“I’d rather break my arm falling off a platform than spend an hour in detached contemplation of a Matisse.” Thus Robert Morris in 1971, detailing the athletic ethos of a tendency in (mostly American) sculpture and performance art. Morris often courted such accidents: for his 1960 sculpture-cum-performance Column, which involved the sudden toppling of an elongated wooden plinth, the artist planned to hide inside the object, but injured himself in rehearsal. Column proposes a laconic choreography, “dance” reduced to a simple decline from the vertical.
Column was not shown at Move: Choreographing You, but there was a fair amount of falling over at the Hayward. Morris’ Bodyspacemotionthings (See-saw) (1971/2010) – a bare plywood platform that rocks on a central hemisphere when stood on by the viewer – was especially treacherous, the tipping point arriving sooner than you’d think and pitching the clumsy spectator onto the floor. (Predictably, the person who got on after me had balanced the thing and struck a surfing pose within seconds.) Some of us fared no better with William Forsythe’s The Fact of Matter: a forest of plastic rings suspended at various heights, across which the viewer was invited to clamber in mid-air, judging (or not) hand and footholds on the way and trying not to simply sway uselessly till fatigue or embarrassment won out.
The historical precedents for such horseplay were less cuddly than they were made to appear in this show. Bodyspacemotionthings (See-saw) was originally part of Morris’s 1971 exhibition at the Tate Gallery, which notoriously closed after four days due to over-enthusiastic audience participation. At the Hayward there was little sense that things might get out of hand around Mike Kelley’s Test Room Containing Multiple Stimuli Known to Elicit Curiosity and Manipulatory Responses (1999-2010). This installation of huge toy-like objects, designed by artist Isamu Noguchi for the choreography of Martha Graham, was originally shown enclosed in a metal cage (some of the dancers wore monkey costumes, as used in psychologist Harry Harlow’s simian experiments). But at the Hayward, audience and dancers could engage the things themselves and not simply view the enclosed spectacle of primal movement. There was a sense, though, that turning the work into a more literal playground was a sop to sensibilities too easily seduced by the interactive.
That said, this was a thoroughly engaging survey of art and dance in the past 50 years. Among its revelations was the work of Simone Forti, whose See-Saw (1960) long predated that of her then husband Morris. Forti’s Huddle and Hangers (both 1961) explore such fundamental (in the artist’s own terms, infantile) actions as crawling, grappling, hanging and swinging. A handful of works of Lygia Clark’s blurred the lines between sculpture, performance and therapy, with artefacts such as Straight Jacket (1969) and Elastic Net (1973) functioning as sinister transitional objects for the spectators who got entangled in them. (Though some just tried on the jacket as if it were a quirky item of couture.)
It was less clear why Isaac Julien’s nine-screen video installation Ten Thousand Waves (2010) effectively dominated the screened component of the show. Julien’s ravishing elaboration of stories around the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004 was immersive and affecting, for sure, but not exactly moving in any expanded sense. By contrast, much of the substantial video archive that accompanied the exhibition – with works by over one hundred artists and choreographers, including Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham and Paul McCarthy – was simply more immersive (not to mention arduous, given the number of works) and more likely to exercise, at least imaginatively, a public tired out after playtime.
Move: Choreographing You is at the Hayward Gallery, London until 9 January 2011