidnap its legacy. Live art is a shape-shifting territory, and any institution that seeks to capitalise on this holds both important symbolic and cultural power, but also a weighty, convoluted historical discourse which it needs to de-tangle.

Designed by the Swiss duo Herzog and De Meuron, who are also behind Serpentine Gallery’s most recent summer pavilion, Tate Tanks occupy the former oil tanks of the power station. A tank has been dedicated to permanent collections, and another serves as flexible performance space, whilst adjacent galleries connect the Tanks to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and a further, blocked off staircase leads to Tate’s newer expansion, currently being constructed on top of the tanks themselves.

The concept behind these enormous industrial spaces is visible to the naked eye, and further emphasized with impressive architectural precision. The Tanks are vast concrete volumes, and where possible, this raw precision has been made visible by leaving, for example, numbers which have been located in the foundation itself, as well as the construction of a series of oblique concrete pillars that give the enormous foyer a direction and an angular precision. The difference in volumes and textures is emphasized through an engagement with the tanks’ industrial history, with a small circular room made entirely out of metal walls, interrupted by thick, regular bolts.  The foyer contains an in-built bar and provides access to all the spaces, a nomadic transition area. The main performance space’s circularity is interrupted by four concrete pillars that frame a stage-like space, and supports a grid structure and a lighting box elegantly woven into the fabric of the space with little to no visibility.

The Tanks are industrial and precise, authoritative in their historical and functional weight, and clearly designed as a non-descript space without any historical affiliation to narratives outside of the building itself. With that in mind, they’re no white or black box, but rest somewhere in the middle, creating a specific, if impressive and problematic context for showcasing live work. They are a living piece of documentation in their own right, conceptually referencing a visible history from industrial space to performance venue, whilst at the same time making interesting assumptions about what a 21st century museum space might just look like, and within that, questioning the role that such an institution devoting itself to the preservation of that which is considered to be ephemeral, might be.

The Tanks have launched with a fifteen week festival titled Art in Action, capitalising on the participatory turn across a variety of artistic practices. Korean artist Sung Hwan Kim was invited to create a site-specific intervention in the collection Tank, Anne Theresa De Keersmaeker is re-enacting her canonical work Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, and the permanent collections are showcasing documentation and works from Suzanne Lacy and Liz Rhodes. In addition, the Tanks have programmed a series of symposiums exploring the relationship between the live and the material, and a smaller festival for young people.

It’s an interesting if problematic mix of work not solely within the narrative reach which it promotes; from postmodern dance to transnational interdisciplinary work, and with a patchwork of collections that polarise from minimalist mixed media to documentation of a participatory event, the programme promotes a mix of discourses that serve as an imprecise curatorial landscape. Fase, for example, is a superb, if bombastic performance to warm up the Tanks’ major space, a piece of living dance history that calls into its dramaturgy the nature of the space as well as references to a nexus of modern and postmodern vocabularies and philosophies of dance. Sung Hwan Kim’s work calls on a transnational engagement with the biographical, with its character based screen interventions, poetic in their cultural explorations, as well as totemic architectural constructions that break up the circular space. But surrounding this work is a curious sense of mythology, and an imprecise re-enactment of a period in modern and contemporary art that matches postmodern dance with abstract minimalism without any clear historical narrative. With dimly lit galleries, the sound echoing through the vast volumes of the Tanks, this sense of theatrical mystery seems to be in antithesis to the nature of the works themselves, and displaces the central position of identity politics which some of the works so crucially touch upon. It’s clear that the spaces naturally house precise, canonical works, but they also open up room for the wider live art historical discourses to invade and permeate an important audience- and these are not present in a more tentative curatorial exercise that seeks to provide space for landmarks within the clear domain of visual art.

What the Tanks are lacking is an acknowledgement of the field’s subversive totality, its deliberately slippery, cheap aesthetics and non-institutionalised discourses that could have provided a real provocation to the space. Where is the queer art, the body-based work, the high impact site-specific projects, the social and political experiments that have provided live art with such a potent canon, the essential documents that ought to have a presence on this site?

Over the period of one year, from September 2011 to September of this year, Tate Modern organised an interdisciplinary research initiative that sought to examine the ways in which performance and performativity have been present within and shaped contemporary art. With academic and practical strands, the project was an important step in the institution’s engagement with the wider cultural and academic landscape of performance, but its echoes are faint in the cultural politics which the Tanks seem to have engaged in. With sociality as the key term of exploration, with the Turbine Hall being occupied by over one hundred volunteer performers in Tino Sehgal’s Unilever Commission, with an accompanying festival for young people and a longlist of participatory projects, it seems striking that the Tanks have made an incomplete gesture in examining and foregrouding the role of the institution in engaging with the social and in turn, the presence of the social within contemporary artistic practice. Instead, the iconic and intriguing spaces’s dominance displaces any clear threads within the chosen works, and constructs a set of problematic narratives that displace participation as a cultural device.

Most importantly, Tate’s lack of engagement towards the field which it is trying so hard to capitalise on is particularly problematic and an interesting conflictual cultural statement. Neither institutions like LADA or Artsadmin have been consulted, nor organisations such as Spill, Arnolfini or Live at LICA, major players in the current shape of the live art field in the UK. So the Tanks have then chosen to publicly omit the rich culture from which they might eventually draw from, seeking to capitalise on the dominant live art narrative entering from the visual art field, perhaps if only to continue a process of canonisation which seeks to promote a more linear, visual history of such practices that ground the work in dominant artistic outputs of the seventies and eighties.

Tate Tanks are an institutional proposition; by inherently questioning and taking a stance on the ways in which a 21st century museum might engage with the rich landscape of performance and live art, the institution has chosen to sediment its identity in a problematic nexus without transparently engaging with its immediate cultural context, or considering the ways in which live art’s own history reflects on its relationship with the institution. If Art in Action engages with participation as a dominant cultural device, then the Tanks have displaced the politics of such a gesture, closing rather than opening the doors to this intriguing and authoritative space. That being said, they have the potential to be a significant cultural enterprise that can not only provide an important space for the canonisation of live art practices, drawing from the wide-range of interdisciplinary references, but also support a growing cultural infrastructure and bring new and significant audiences to the shape-shifting artistic practice.

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.