Oct 7, 2007

Performing in Galleries/Fighting in the Streets

The great turbine hall at Tate Modern is about the most theatrical of gallery spaces imaginable. Occupied by a single installation at a time, each new, specially commissioned piece is unveiled with all of the fanfare and press giddiness of a big theatrical opening.

Even when the space is empty it still feels fizzes with theatrical potential; walking down the wide sloping ramp from the gallery’s entrance (Modern Art’s equivalent of a landing bay on the death star) you step out into a perfect rectagonal expanse, a giant grey space bordered on three sides by balconies that tower above it. It undoubtedly has the feel of a gargantuan studio space – not an environment in which to display, but an environment to be inhabited. The audience, immersed within this performative installation, do not admire it from a distance but engage with it, interact with it; sometimes wandering through giant mountains of white boxes, lying on the floor gazing up at a vast artificial sun, sliding down spiraling silver slides.

Although there have been installations that have had a theatrical quality, for example Bruce Nauman’s sound installation and the sinister grey figures of Juan Munoz gazing ceaselessly down at the wandering masses from the lift shafts that housed them, there has been no major installation (as part of the bombastic unilever series) that has incorporated live performance. Which is a shame.

I did hear a rumour that it was one of the places being considered (though I’m not sure how seriously) for the much anticipated/delayed London run of Black Watch. In the end I don’t think this would have been the right type of show for the Turbine Hall. For me, the looming post-industrial space yearns for the work of the likes of Brith Gof or, more recently, the Shunt collective. With the kind of support Unilever have offered, the space could comfortably be transformed into a labyrinthine environment that is part installation, part live-performance; an exciting, challenging, theatrical experience that seeks to bridge the 500 or so metres between Tate Modern and the National Theatre.

The most recent artist to be commissioned to create a new piece for the turbine hall is the Columbian political artist Doris Salcedo, who will embed a fence along the space, evoking those barriers through which numerous photos have been taken of the orange-jumpsuited, water boarded, indefinitely held inmates of Guantanamo Bay. To do this she has excavated a trench in the concrete floor of the gallery.

In the Guardian on Saturday Charlotte Higgins, in her article on the preparation of this new installation, highlighted an interesting comment from Salcedo that seemed to chime with my recent tirades about the emptiness (or otherwise) of space:

I don’t believe that space can be neutral. The history of wars, and perhaps even history in general, is but an endless struggle to conquer space.

Like Mark Wallinger (who’s recreation of Brian Haw’s anti-war banners tellingly traversed the Government’s exclusion zone that bans spontaneous demonstration within one mile of parliament), it seems Salcedo is someone who understands what it means to have fought for (and won) a space within the heart of London in which to express oneself politically, an increasingly difficult task and one that is more and more reserved exclusively for those ‘safe’ spaces of art and culture.

It would be nice to see theatre makers responding to the challenge (or, indeed, the responsibility) to voice those criticisms forbidden elsewhere as forcefully as Wallinger and Salcado, rather than using our most high profile spaces to restage self-indulgent Noel Coward comedies. Hopefully, Katie Mitchell’s forthcoming Women of Troy will have something more to say. And perhaps once theatre starts to acknowledge this responsibility, the dream of finding performers skipping across the floor of the turbine hall will become a less forlorn hope.

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