Will the Tate Tanks Bring Performance Art into the Mainstream?

Performance art and film art have always been the afterthoughts of museums—the new kids on the block with no room of their own in the big culture houses. Institutions designed to house paintings and sculpture usually need to find some temporary corner to stage a performance or screen a film, implying to the viewer, however subconsciously and unintentionally, that those media don’t rank a room of their own. With the opening of the Tate Tanks at the Tate Modern in London, England, performance art and film finally have a big stage all of their own—one that not only celebrates those media but can, in return, inspire practitioners to create knowing where they’ll be working. With such a significant venue for significant pieces, will the Tate Tanks finally bring performance art into the mainstream?

Tate Director Nicholas Serota and his staff continue to make innovative use of the former factory setting of the Tate Modern. First, the grand Turbine Hall became the biggest showcase of contemporary art in the world. Now, the giant tanks that once fueled those turbines will now fuel the imaginations of cutting-edge performance artists and filmmakers. (Mercifully, there appears to be no controversial BP sponsorship of the Tate Tanks, cutting off all fuel and fuel spill connections right there.) Photos of the Tanks can be seen here and a video preview by Guardian art critic Adrian Serle can be seen here. As Serle does his walkabout the venue, he continually emphasizes just how interactive the performance space will be. Viewers will be so close that they’ll be part of the action, especially when the more improvisational performers appear. For anyone who thinks the museum experience can be chilling, the Tate Tanks will warm you up. Set in the bowels of the repurposed power plant, the Tate Tanks promise a visceral experience aimed at the gut.

The inaugural Art in Action program (set to run from July 18 through October 28, 2012) will include some of the biggest names in the performance art world (with hopes of making them big names outside that world, too). South Korean performance artist Sung Hwan Kim will perform in one room the Tanks’ first specially commissioned installation. In other rooms, he’ll be showing his films From the Commanding Heights… (2007), Dog Video (2006), Washing Brain and Corn (2010; video still shown above), and Temper Clay (2012). In a short preview video, Kim talks about the round shape and “context” of working in the space itself. Giving shape to performance art by providing a dedicated venue can only make the medium itself better, the same way that the grand cathedrals of the middle ages inspired artists to paint and sculpt on an appropriate scale. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Ei Arakawa: JOY OF LIFE and SINGLE'S NIGHT, Tania Bruguera: Immigrant Movement International, Jeff Keen, Boris Charmatz: Flip Book, Aldo Tambellini: Retracing Black, Filmaktion, Juan Downey, Lis Rhodes: Light Music, and Suzanne Lacy: The Crystal Quilt round out the 15-week festival.

When I first heard of the Tanks and their inaugural festival, I wondered why they didn’t ask a bigger name such as Marina Abramović to christen the space. Something along the lines of Abramović’s “greatest hits” (with some help from younger protégés) 2010 MoMA exhibition, The Artist Is Present, would really have made a big splash. At the very least, see if Chris Burden’s willing to reenact Shoot and have Serota shoot him in the arm in the name of art. Joseph Beuys, the father of modern performance art, is long gone, but perhaps someone could sit and reenact How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, the urtext of performance art itself (as Abramović did in 2005 at the Guggenheim Museum of Art).

But then I realized that looking backward at the history of performance art is exactly what the Tanks wants to avoid. If performance art is ever to pierce the public consciousness, it will have to be as performance, not as mummified museum pieces. Performance art as a medium resists museum-ification specifically because it’s a living thing. Yes, most people (including myself) usually can’t name a single working performance artist, but that doesn’t mean the medium itself should surrender to anonymity. The Tanks finally gives these artists a place to make their name. In converting a former power plants’ fuel tanks into the first grand stage for performance art, the Tate Modern will convert the sorely ignored, but vital and most modern medium of performance art into a powerhouse art form for the 21st century and fuel a renewed interest in art and culture.

[Image: Washing Brain and Corn, Sung Hwan Kim, 2010, video still. © Sung Hwan Kim.]

[Many thanks to the Tate Modern for the image above and other press materials related to the opening of the Tate Tanks with the Art in Action program from July 18 through October 28, 2012.]

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