A Bigger Splash: More a damp squib than a big splash

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Tate Modern's exhibition of performance art features some fine names, but watching them have fun makes for an oddly fractured show

You would have thought that David Hockney had made a big enough splash already with his recent landscape show at the Royal Academy. But, no, here he is again providing not just the opening work but also the title of Tate Modern's survey of performance art.

I doubt whether Britain's greatest Living National Treasure in the art would approve of the works that follow or would regard it as much to do with him. His Bigger Splash, dating from his early period in California, is certainly a studied work, with a film made about it. But if anything it is the opposite to performance. The artist remains very much, as he or she has been through the ages, an unseen hand.

Performance art, as the succeeding galleries amply prove, was (and is) all about the artist being part of the action and the action being part of the work. It owed little to Hockney or Pollock (represented here by his Summertime: Number 9A) but to Marcel Duchamp's and Andy Warhol's efforts to redefine art as almost anything that the artist chose to say or do.

It flourished in the decades after the Second World War in the desire to break free from everything in the past and reach for something new and involving. Art became performance, sometimes group, sometimes solo but always public. It was how Gilbert and George and Yoko Ono started. The audience in street or gallery was invited to make the art happen – by painting the artist, slashing her clothes, firing at paint bags so that they disgorged their contents down the canvas. Kazuo Shiraga hung from a rope and painted with his feet, Günter Brus painted himself half white with a line down his back and walked the streets of Vienna until he got himself arrested on camera. Yves Klein had his nude model cover herself with paint and then roll on the canvas before a selected audience.

A good time was had by all, or at least by the artist, his friends and such onlookers as were there. Whether it made good art is neither here nor there. It wasn't the point. The problem it poses for the gallery is that the actual artefacts that result are usually pretty sorry affairs. The performance that created them has to be captured on film. They are fun to watch as you witness the naked bodies writhing in the paint (emulsion one hopes) and the artist painting himself or herself up to look like a mad guest at a fancy dress party.

Occasionally, it did have something to say. In the communist world performance became, and still is, a way of expressing the limits that censorship imposed on art, the only means for the artist to break free of constriction. Wu Shanzhuan's Public Ink Washing, in which the artist blots out the conformist characters on a canvas and his own back, is both brutal and direct. Freedom among the East European artists is mostly destructive, a nihilism born of despair.

Pretty soon, too, the women got tired of being used as paint brushes and having to waggle their paint-covered backsides onto canvas. The act of painting yourself with make-up was intrinsic to a woman's life since time immemorial and they were quick to seize the possibilities of this art. Putting on a face for the camera became an artistic assertion of themselves and a comment on the role they were expected to play in society. They had done it to please others, now they would do it to assert themselves. Cindy Sherman became the most successful exponent, represented here by her early facial photos. One could have done with more. So is the Hungarian Zsuzsanna Ujj, with a striking self-portrait as a painted and defiant skeleton, and Lynn Hershman, with her narrative pictures of woman as an artificial construct in Roberta Construction Chart #1.

It is here that the exhibition loses its way, or rather goes off at a tangent, forsaking performance and reverting to its original Pollock/Hockney theme of painting pushed to its limits. Instead of an object, art becomes a totality in which people, place and parts are all painted. It produces some splendid filmic sets. Marc Camille Chaimowicz has an entrancing full-sized room, 'Jean Cocteau…', in which he imagines the surroundings that Cocteau would now inhabit, the wallpaper and furniture of his day merging with the art of now. Karen Kilimnik realises Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in an assembly of painted backdrop, empty mirrors and a swan sledge, while the show ends with Lucy McKenzie's atmospheric backdrops for Muriel Spark's The Girls of Slender Means in trompe-l'oeil walls of faded gentility.

These are installations, however, rather than performances, although performances may take place within them. They may prove the continued vitality of paint. They are certainly enjoyable to look at. But they are not a continuum. Maybe that is inevitable. There are limits as to how far you can go with performance in a museum when you are not going to have a performance to accompany it. It's essentially the pastime of youth. As they grow older artists want something a little more permanent as their memorial. Throwing paint at each other or rolling around in it doesn't quite achieve that. So you are left with the secondhand medium of film to record what it was like when it happened.

But movements like Japan's Gutai Art Association and the Viennese Actionists were important in their day in breaking boundaries and expressing something of the world of the post-war. In feminist hands, and some men's, the narcisisism became a means of exploring and expressing gender and self in a way that conventional art could not. There is a wonderful exhibition to be had on these lines, with more of Cindy Sherman to show how digital photography has become a medium in itself for communicating performance and including artists such as Gillian Wearing. There's another exhibition to be had of art as a created environment for imagining, which might expand on the last works shown here.

As it is we have a fractured show with a ponderously theoretical theme and very little sense of context. There are ideas here, plenty of them, but not much cohesion. But then some of the films are great fun to watch, even if they must have been embarrassing for the poor models to perform.

A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance, Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888) tomorrow to 1 April

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable