2012 the year performance art returned
Catherine Wood, curator of contemporary art and performance at Tate Modern, talks us through a year in which the decade-long rise in art of activism, choreography and the performative finally broke through to the mainstream
2012 and the Olympics were all about performance in one spectacular sense – the medal winning. But one of the things that was less expected was the joy that volunteers found taking part in the opening and closing ceremonies. The large-scale communal project became, because of this, perhaps a little less about media image and state-hood, and more about people seeing themselves as a community, party through enacting being one.
The issues of performance, collectivity, activism, choreography and more broadly ‘the performative’ have been relevant to very much of the art being made, presented and theorized this year. Whilst these areas of exploration have grown steadily in significance in the past decade – or to say they have been revived, after a few decades of neglect, might be more accurate - 2012 marked a significant moment in their recognition within art’s establishments.
At Tate, we not only staged a three month festival, “Art in Action”, to launch The Tanks – new underground spaces that will have performance, film and installation as their primary focus in the coming years – but also inaugurated a new online performance space, BMW Tate Live, that has no live audience but is broadcast on YouTube in real-time. In November, we also opened an exhibition titled A Bigger Splash looking at the ways in which the ‘major history’ of painting has, in the past 50 years, been entwined with and antagonized by the ‘minor histories’ of performance and action, and how the next generation have made sense of this period of experiment. And the first events of our GTB series, curated by Elvira Dyangani Ose featuring live work by Otobong Nkange and a music event by Nastio Mosquito, took place in November. Not only this, but Tino Sehgal (though he doesn’t approve of the ‘p’ word of performance and prefers to call his works ‘situations’) created highlights of the year both in Turbine Hall’s Unilever Commission with These Associations, and with an extraordinary piece at Documenta, The Variation.
Documenta itself had an especially strong performance presence for this edition, highlights being Jerome Bel’s piece Disabled Theatre, and live pieces by Joan Jonas and Haegue Yang, as well as an extraordinary sound installation by Florian Hecker. Meanwhile, MoMA staged its first annual performance symposium titled How Are We Performing Today? which debated a range of performance-related issues in art and included contributions from the fantastic Judith Butler and excellent presentations by a number of artists who had also featured in the BMW programme and the Tanks, including Ei Arakawa with Grand Openings, Emily Roysdon and Boris Charmatz.
But the test of such recognition by the major institutions of art is going to be what kind of work younger artists are making and how this vein of practice is developed. There seems to be no sign of waning interest in the live medium as yet. Instead, performance has become very much part of many artists’ repertoire, alongside painting, video or installation, in fact often combined with these elements. Spartacus Chetwynd, who does exactly this, brilliantly, did not in the end win this year’s Turner Prize, but it was notable that 10 years after she began staging low-fi remakes of The Wicker Man or Michael Jackson’s Thriller in artist-run nightclubs, she was nominated in recognition of her work’s impact on the contemporary landscape.