How Do We Conserve Ephemeral Performance Art for the Future?

Anthea Hamilton, Kabuki, 2012, performed as part of Art In Action, The Tanks, Tate Modern. © Tate, Photo: Tate

Out of the Margins: Performance in London’s Institutions 1990s – 2010s at London’s Whitechapel Gallery – reviewed

Although performance art emerged during the 1960s and 70s as a dissident, anti-institutional rejection of the social and political injustices of the time, the last 20 years, in the UK at least, have been crucial to the institutionalisation of performance and live art in galleries and art institutions. From Lois Keidan’s role as director of live arts at the ICA during the 1990s to Tate Modern opening its dedicated performances spaces The Tanks in 2012, Out of the Margins surveys the shifts in the institutional engagement with live art, highlighting key moments in London’s visual-art institutions that pushed the radical practices of live art from underground and marginalised to an acknowledged (and commodifiable) artform.

Out of the Margins is a small exhibition, displaying curatorial records from the Whitechapel archive as well as short interviews and documentation of performances such as Franko B’s I’m Not Your Babe at the ICA in 1996 – in which, posed like Christ on the cross, covered in thick white paint and slowly collapsing to the floor, the artist bleeds from his arms until he is surrounded by a viscous pool of his own blood – and Vaginal Davis’s Memory Island, which formed part of ‘Trashing Performance’ at Tate Modern in 2011. For an iteration of Hermann Nitsch’s performance The Orgies Mystery Theatre at the Whitechapel in 2002, a typewritten note details a list: ‘sheep (slaughtered), blood, eggs, brains, fresh lungs, red grapes, milk, raw milk, raw fish’. It is in discovering archival moments such as these that we get a sense of performance’s practical implications for the art institution – how do you stage this work in a gallery space? How do we conserve ephemeral performances for the future?

If the show sets out to assert that performance has entered the mainstream, it is only a partial framing. Among the archival institutional records and performance documentation is a small timeline that attempts to narrate London performance and live art’s scene through the programming of institutions such as Gasworks, the Roberts Institute of Art, LADA, Matt’s Gallery and Tate. These spaces certainly played a crucial hand in supporting and developing innovative and transgressive performance and live works, but the problem of focusing on such a linear and totemic institutional history is that it forgets that performance and live art are the unwieldy product of a much more diverse and heterogenous set of forms, spaces and disciplines; from (still) underground drag and queer cabaret,
to musicals, theatre and opera of London’s West End, which are noticeably absent in this slim historical framing. If the reason for such an exhibition might lie in the burgeoning presence of performance programmes and departments across art institutions today, Out of the Margins maps a very specific ecology of London’s live art history only to bolster this retrospective narrative.

Out of the Margins: Performance in London’s Institutions 1990s – 2010s
Whitechapel Gallery, London, 30 August – 15 January

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