London, Lisbon

View of “The World as a Stage,” 2007, Tate Modern, London. Foreground: Jeppe Hein, Rotating Labyrinth, 2007. Background: Rita McBride, Arena, 1997–2006.

View of “The World as a Stage,” 2007, Tate Modern, London. Foreground: Jeppe Hein, Rotating Labyrinth, 2007. Background: Rita McBride, Arena, 1997–2006.

“The World as a Stage” and “A Theatre Without Theatre”

Tate Modern, London & Bernardo Collection, Lisbon

View of “The World as a Stage,” 2007, Tate Modern, London. Foreground: Jeppe Hein, Rotating Labyrinth, 2007. Background: Rita McBride, Arena, 1997–2006.

ONE WOULD THINK I’d have been ready. Performance has become such a catchword in contemporary art circles, as artists and critics alike seek to characterize the current shifts in production toward acting out or interacting with audiences—frequently in order to intersect artistic practice with political agency and redefinitions of protest—that I ought to have entered Tate Modern’s “The World as a Stage” with ears prickling and eyeballs peeled. Yet here we were: The museum attendant, handing me the exhibition pamphlet, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Saturday night parking.” And what did I do? Flummoxed, I barked, “Thank you!”

Round one—or act one?—goes to Tino Sehgal. In This Is New, 2003, a gallery attendant recites a headline from the day’s newspapers (if the visitor responds, the guard then states the title, artist, and date of the artwork). As most museum visitors don’t know this when they first encounter the work, the interaction rather tends to create an itch in the brain, a clean ideational conveyance that tints one’s immediate future and tilts one’s perception of social boundaries. Which, on the face of it, is pretty good going for three words. And it is a measure of this work’s perpetually topical wrong-footing that I’d fallen for it even though this was my second visit to “The World as a Stage,” a sixteen-artist show dedicated to exploring “the relationship between visual art and theatre,” cocurated by Tate Modern’s Jessica Morgan and Catherine Wood. (The first time, a different attendant had murmured that something was “a religious experience”; I promised to look out for it.) And here, in a nutshell, we have the present sea change in reception. Generally, the history of spectatorship has privileged passivity, or at least quiet and patient looking, on the viewer’s part; now, one must expect to, say, throw down some verbal improv, conquer vertigo, or even get tattooed (as offered by Mexican artist Dr. Lakra at recent art fairs), on cue, not to mention be able to view art while helping create it. For the shy and introverted—and there are a few left in the art world, I’d wager—it’s apparently time to put up or shut up.

As “The World as a Stage” sought to clarify, performativity within art has lately been attended by a modulated definition of theater—toward putting the viewer “on stage.” The show featured twenty-one works from the past decade that swung art and theatricality together in various manners, but many of the inclusions figured art as something to be acted within. You could step into Jeppe Hein’s Rotating Labyrinth, 2007, a piece whose outer and inner rings of narrowly spaced, mirrored upright planks revolve in opposing directions while you stand in the middle, surveying yourself fragmented into myriad unstable reflections. Or stroll down the darkened corridor where Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s Séance de Shadow II (bleu), 1998, was installed, and see your presence activating a string of footlights that throw your shadow, doubled and tripled, onto the far wall. Walking past the curved fiberglass bleachers of Rita McBride’s Arena, 1997–2006, visitors became performers for those who were seated—or else became obstructions, as the work also catered to viewers of Catherine Sullivan’s The Chittendens, 2005 (a work that Morgan previously presented at Tate Modern as a solo show), projected onto the facing wall. And on one day, you could sit down in one of the barbershop chairs in Sweeney Tate, 2007, Mario Ybarra Jr.’s facsimile of a Los Angeles salon, and act as a guinea pig in a haircutting competition.

