Stage craft: The art of theatre

Tate Modern's latest show explores the relationship between art and theatre. Michael Glover is happy to be one of the audience
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The Independent Culture

Frozen moments of contemplation. That is how we often think about the time we spend in the company of works of art, and especially when we are in the presence of paintings. Think of Titian. Think of Van Gogh. Think of Francis Bacon. Think of the hieratic presence of some great frieze by the likes of Rubens. We do nothing but stand, curious, awestruck, bedazzled. Sometimes we step back, or to the side, to get a better view. Sometimes our eyes swivel from left to right and back again. But the external movement is usually on a minor scale. The images seem to demand an absolute minimum of physical engagement – as if it would be an act of irreverence to be physically agitated. It is what our brains are processing, and how our imaginations are working on the material in front of our eyes, that counts.

Sculptures are quite different. We are accustomed to the sight of sculpture in public places. We know that it belongs to the world of hustle and bustle. When in galleries, sculptures are most often to be seen in the round. They yield up their secrets as we move around them. They do not completely exist until we have made the full circuit. So the question is: how much of a work of art consists of what we take from it, and how much from what we give back?

In this new show at Tate Modern, which consists of work by 16 well-regarded and well shown, youngish artists from around the world, there is a great deal of giving involved, from first to last. It makes us walk about. It makes us participate. It says to us: there is no art unless you, the curious onlooker, become a part of what you see. In fact, all this is incomplete without you. Just as the world would be incomplete without you. The entire experience of this show feels pleasingly open-ended. The show itself feels slow-paced. Each exhibit is given ample room to breathe, and to enter into the spirit of itself. There is no sense of push or hurry. This is definitely not 8.30am on the Underground at Clapham Common.

The metaphor of theatre is what holds it all together. In this exhibition, the world is a stage, as Shakespeare once told us, and we are all called upon to play our parts. When we do so, we reinvent ourselves as public spectacles. We become part of the staged reality of the work we have helped to invent. Which in turn reminds us that reality would be oh, so humdrum without an element of theatrical display. That is a part of what is happening here. Another part is to do with what the artists themselves are doing, how, in the way they are presenting themselves through their own work – the films of Cezary Bodzianowski show him as a blundering, absurdist clown, for example – they are encouraging us to think about the nature of the relationship between art and the world in which it is so often jarringly embedded.

Sometimes the artists are engaged in staging a kind of theatre in which we may or may not be invited to play a part. One of the most delightful of the pieces on show here, by the German artist Ulla Von Brandenburg, consists of nothing but a huge, parti-coloured curtain hanging across the long wall of a very narrow gallery. It stretches right up to the ceiling, which must be almost 30 feet above our heads. The sheer flourish of its presence here seems at the very least to promise a grand auditorium, complete with a refined and fully engaged audience. But, no, it would be impossible to step back and fashion an auditorium in as tight a space as this one. So we have to settle for the curtain alone, which hangs slightly open at the middle, as if it is a mouth that is about to speak volumes.

We recognise it for what it is the moment we turn into the room and see it. It gives us a slightly jolting thrill, especially when we catch sight of that hint of the possibility that it might be concealing a world full of the promise of wonder and pure artifice. And yet, that is all it is, and all that it remains from first to last: nothing more nor less than the thrilling promise of theatre, entirely engendered from within our ever-expectant selves – and have we not paid our money to be here in a mood of compliant expectancy?

Elsewhere, we get more than just the promise of theatre; we become active participants. This is the case with Jeppe Hein's Labyrinth, a circular structure of long, thin mirrors into which we are invited to step, at which point we are abruptly confronted by another circular structure of long, thin mirrors, set within the first. This inner circle of mirrors is slowly turning, we notice, so that when we re-enter the world of the gallery, we do so at a slightly different angle to the world. What do we do when we stand inside this ever-turning labyrinth? We stare anxiously into these long mirrors, first one and then another, and we wonder about the nature of our increasingly imperfect selves, multiplied over and over.

The show itself is an encouragement to wander, to be on the move. That seems to be part of its fascination – that one room sweeps into another, continues the argument of the room preceding it, so that the act of walking back and forth seem to enhance and thicken the quality of the argument. Sounds and images seep from one room to another. One room seems to have an almost voyeuristic relationship to another. We see the next part of the show at some distance from us. It seems to beckon us forwards. It feels, from first to last, as if there is a kind of leisurely paced layering of argument going on.

Take a couple of rooms that are devoted to the work of Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller, for example. Deller's pieces are to do with his filmed re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, a key moment in the fight between the miners and the Thatcher government during the miners' strike of 1984. The first room of the display is a kind of documentation of the theme – objects, books, posters. The second room, much smaller and more full of pent-up feeling, shows the 2001 film. There are scenes of ferocious physical violence involving close-packed lines of beefy, red-faced men. There is much tribal beating of shields by the police, and much bestial roaring and cussing from the miners.

And then, interspersed with all that breathless action, there are interviews with local people who ruminate, to camera, upon the baleful consequences of what is happening here, why the battle is going on at all, and what the short- and long-term repercussions will be – the destruction of local identity, mass unemployment in the villages and towns that came into being because of the presence of Old King Coal, and all the other issues that seem to be at stake: history, pride, honour, masculinity.

Stepping back out of that room into the first one again feels like stepping back into a room of artists' materials. This is a room full of things out of which something was created. Now we are witnessing, much more quietly, everything that the film was assembled from, bits and pieces of the everyday world of the miner at the end of the 1970s: NUM posters, a pit helmet, old newspaper cuttings, photographs, a police shield. It feels as if we are pacing around inside the head of Deller himself as he ponders on how to memorialise the event. All this stuff gathered here is so much detritus. It feels like an emptying out of a gobbet of reality, like a pile of rubbish that has been spilled and shaken out of an upturned sack.

And then, between this room and the next, Deller has somehow got to work on it all, he has sorted it, organised it. He has hired the actors, gathered together the willing locals, and framed a response to which we still respond, quite viscerally, now. And this restless shifting from room to room, from documentation to the finished thing, is a kind of ghostly, theatrical re-enactment of what Deller did to bring us here in the first place.

The World as a Stage, Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 (020-7887 8888), to 1 January