Splash! A thought-provoking exhibition

“A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance” plays down performance art (in the sense of a live artistic event), instead recognizing gestural and theatrical acts on canvas. This Tate Modern exhibition aims to take a new look at the relationship between performance and painting since 1950. It naturally starts with Pollock, the first artist who comes to my mind when thinking about action painting. But is also shown in the first room is Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, which gives its title to the exhibition. There, performance is depicted post-action (after diving in a pool) by white lines, which are fun to see from up close. Choosing Pollock and Hockney for the first room reveals diversity of connections between painting and performance.

I discovered the inventive work of Gutai, an avant-garde Japanese movement based on performance, founded in the 1950s. The name Gutai came from gu (instrument), tai (body) and was inspired by both the Dada movement and Pollock, aiming to achieve something that has not been done before. A key Gutai painting is exhibited at the Tate Modern, accompanied by a film which I think is as important as the finished piece. It shows the painting process, including a Gutai member painting with his feet while being tied to a rope.

Others works in the exhibition made me ask myself several questions: can performance art be carefully planned? Look at the yellow areas “arranged” in an harmonious way in Pollock’s Summertime 9a. What are the art limits? The provoking element in the action painting by the Viennese Actionism group pushed the boundaries in my view. I believe provoking for the sake of it up to the point of disgust is not art: Nitsch showed blood dropping from a dead animal on human beings, another artist photographed herself “painted” with blood. While at the other end of spectrum, far from provoking disgust, applying make-up is presented as an art film. All an exploration of the definition of art.

A bigger splash is a thought-provoking exhibition of mixed quality. There are superb artists who illustrate perfectly the relationship between performance and painting; others are so close to absurdity as to raise instead the question of the definition of art. The exhibition shows a wide range of performance art, from the gestural act in painting to the actual notion of performing art. It does go too much in every direction and loses its point in some rooms but has the merit of provoking thought and for that reason is still interesting. We are only missing a live art performance.

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