Cosmic Dancer or Cosmic Collaborations?
Michael Clark Cosmic Dancer
The Barbican London 07.10.2020- 03.01.2021
From revolutionary beginnings, I felt the curators did not take many risks in finding new ways to present a performative practice, if anything they just replicated the unimaginative decline of Clark’s work in recent years.
Immediately I was faced with multiple screens stretching across the entire ground floor. Hung at varying levels each screen hosts different archival footage, from anti-docudramas to performance and rehearsal footage. Choreographed audio jumps around the space. Spotlighting. Grabbing my attention. The variety of videos and a-symmetric landscape provides interactivity and as I move around the space I discover new angles, new juxtapositions and new content. The action of walking through the screens and turning to the alternative sides creates a three-dimensional feeling which gave me a sense of agency towards seeking out material, which opposed the traditional theatre setting in which they were first viewed. The curators have fashioned a relaxed atmosphere in this first space; sitting and lying in amongst the field of film is encouraged and most seem liberated to stay longer than usual. Once I finally escaped the seemingly never ending abyss of work I was faced by a further three installations. The first space encapsulated me as I moved around, following a path of discovery. However, after over half an hour of viewing, to watch further footage in tight capacity was not as engaging and I needed a break from the act of watching.
It’s great to see an institution engaging with the visibility of collaborators and beginning to provide transparency of artistic process but I find the title of the exhibition, ‘Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer’ misleading. Upstairs is devoted to his collaborators – these relationships are arguably the reason he was so radical, the movement content only replicative of modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham. Like Cunningham Clarke engaged with artists working at the same time as him, e.g. Leigh Bowery and The Clash, hence the injection of punk that elevated his work into an abnormity that caused riot within the ballet centric scene. When first visiting the exhibition, the top floor felt empty and passive as there was no information on the walls. It was only once I left and read the booklet that I realised the curators had in fact contextualised all of his collaborators and this was one of their main aims; to showcase these relationships. However, with no text exclaiming that this is an exhibition of Clark’s collaborations in the venue it feels as if they aren’t giving these artists enough credit for their contribution. In my opinion, without his collaborators Clark’s work is underwhelming as their collective creative process was the radical – not the dancing.
An exhibition of dance in a gallery space is problematic due to it not being made to be seen in this context, and there is risk of it feeling like a museum of ephemeral relics rather than an active entity. The curators’ choice to include sound is effective and visceral, and echoes the collective experience of going to the theatre. Upstairs, you could still hear the sounds from the installation below and although this clashed with other viewing I enjoyed the chaos of these moments; the spilling over of sound antagonising the clean sectional of the upstairs galleries. Whether this was the curators’ intention, or if just un avoidable, this was one of the most rebellious and natural anarchies of the exhibition.
Curating performative work is challenging. Often the only form of archive is film and there is a disparity between the original work and the recording (unless made specifically for film). This screen in-between the viewer and the sweat of the performer is problematic as it removes the electricity and tension that is formed exclusively during live performance. Furthermore, the screen removes the ability for audiences to relate to performers in a more intimate way as the unnerving possibility of eye contact is removed and there is little direct address to the camera. The performers in this case engage through an embodied conversation of impact, impulse, eruption and stillness yet just with those physically present. Sadly, compelling only a second- hand reflective experience in the gallery. Charles Atlas creates a performative nature in his installation and tackles some of these issues by inviting us to be participants and not only spectators. Unfortunately, the rooms that follow are lack lustre and feel more like an archive than an experience; watering down the radical nature of Clark’s former practice by eradicating the blunders, vibrations and audible breath. I say former due to his most recent work becoming outdated and to his demise ‘safe’ for its now dedicated middle class audience. The overall feel of the exhibition replicates the glossy façade of Clark’s current practice yet interestingly this work has little presence. Albeit very much alive.
By Kaia Goodenough