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
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy