Letter from London

Letter from London: Pumping Irony

Robert Morris' Bodyspacemotionthings at Tate Modern [image: Ben Street]

Robert Morris’s "Bodyspacemotionthings" at Tate Modern. Photo: Ben Street

Interactivity is now so commonplace at Tate Modern that I sometimes wonder if visitors are disappointed when they see works of art they aren’t allowed to touch. Not that they don’t. A Donald Judd work, Untitled (1972), until recently the centerpiece of the Tate’s minimalism room, was speckled with fingerprints of the curious (and quickly disappointed; it’s an empty copper box). That room’s been replaced with an awesome display of (roped off, phew) postminimalist works, including a leaning piece in black felt by Robert Morris. Morris’s massive work Bodyspacemotionthings occupies the far end of the Turbine Hall. It’s a recreation of his display of plywood ramps, beams, ropes and platforms, designed to be clambered upon by members of the public, which they did with unforeseen abandon when it was first shown at the Tate in 1971. The American Morris had unwisely predicted sedate interaction from the stuffy limeys who, in fact, went bananas. “The trouble is they went bloody mad,” reported The Telegraph, quoting a museum guard who seemed to share the view of the then-director, who closed the exhibition down within days of its opening. Monocles flew out of eyes. Stern letters were penned. Parents just didn’t understand.

That was then. Now, with Tate Modern as one of the biggest tourist draws in London, and interactivity not only an accepted part of the modern art experience but, to some extent, an assumption of it (this in the days of Holler, Gonzalez-Foerster, Gormley, etc.), what can a venerable work of participative art offer to the savvy museum-goer of today?

Here’s the bit where the writer humorously points out the health and safety measures of our litigious times. But it’s a bit pointless to bemoan the precautions necessarily enforced in the installation, given that slides ending in sheer plywood walls are unsupervised, liable to end up with more than the besplintered buttocks described with relish in the write-ups of the show’s original incarnation. Tate guards are positioned at every part of the piece and participants are let in a few at a time, but once they’re wobbling/pushing/sliding/climbing, they’re interacting with the piece in the right way, concentrating on the feeling of the body in space as the artist intended. All of the individual pieces, in a blank plywood structure with towers and walkways, like a toy castle, engender a specific physical moment of concentration—you focus on the feel of a push. Balancing narrows the mind (and yes, you can balance anywhere), but balancing in an art gallery, a place built for thinking, lets the hemispheres of the brain zap each other happily. And the castle is, of course, a modernist one, boxy and utilitarian—Schwitters’ Merzbau after a garage sale. You watch the participants charging in like rebels storming ramparts.

'Bodyspacemotionthings' from above [image: Ben Street]

"Bodyspacemotionthings" from above. Photo: Ben Street.

Back to that postminimalism room. What a thoughtful installation of interactive art, like this one, can do is ease the way to understanding other apparently diffident works. Morris’s felt piece slumped against the wall accrues sympathetic understanding after you’ve slid into a wall yourself, and a blobby lead Lynda Benglis in the corner becomes oddly reminiscent of that overweight child you just saw, huffing in a heap after a strenuous rope-climb. The point is that physical interaction with art lights up parts of human understanding that are rarely used in our interpretations of art. Everything is worked. It’s a successful playing out of Robert Storr’s Venice Biennale tagline from 2007, “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind.” Only this time it doesn’t sound like a Grateful Dead live album.

The Tate’s reenactment of the Morris installation is on par with a contemporary reappraisal of classic performance art of the ’60s and ’70s (Marina Abramovic’s 2005 Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim was its recent pinnacle). Performance art’s impermanence is its quintessence and its curse, and reenacting it is often the only means of articulating the historical relevance of something that refuted the permanence of the mega-museum, usually surviving, if at all, in largely unwatchable wobbly video footage or typewritten instructions on yellowing paper. And historical re-enactment suits performance art; it’s appropriate for something that became dated quickly, which made a virtue of its historicism. Show a clip of Meat Joy or Cut Piece and you can instantly locate them historically, and not just in their straight-faced earnestness and laissez-faire attitude to body hair. Great art, like great pop music, is sealed in its time, and a cover version (and isn’t that what these reenactments more or less are?) can draw out the power of the absent original in a way impossible to achieve through historical documentation. And it’s easy to do (OK, mostly). It’s karaoke performance time: who’s for a Relation in Time-off?