The Tanks, part of Tate Modern's £215m expansion project, launched on July 18th, marking a significant art-historical moment. Designed by Herzog and de Meuron, a Swiss architecture firm perhaps best known for designing Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium, the Tanks are the world's first museum galleries dedicated exclusively to exhibiting performance, installation and film. This marks the first time live art is being made accessible to the non-arts professional, the non-initiate. For the last 50 years live art has been a key mode of expression among contemporary artists. It emerged in part from a rejection by artists of the art market. In challenging art as objects to buy and sell—as status-based goods to display above the couch—they turned to their bodies, the ultimate non-commodifiable media. This came at a time when performers were also breaking down the traditional concept of theatre. The result was a new landscape for experimentation, in which artists and actors processed and presented fresh ideas in unconventional ways.
Yet despite its art-historical significance, live art has remained invisible to the vast majority of the public. On the rare occasions when it has been visible it has usually been in the form of video or photographic reproduction. Though certainly better than nothing, such documentation does little to convey the visceral urgency of a live performance. Now, with the Tanks in London, performance art is about to go public.
Entering the Tanks is like stepping into another dimension. These cavernous underground oil drums are rich with the heavy atmosphere of industry. Massive concrete girders and the dense, warm smell of history provide strange comfort. Clever lighting intensifies the disorientating chiaroscuro mood.
For the next 15 weeks the Tanks at Tate Modern will present Art In Action, a programme of events as part of the London 2012 Festival. This will make a full schedule of performance art available to the public free of charge and, in most cases, without the need to book. The programme includes a captivating combination of historically important pieces alongside cutting edge work by emerging artists, and interdisciplinary collaborations. The festival opened with Fase, an hour-long dance-based work choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Set to the music of Steve Reich, the four-part piece was first performed, to great acclaim, in 1982.
Fase is interested in the relationship between music and dance. The idea is to consider dance as something independent of the music, rather than a way to illustrate it. Two performers—Ms De Keersmaeker and, for this Tanks specific reworking, Tale Dolven—perform highly repetitive sets of movements in perfect synchronicity. Although primarily a formal work, over time it bleeds into a powerfully emotive space. The relationship between the two dancers feels poignant, shifting subtly between ease and tension, ebb and flow.
Alongside this landmark live art event, Sung Hwan Kim, a young Korean artist, presented a specifically commissioned installation. And two feminist works from Tate's permanent collection, Suzanne Lacy's The Crystal Quilt (1982) and Lis Rhodes's Light Music (1975) occupied a third space.
Tate's timing with the Tanks feels just right. At a moment when the art market is too often mistaken for the art world, and Tate Modern's own Turbine Hall hosted a certain diamond-studded skull, it is a fine thing for the museum to be introducing live art to a wider public. This is an important step for broadening the popular understanding of contemporary art.
written for The Economist