The recreation of Robert Morris’ 1971 Bodyspacemotionthings at Tate Modern certainly didn’t disappoint. But inevitably it throws up questions about authenticity and/or recontextualisation. Arguably, it is easy to see how, as a review in The Telegraph put it, ‘the radical art of the 1970s has became innocuous family entertainment’. Nevertheless, there is some opportunity to see the work in its historical context, which in itself is a valuable thing.
On arrival to the Tate’s Turbine Hall there was the sound of a deep, distant thunder, which turned out to be the echoing of one of the wooden sculptures thumping to the ground from the weight of those on top. It was the kind of sound that really entered one’s body from the ground up, and so immediately on entry to the gallery the body was made a site of enquiry. Although one’s eyes are immediately drawn to the ‘fun’ on offer. So, with the aid of a little investigator (highly recommended), I walked and climbed, rolled and wobbled, as I made my way about each plywood ‘apparatus’. From the very start, from within a rolling tube, the blood in my head swelled and the laughter rang out with each physical feat, large and small. This was one of those now increasingly ‘festive’ moments in a gallery. As The Telegraph review puts it: ‘The idea that art may involve a degree of participation no longer surprises. Crowds queued at Tate Modern to whizz down Carsten Holler’s gleaming slides or to lie staring up at Olafur Eliasson’s artificially generated sunset.’
Morris’ original intention for the exhibition, back in 1971, was for ‘people to involve themselves with the work, become aware of their own bodies, gravity, effort, fatigue, their bodies under different conditions’ (Morris, Tate Modern Information Panel). The original exhibition was actually closed after just 4 days, due to what the Director at the time, Norman Reid, described as the ‘exuberant and overexcited behaviour’ of gallery visitors.
It was May 1971, and the opening of an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London; the sort of thing that one might expect to be quiet, dignified and staid – but, as it turned out, all hell broke loose.
Men started picking up some of the exhibits – weights suspended on chains – and swinging them around their heads. First aiders were occupied picking splinters out of the rear ends of the miniskirted young women hurt on wooden slides. (The Guardian)
There was nothing so ‘radical’ for this recreation of the exhibtion, which can be seen as a defeat for art:
It’s difficult to reflect on your body’s response to the experience of trying to balance on a plywood square mounted on a hemisphere, as Morris intended, when there’s a crowd of people watching, all desperate for you to get off and give them a go.
While the sight of these raw plywood structures must have seemed challenging amid the neo-classical grandeur of the old Tate, here in the Turbine Hall’s post-industrial vastness, it appeared just one side-show among many, the radical art of another era revisited as innocuous family entertainment. (The Telegraph)
But, I found pushing a huge ball in a Sisyphean circle and climbing up narrow confines to have been a true experience, however described. And on leaving, I took a moment to look at the video screens, showing footage from the original works in the 70s. My little investigator (not yet 5 years old) was delighted to see a women’s bottom come closer and closer, finally to fill the entire screen, as she rolled the very ball we both had rolled ourselves in the exhibition. This is a moment I think we will remember – it was funny, thought-provoking (at least regarding the recent history of art) and quite beautiful.
See also The Guardian’s Picture Gallery