Given this compounded co-option of the viewer, one might begin to wonder—particularly in an institution that in 2006 allowed Carsten Höller to scale up his slide artworks to spectacular proportions—how far “The World as a Stage” outran the shadow of populism generally and, specifically, our culture’s emphasis on the idea of “ordinary people” becoming the lodestar of attention (which finds its Warholian apotheosis in reality television). The critical context was, as the accompanying exhibition pamphlet put it, the increasingly theatrical nature of reality—our “age of spin, reality TV and continuous surveillance by security cameras.” Yet in attempting to map the ways in which culture more generally has rendered our everyday lives theatrical, the show itself fell victim to those tropes conventional within our experience economy. In practice, this collection of works intended for the unloosing of human subjectivity in all its rich variety merely formed a trail of divertissements encouraging the sort of easily distracted, what-does-this-do approach to viewing that overtakes children confronted by interactive museum displays. And when one wasn’t interacting, it often just looked lifeless.

Eclipsed as well in this context were works less environmental in their construction, such as Cezary Bodzianowski’s bluntly allegorical video Luna, 2005—featuring the artist, wearing Rollerblades on one hand and one foot, publicly failing to keep his balance in a rotating drum—and Ulla von Brandenburg’s Kugel, 2007, an obscure tableau vivant of semistatic figures in archaic dress, whom we only see reflected in a polished bauble. The exception was Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, 2001—a tour de force familiar to audiences (and, at Tate Modern, prefaced by an archive of supporting materials). This film documentary, centering on a reenactment of a 1984 face-off between striking miners and riot police and accompanied by heartbreaking testimonial interviews, could be seen as one of the works that first generated the past decade’s discussions on performance and its parapolitical ramifications. Here, in the performance of history on behalf of the losing side, theatricality was brilliantly reclaimed for polemical purposes, broaching, in the process, deeply pertinent—and, as has been widely theorized, increasingly timely—questions of the real-world effect of symbolic public actions.

The interplay between visual art and theater (and between theater and life) surveyed in “The World as a Stage” is, of course, only the latest rebalancing of a long-running relationship. To absorb that history, one might turn to “A Theatre Without Theatre,” recently on view at Lisbon’s Berardo Collection and co-organized by the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, where the show originated. An immense overview of interactions between art and theater during the last century, this show located the dramaturgical foil in every era of modernism and its aftermath. If the exhibition’s scale and variety (more than 3,000 items, including artworks, videos, and documents, were on display) make one hesitant to generalize, I am nevertheless tempted to describe the endeavor as a history of the acting out of cultural anxieties. For here we see how the self-consciousness and sense of reality’s theatricality that modernity, and city life in particular, instilled in its subjects led artists to mirror back the deformations of the modern through theatrical gestures—articulating them hopefully in the 1920s to ’40s, in terms of human possibility; and then, post-Auschwitz, more often despondently.

The opening tides of material—documentary evocations of Dadaist demonstrations, Futurist manifestos for “aerialist theater” (performances in planes), vivid distortions of public rituals in René Clair’s wonderfully unhinged 1924 cinematic collaboration with Erik Satie and Francis Picabia, Entr’acte, posters for silent lectures (1930–36) by Bon, and ’40s photographs of the seaweed cloak–wearing Maruja Mallo—suggest performance as a mode of being free, unrestricted by social mores. (Alongside these might be bracketed later subsections in the show devoted to Situationism and Happenings, where one strongly sees “acting out” as taking on an explicitly political thrust, becoming a kind of demonstration—a significant strand of contemporary performative art’s DNA). Conversely, later “stagings” both outside and within the traditional context of theatrical performance took the form of either painful catharses or agonies without release, modes addressed via rooms devoted to photographs and film clips from Tadeusz Kantor’s screechy existential dramas (and contextualized by a miniature survey of the antitheater of Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud, and Jerzy Grotowski) and a somewhat inevitable head-to-head between Bruce Nauman, represented by a video installation, and Samuel Beckett—the latter’s film Quad (1980), featuring several cowled figures racing around a small inscribed square without touching, reverses the usual order of influence by looking pointedly Naumanesque. (Beckett’s 1980 work Eh Joe, a half-hour static close-up of a man’s emotion-clouded face, might almost have been made by Warhol.)

