Into the void

News that Tate Modern was to open a space devoted to performance art and film was greeted with wary curiosity. There’s no question that this is where art’s at right now; indeed, such is the prestige commanded by one of the métier’s leading exponents that her feature-length documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present is currently on general release.

Yet the reality is that performance and film are difficult. They trespass on the arenas of cinema, theatre and dance but are liberated from the craft that imposes discipline on those media. And aside from the likelihood that you may have to witness art at its most drearily self-reflexive, you might have to join in too. Being fed, quizzed or forced to perform embarrassing rituals is far from the contemplative pleasure of gazing at a great painting. That said, anyone who witnessed, say, Abramovic scrubbing the flesh off ox bones in the 1997 Venice Biennale while lamenting her country’s descent into a killing field will know that great performance can be as powerful as Goya. Yet for every Abramovic there is a Vanessa Beecroft, who filled the Guggenheim in New York with lingerie-clad models and expected us to to see through the soft-porn tableau to the irony within.

If any institution is capable of negotiating this minefield, it’s Tate Modern. The Tanks mark the first phase of a £215m expansion whose raison d’être is the museum’s success at turning the public on to the joys of modern and contemporary art. (It now welcomes more than 5m visitors a year.)

To pull off this feat, Tate has conjured a recipe of cutting-edge style with centre-field substance, balancing avant-garde works – the Turbine commissions, most spectacularly – with a collection rooted in 20th-century modernism and blockbuster shows. The temporary displays are currently divided between Damien Hirst and fin-de-siècle master Edvard Munch.

At first glance, the Tanks appear to be following suit. Of the quartet on display in the opening week, only one artist could be described as emerging: 37-year-old Sung Hwan Kim. The others, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Suzanne Lacy and Lis Rhodes are all seminal figures in their respective fields of dance, performance and film. Yet this is a radical gathering. Lacy and Rhodes are renowned for their feminist fire; De Keersmaeker’s minimalist aesthetic revolutionised contemporary dance in the early 1980s.

In showcasing this trio, Tate shows its commitment to the history of performance. Since Yoko Ono’s legendary Cut Piece (1964), when the audience snipped the clothes from her body, performance has been favoured by women artists because it side-steps the masculine heritage of painting and sculpture, and also allows for challenging explorations of female experience and the body.

This week’s showpiece was the live performance of Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich by Belgian choreographer and dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Hailed as a seminal work of contemporary dance since its creation in 1982, it was intended for a proscenium stage. Yet this minimalist tour-de-force could have been made for the daunting, sooty voids and unforgiving concrete floor of the Tanks’ central hall. Hemmed in by a square of spectators, lit by a single strip of lighting, De Keersmaeker and her partner, dressed in schoolgirl frocks, twisted, turned, tilted and balanced in a merciless marathon of repetitive movements, as if hypnotised by Reich’s unyielding melody.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s ‘Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich’

In opening with Fase, which is rooted in dance rather than visual art, Tate declares the collapse of boundaries. De Keersmaeker is part of a Belgian avant-garde scene that includes visual artists such as Jan Fabre, who has also directed operas. The dancers’ moving meditation brings to mind the mute rhythms of Agnes Martin’s paintings and the ruthless geometries of sculptures by Donald Judd.

Its stern, gynocratic minimalism also chimes with “Light Music”, a new acquisition for Tate by British film-maker Lis Rhodes, one of the most radical artists of our time. (It would have been thrilling to see one of her more overtly political pieces on display here, given Tate’s struggle to evade condemnation by association with corporations such as BP.)

Fuelled by Rhodes’ anger at the lack of recognition for female composers, the work consists of two projections facing one another across smoky beams of light. The images are simple: black-and-white bands flicker and evaporate against an undulating soundtrack. They are the fruit of a technical process that saw Rhodes produce drawings through sound signals, and create noise by printing drawings onto a film’s soundtrack.

Rhodes harnessess abstraction – so often accused of being apolitical – to an exposé of power: her refusal to respect the boundaries of music and light is a trope for the gender revolution she demands.

Less elliptical is the message of “The Crystal Quilt” (1987) by Susanne Lacy, which originated in a performance by 430 women over the age of 60 in a Minnesota mall. Here, a film of that event shows them form quartets at tables set with cloths that open out to form a “quilt” of shifting hues. Speeding up the film to eclipse the women’s individuality, Lacy lends human movement an inexpressive, origami-like geometry. A separate film of the women describing their experience of growing older underlines the political content of a piece considered a touchstone of feminist art.

De Keersmaeker, Lacy and Rhodes share an earnest, temporally-rooted poetry that was only possible in a pre-digital world. In their company, the work of Sung Hwan Kim – born in Seoul, based in New York – seems beamed in from another planet. Both his borderless identity and his working methods typify a generation of abstract storytellers for whom time and place impose few boundaries.

Occupying a vast, pillar-scored chamber containing a smaller room divided by a two-way mirror, his installation encompasses manifold screens and objects – a plywood lamp, a tin-foil curtain, a stencilled storyboard – that conspire to suggest a darkened sitting room. The centrepiece is Kim’s film Temper Clay, a black-and-white elegy to his Korean background that leaps from one arresting moment – a lacy canopy of trees, a boy holding a burning bucket, the information that the government banned the use of the word “mansion” – to another with delicate confidence.

It’s beautiful; but the presence of so much other work challenges our concentration. Where to look? How long for? Have you missed something? It’s good enough to warrant the effort it demands of its viewers, although those of us still struggling to come to terms with the fractured nature of our present may plot escape to Munch.

Lacy, Rhodes and Sung Hwan Kim are here to stay, but the rest of the Tanks will host an array of different performances and events across the summer. Tonight, De Keersmaeker’s cool rigour will give way to a performance devised by 31-year-old artist Eddie Peake, who won fame for choreographing a naked five-a-side football match. According to the press release, Peake’s “‘bodies’ [will] become sculptural and sexual objects ... encouraging the audience to give in to voyeuristic desire”.

Tate Modern’s gift for having it all looks as healthy as ever.

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