The Buck stopped here

Live art double-whammy at Chisenhale and Tate Modern

By Louisa Buck

Two strikingly contrasting live art experiences taking place within just a few hours provided a stimulating and thought-provoking end to last week (3 March). Friday afternoon found your correspondent sitting on the floor of the Chisenhale Gallery, captivated by Alex Baczynski-Jenkins live work that had opened on the eve of Trump’s presidential inauguration. The show—sadly unlike Trump’s administration—draws to a close this Sunday (12 March). Suggestively titled The tremble, the symptom, the swell and the hole together (2017), the piece uses movement, dance, music and the spoken word to “trace queer affinities across social practices, art forms and time frames in which bodies simultaneously experience pleasure and deficit”.

Alex Baczynski-Jenkins's Chisenhale Gallery performance

My encounter involved an absorbing sequence of minutely observed gestures and tender exchanges between a trio of performers, which included the meticulous painting—and blowing dry—of each other’s fingernails. Keenly watching these intimate unfoldings was the collector and patron Nicoletta Fiorucci, accompanied by Milovan Farronato, the artistic director of the Fiorucci Art Trust, whose visit also unexpectedly coincided with the rather less flamboyantly clad Mayor of Tower Hamlets. And who says performance art can’t attract a broad constituency?

Certainly not Wolfgang Tillmans, who later on Friday evening packed out Tate Modern’s subterranean space, The Tanks, with a multi-generational crowd for the first in a week of live events organised to accompany his current show at the museum. Tillmans’s inaugural event for Tate Modern’s Tanks offered an immersive, exhilarating gesamtkunstwerk of synchronised music, projections, multi-coloured and strobing lights, along with recorded announcements from Sainsbury’s supermarket self-checkouts and the London Underground’s Victoria Line. 

Always at the centre of proceedings—whilst also managing to keep a dimly lit low profile—was Tillmans himself, who performed a series of powerful vocal numbers ranging from love songs to angry declamations. These were sometimes delivered in German, sometimes in English, and accompanied by his regular, long-time musician-collaborators, Tim Knapp and Jay Pluck, who since 2015 have formed part of Tillmans’s band, Fragile. Like his exhibition, both the sum and the parts of the event could be seen as Tillmans’s highly personal response to the current status quo, with the artist’s social and political concerns making themselves especially felt in lyrics such as “because it happened before, it can happen again” or “no anti-experts, no anti-science, no anti-knowledge”. Or—most chillingly—the repetition of the statement made by the father of the Orlando nightclub gunman that “his son had recently been angered by seeing two men kissing”.

Alex Baczynski-Jenkins and the Chisenhale Gallery's director Polly Staple

Although markedly different in form, both these pieces by Baczynski-Jenkins and Tillmans had much in common in terms of aim and content. Both artists demonstrate a profound and humane ability to address and engage with our troubled times in ways that avoid finger-wagging polemic, but which nonetheless present a forceful challenge to rigid ideas of conformity and acceptability, whether in the realm of making an artwork, living an individual life or running a country. There are more live events and installations by Tillmans and collaborators in Tate Modern’s Tanks until 12 March.