Still, the curators—Bernard Blistène and Yann Chateigné, in collaboration with Pedro G. Romero—managed to give a sociological spin to this section’s sense of inescapable stasis and entrapment by adding a third voice: that of Dan Graham, represented by an early installation, Body Press, 1970–72 (in which two performers film each other while each is pressed against a rotating mirrored tube), and several plans for architectural considerations of the nascent surveillance society, such as his great 1975 work Two Viewing Rooms. This propensity for smaller rhetorical sleights pulsed throughout the show. For example, a cluster of materials relating to The Poltergeist, Mike Kelley and David Askevold’s 1979 photo-documentation of a pseudospiritualist occurrence—including several textual meditations on “the destructive spirit”—were placed in proximity to fractious film footage of Joseph Beuys lecturing in an art school: two highly different takes on the dramatic uncorking of latent youthful energies. And for anyone who instinctively associates “theatricality” in art with Michael Fried’s essay “Art and Objecthood,” the curators played wonderfully fast and loose with Minimalist artworks. Following several roomfuls of abstraction dallying with the stage (such as Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus ballet designs), one went from theater defined as abstraction to abstraction defined as theater: The juxtaposition made the raised platform of Carl Andre’s double-depth brick piece Sand Lime Instar, 1966/95, look like a stage; Donald Judd’s shallow metal wedge, Untitled, 1965, like an ambiguous prop; and Giulio Paolini’s A.J.L.B., 1965, a pyramidal relief (shown in a photograph included in the exhibition), like a flight of steps for chorus girls to descend. After thousands of artworks and documents, and multiple winking curatorial touches like this one, this viewer felt exhausted but ebullient—partly, admittedly, because no one had requested that I perform—and ready to suppose that theatricality-and-art was the story of the modern period and after.

Whither “The World as a Stage” in such a storied account? Its most characteristic moves aren’t necessarily unprecedented—this much was made clear in a room of Robert Morris videos in “A Theatre Without Theatre.” Included alongside them was a review by critic Edward Lucie-Smith of an “assault course”–like show of Morris’s work at the Tate Gallery in 1971: “The linked but by no means identical concepts of ‘play’ and ‘participation’ have been making headway for some time now,” wrote Lucie-Smith, before deriding the work as “philistinism.” That installation was at least challenging enough that it was closed for safety reasons after five days. By contrast, it is tempting to dismiss Tate Modern’s more recent works in terms borrowed from the Shakespearean soliloquy paraphrased in its title: “Last scene of all, / That ends this strange eventful history, / Is second childishness and mere oblivion.” But this would be unfair, and not only because of the invidiousness of comparisons between filtered past and relatively raw present. What made “The World as a Stage” feel strongly of its time, and a continuation of the time line laid out in Lisbon, was its reframing of earlier approaches to interaction in the light of our altered present. The notion that theatricality in art is a voicing of cultural disquiet, so thoroughly unpacked in “A Theatre Without Theatre,” persists. One could consider the London show a continuation of this century-old project: specifically, in devolving theatricality into performance and flattering viewers by upgrading them to the status of content providers, the show might to some degree be said to speak to a time characterized by the ubiquity of cajolery and coercion in consumerist culture.

That “The World as a Stage” did so, rather than regularly provoking thoughts of how gestures against the monoculture might function today, may be connected with economies of scale—with the problem of how to juxtapose such frameworklike artistic proposals so that they don’t create an atmosphere by turns drab and thinly carnivalesque. Here is a plain challenge for curators, who will increasingly be called upon to anthologize this particular cultural moment; but also, debatably, one for artists, who may increasingly face audiences—particularly those shy, introspective types—weary of being treated as semisentient performing monkeys. The institutional context itself remains a sizable stumbling block, one that seems to subject notions of art as equivalencing political agency to alacritous defusing. Which is why the two highlights of “The World as a Stage” were those works that echoed the take-it-to-the-streets mentality adopted by artists from the Dadaists to the Situationists: the far-reaching acting out orchestrated by Deller (which was broadcast on British television) and, particularly, the authentic “theater without theater” of Sehgal. In different ways, these works embody what performative-cum-theatrical art may now need to become in order to warrant encores—an unheralded and barely framed irruption, one that lives both in the moment and beyond it.

“The World as a Stage” is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, through April 27. “A Theatre Without Theatre” travels to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, July 19–Jan. 13, 2009.

Martin Herbert is a writer based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK.