The World as a Stage

Article excerpt

The World as a Stage Tate Modern London October 24 to January 1

Ah, the play within the play. That's the trap we will use to catch the public, but where's the bait? The intended centerpiece of 'The World as a Stage'--Rita McBride's Arena of 1997--has all the fascination of a beached whale. Except for a number of planned performances, McBride's readymade stands majestically empty save for the two lower tiers that may be used as seating. It is a monument to the health and safety issues that persistently trail curators intent on staging works enabling public participation. Tate has had some experience in this area; recall the early closing on safety grounds of Robert Morris's participatory project of 1970. I believe Morris's project had something to do with making explicit the participatory potential of certain kinds of objects and wishing to do so within the confines of the museum. That was nearly 40 years ago. I suppose the question one is justified to ask of 'The World as a Stage' is 'what has changed?'.

The answer is everything and nothing. The museum's role as the key institution of contemporary art has certainly developed over this period and the curators of this exhibition--Jessica Morgan and Catherine Wood--understand this. The museum curator has long since learned to suspend belief when confronted with contemporary art in all its post-media glory. You can read this for yourself in Wood's catalogue essay, which rehearses the historical avant-garde claim for the destruction of the boundary between art and life. Wood argues that art that embraces theatre, narrative and figuration and eschews media-specificity enables a reimagining of social relations. The implication is that this sort of art can provide, as well, the means to realise such reimagined social relations.

It goes without saying that contemporary art has remade the contemporary museum, and the contemporary museum has remade contemporary art. In Wood's world of the 'middle zone' of art, where the illusion is recognised as such and thereby savoured even more, there is nothing that an artist could do that a curator would not find of interest and attempt to turn into an experience for the public--except, of course, the social arrangement that imagines the absence of the curator, if not the contemporary museum of art. It is here that the dialectic between art, the audience and the institution becomes arrested. One must be able to say so, but as soon as this position is uttered, my generation is pilloried for finding the contemporary condition of a loss of confrontation uncomfortable. I suppose we need to remember that we are no different than any other generation; we should learn how to live life as a cliche.

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With few exceptions, the generation of artists presented in 'The World as a Stage'--Mario Ybarra Jr, Catherine Sullivan, Tino Sehgal and Jeppe Hein--have a different relationship to the history of their time than those artists who are the absent presence of this exhibition: Frederick Kiesler, Salvador Dali, Claes Oldenberg, Robert Morris, Marina Abramovic & Ulay, and Joseph Beuys, among others. 'In advance of a broken arm' is not much of a storyline for today's audience, yet it is difficult to see how some of the works presented here can argue for being more than academic tokens of the readymade. As for the institutional critique on offer, this ironic darling of every contemporary curating course suffers gravely from excessive symbolic disorder. Like 'The World as a Stage', the transformation of the museum into club, restaurant, hostel, information centre or carnival is underdetermined and overdetermined. Underdetermined, because such staging is illusory and ephemeral; overdetermined, because such staging merely announces that a home for all is a home for no one. What artists working in the 'middle ground' are not interested to do is to establish institutions or homes for their practices at all. …