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Review: Pablo Bronstein at Tate Britain

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Can this performance piece - with its odd mash-up of styles and trompe l’oeil walls - live up to the grandeur of its setting? asks Rupert Bickersteth

In his Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of An Ending, Julian Barnes opens with the idea that ’What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed’ – this truism is either rather pedestrian or potentially profound. And the same can be said of the 2016 Tate Britain Commission for the Duveen Galleries by Pablo Bronstein, which opens tomorrow (26 April).

The focus of Bronstein’s piece Historical Dances in an Antique Setting is the three classically trained dancers who navigate a series of geometric white floorplans. They move among the visitors striking poses and ‘blending gestures and movements of baroque choreography with the minimalist style of contemporary dance’ in order to ‘imagine what formal physical behaviour might have been like in the classical past’. They do this in the central Duveen Galleries, which have been shortened with false walls printed with impressive architectural trompe l’oeil depicting the external architecture of Tate Britain.

How an attempt at the gestures of the classical past is achieved by incorporating contemporary dance is anyone’s guess. Either way, the artistic merit of such a pursuit is negligible. ‘An interest in the potential inaccuracies that occur when the past is recreated’ - unless specifically applied - does not contribute much to the dialogue. This is a shame, given that John Russell Pope’s Duveen Galleries are themselves Neoclassical and exhibit some stylistically inherent anachronisms.

But perhaps that is the point. Bronstein’s trio of minstrels dressed in bright red 1980s sweaters and oversized strings of white pearls (inspired by Princess Diana) dancing in their peculiar mash-up of styles inside the false walls that depict reimaginings of Tate Britain’s external architecture all adds to the bizarre wit of the piece. Curator Linsey Young had assured us Bronstein has an exceptional pre-20th century architectural and design knowledge which he deploys with great wit. Only, unfortunately, it doesn’t really translate as witty. Some might find the complex oddity of the work thought-provoking – there are several initially incongruous aspects to try to decipher, and Bronstein certainly makes an original proposition for the Tate Britain Commission.

Since 2000, the commission has sought to address the heritage of the Duveen Galleries as a sculpture gallery. Last year saw the commissioning of Christina Mackie, who filled the huge space with 12m-high dipped silk nets. The year before Phyllida Barlow truly assaulted the chasmal chambers of the Duveens with her work Dock 2014 – an explosion of scaffolding, tarpaulins and other materials indigenous to the builder’s skip. Barlow’s work – while arguably lacking in nuance or depth – was fantastically sculptural on an epic scale worthy of the space. Are the three voguing jesters in Bronstein’s work an adequate exploration of the sculptural heritage of these galleries? Maybe not, but then were Assemble worthy candidates for the Turner Prize? While lacking in sculptural impact, the performance aspect transforms the whole space into a challenging, participatory experience for the visitor.

Bronstein described the Duveen Galleries as ‘obscenely pompous’

Art critic Waldemar Januszczak once called the Duveen Galleries ‘probably the most imposing art space in Britain’ and suggests that the Tate Commission has hardly ever been successful. Perhaps the human scale of Bronstein’s work subverts the challenge that the physical space presents. As an artist he has always been interested in how architecture has the ability to intervene in personal identity, inform our movements, behaviour and social customs. These are ideas at the heart of a lot of performance art and, since the mainstream crossover of performance artists like Marina Abramović (thanks in part to the Jay-Z collab on Picasso Baby), it is something the public is keen to engage with and witness live. With declining visitor numbers, maybe it’s a clever move on the part of the commission to entice more footfall. Bronstein’s dancers will be pirouetting from 11am till 5pm until 9 October (that’s 165 days solid – almost 1,000 hours of dance).

Performance art lays down an inescapable – and almost always worthwhile – challenge to the viewing public. Much as the Duveen Galleries do to the winning commission. Maybe unfavourably, Young explained that the trompe l’oeil walls were also to simply trim down the space, which Bronstein described as ’obscenely pompous’. Shrinking the space (with the walls) and the scale (with the dancers) is a solution of sorts, but Bronstein still asks you to work: it doesn’t offer clear or digestible themes resonating with meaning. The rub of the exhibit sits somewhere in what Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson helpfully articulated as a ’deliciously jarring encounter between past and present, and between art and society’.

Whether you decide the commission this year is jarring or delicious, profound or pedestrian, you’ll only do so by going to see it.

The Tate Commission 2016: Pablo Bronstein, Historical Dances in an Antique Setting runs until 9 October. Free admission, open daily 10.00-18.00 with live performances 11.00-17.00

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