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

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