The Gallery as a Dance Hall

27 Apr

It has been a while since the last article, however this is due to a lack of cohesion within the contemporary art world recently, but now a clear trend has appeared for visual artists making works that transform the gallery space into a site for dance and performance.  With Arts Council England redistributing funding from its new National Portfolio in favour of dance, and programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing and So You Think You Can Dance? gracing our television screens, it is likely that interest in dance is growing, and hence galleries are making curatorial decisions in favour of this kind of cross-genre art form.

It is not new for artists to engage in set design with a president set by Piet Mondrian, who designed a set for Michel Seuphor‘s L ‘Ephémère est éternel, and Liubov Popova (who was exhibited with Alexander Rodchenko at Tate Modern in 2009).

What is perhaps different is that many of these contemporary artists (and similarly video artists such as Nathaniel Mellors, showing at the ICA) are controlling the whole experience in the fashion of Richard Wagner.  In German there is the word Gesamtkunstwerk that describes this all-encompassing art form.  However it is likely many of these contemporary artists are working on a much smaller budget.

South London Gallery recently hosted The Pedestrians (2011) by Charles Atlas, Mika Tajima and New Humans.  Yellow carpet (rather than red) led the viewer into the exhibition space in single file, or two side by side at most, and then divided into a hexagon offering two pathways across the space, offering the option of spiritual pathways in life, encouraging you to divide and conquer, or simply walk around the space in a loop.  The carpet was surrounded by various media equipment, abandoned like when a film crew go to lunch.  This had been used to film the performances in the space but now lay dormant, waiting like a member of the paparazzi outside a popular venue, but there is no one in sight to operate the technology should anything occur.

Projected upon the walls, videos of protest type marches mark this work as a site for, or a call to protest, asking us to claim space within the gallery and beyond, walking through it like the Flâneur, written about by Walter Benjamin.  This is reinforced by large, square, cut out letters hung on the walls and scaffolding towers, giving commanding phrases, calling the viewer to action, to arms, or like a boss to an uninterested and uncooperative employee, or a master to his slave.

Over the winter the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre held an exhibition dedicated to works where the artist choreographs the audience or performers in movement.  This included Robert MorrisBodySpaceMotionThings, a series of sculptural works designed to be climbed on, and William Forsythe’s The Fact of Matter, although the movement these create in the viewer is less of dance and more one of acrobatics.  However the lines between dance and gymnastics and circus arts are as blurred as this article is demonstrating that the lines between visual art, dance and later music or sound are, shall we say, open to interpretation.

Unnoticed by many visitors, Bethan Huws recently built a stage (or plinth) in one of the gallery spaces at the Whitechapel Gallery.  The height on a single step, although apparently inspired by the keel of a boat, this altered the space with an additional gallery type floor across half the width of the space, and according to the press release the acoustics were also affected.  Hence, as visitors had to traverse the work to continue around the building, they were divided into those performing on the stage and an audience below.  This work also brings up issues regarding disabled access, with people with disabilities increasingly participating in the making of art.

Thinking about Huws’ work as a plinth brings to mind Antony Gormley’s participatory work One and Other (2009) inviting 2400 members of the public to perform on or otherwise occupy the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square for an hour each, which may have inspired interest in this form of practice where these artists could be said to be literally putting people on a pedestal.

IMT Gallery is currently hosting Brandon LaBelle’s sound work The Sonic Body in their main space.  This seems to have the feel of a John Cage work using contact microphones, however it is actually a surround sound recording of a series of people dancing to music listened to via personal audio devices.  Crescendos sound like the samba tune of tap dance troupes such as Stomp and Tap Dogs, but lack the metallic timbre of the taps and are more mute, suggesting the dancer is wearing trainers perhaps, in a more contemporary dance style, whilst the sound could alternatively relate to some native tribal dances.

Likewise the Chisenhale Gallery is hosting Janice Kerbel’s Kill the Workers, in which the gallery space is marked out as a space for performance in the round, even more so than in Huws’ work, by a series of theatrical lights.  We can follow a series of scene changes as the work alternates between a mixture of spotlights, background lighting and dappled lighting effects, until finally the house lights come on when the performance has finished.  Throughout you can see where the main action is occurring and imagine the number of performers on stage.  Meanwhile the amount of wires leading the control box evokes the power of big business and the National Grid, whilst remaining potentially susceptible to collapse upon the tug of a cable.

Where Kerbel completely transforms the space of the Chisenhale into a performance space, LaBelle makes the space at IMT appear as a perfect, if small, dance rehearsal space with its plain white walls and sprung wooden flooring.  Whilst hi-fi style speakers have been installed by LaBelle, ideal for playing the music for rehearse to, all that seems missing is a barre, which could make an interesting sculptural piece following the gallery’s slightly curved wall, and perhaps a large mirror that might be placed opposite.  Listening you can follow the dancers around the room as you can with the spotlights in Kerbel’s piece, and as other visitors enter the space or traverse it they become performers, sometimes moving with the recorded sound, at others adding to the piece with their footsteps, whilst most are inclined to gather at the edges of the class and observe the invisible dancers rehearse their pieces.

Whilst LaBelle’s work has been commoditised in the form of a CD for sale, it seems harder to imagine how Kill the Workers could be sold.  Sure the scale could be adjusted to fit another exhibition space and all the lighting stands used are height adjustable, but if this work is taken outside of the art space it would either simply function as theatrical lighting or it would take on the role of a showroom for demonstrating and selling theatrical lights or for their hire, as the lights used in the installation may be hired and hence allude to stories of transient labour and adaptability, as might the scaffolding in The Pedestrians.  In essence Kerbel’s work on the one hand demonstrates the lighting technician’s art, but then roboticises this labour, abstracting the artistic hand and simplifying it to a computer program, addressing mechanisation in the workplace.

It seems like it could be interesting curatorially to exhibit both these works together and effectively combine them, but perhaps that would just destroy them.  They could both relate to horror films and stories such as early sections of 28 Days Later, and The Day of the Triffids written by John Wyndham, in which the central characters find themselves in a world devoid of people.  We have stepped into a performance space devoid of performers at Chisenhale, whilst LaBelle’s work could be said to be haunted with the presence of past performances.

There are also several performances incorporated into the Barbican‘s current exhibition, Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark – Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s, and an invitation has just been received to Michal Škoda’s exhibition at Studio 1.1, which from the title, Everybody Looks for a Place to Dance, sounds as though it would be connected, and some of Škoda’s minimal paintings bare some resemblance to Mondrian’s.

Nathaniel Mellors Ourhouse is on show at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH until 15th May 2011
Brandon LaBelle Notes Towards a Sketch of a Sonic Body is on at IMT Gallery, Unit 2/210 Cambridge Heath Road, E2 9NQ until 22nd May.  LaBelle is also the author of two books on sound art, Background Noise and Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life.
John Cage is being exhibited at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea until 5th June.
Janice Kerbel Kill the Workers is at Chisenhale Gallery, 64 Chisenhale Road E3 5QZ until 15th May.
Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s is at the Barbican Centre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS until 22nd May.
Michal Škoda Everybody Looks for a Place to Dance opens at Studio 1.1, 57a Redchurch Street, E2 7DJ from 20th May – 12th June 2011.

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