x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Hayward art exhibition will move you - literally

An exhibition that encourages visitors to experience the art through contact and movement is attracting playful interest in London.

Three visiors get to grips with a moving installation at the exhibition.
Three visiors get to grips with a moving installation at the exhibition.

For the past few years, the Hayward Gallery, on the south bank of the Thames in London, has been helping to challenge the idea that art is something you look at on a wall. In recent years, parts of the building have been pumped full of mist (for Antony Gormley's Blind Light), filled with water and rowing boats (for 2008's group show Psycho Buildings) and transformed into a giant interconnected dreamscape (for last summer's Walking in my Mind).

For each of these installations, visitors did more than stand and stare at the works: they navigated around them, using their whole bodies. So although the gallery's latest show, Move: Choreographing You, is unique, its focus isn't wholly surprising. Dedicated to the past 50 years of the intersection between art and dance, its aim is to make visitors aware of the movements of their own bodies as they interact with the works on show: climbing, balancing, dressing up, stumbling through ball pools and hula hooping, among other activities.

The most memorable of these installations is Mike Kelley's Adaptation, an open space filled with sculptural objects in primary colours, modelled on monkey-psychology labs from the 1950s. As well as a punching bag, plastic bat, large metal bowl, wire-mesh cage, climbing frame, blankets, ball of paper and Perspex box, there's a gorilla costume visitors can put on before they start interacting with it all.

Watching adult Londoners dress up like apes and then charge around the space whacking things, it's clear that Kelley's work is successful in modifying visitors' behaviour. You don't usually see much rambunctious energy in London's major art institutions, and when I tried on the monkey suit myself, I found that the full head mask, furry covering and oversized fake hands and feet did free me up to play around unselfconsciously.

But according to Move's curator, Stephanie Rosenthal, having fun is only part of the exhibition's point. When I ask how she feels about the Hayward being seen as a playground for grown-ups, she replies that she's OK with it, although when people "get really mad in the pieces, hitting things, I then sometimes think this is not what this is about."

She says that the gallery tries, with the exhibition pamphlet and wall-mounted information, to say, "Don't forget you're engaging with an art work." But, she adds: "Of course, we can't control it totally. This is in the nature of the show, that we do let people go."

So what is it about engaging with the installation as a piece of art that makes it different from just getting overexcited and smashing things up? Rosenthal admits that it's "hard to understand on which level you say 'I'm now really interested in the deeper context of the works and the relationship to choreographic thinking'," but urges Move visitors to consider "the awareness of your body and the sort of self-responsibility about what you do to your environment, when you realise we are so manipulated by the objects we are confronted with every day".

While Kelley's work in isolation may not have affected my thinking on these issues much, the combined effect of work like it in the exhibition, alongside footage of avant garde dance and live performers wandering through the space and executing short choreographed works did make me ponder the ways in which our everyday movements are manipulated by architecture, or performed, or copied. Emerging from the Hayward and into the adjoining café, I felt as though sitting down, leafing through a newspaper and stirring a cup of tea were parts of a rehearsed, avant garde performance piece.

The first artwork you face as you walk into the Hayward's twisting, concrete-walled space is a corridor just wide enough to squeeze through, illuminated by green neon light (it's called Green Light Corridor). Pushing your body through it, according to the piece's designer, Bruce Nauman, is about being "very aware as you walk up or down that your body has to make an adjustment at each step". He wants participants to "have to figure when you can change your weight and where your foot is going to be placed". It made me feel a little queasy.

Next to Nauman's work is Lygia Clark's installation The House is the Body, originally constructed in 1968. It's a tunnel with interconnected chambers filled with balloons, yarn and coloured balls. Part of it is an inflatable, transparent, teardrop-shaped tent. Another part is in darkness, with a spring-loaded floor that makes you lose your balance. It's one of several pieces that remind the participant of the body's weakness and vulnerability.

William Forsythe's The Fact of Matter is made up of a forest of gymnastic rings suspended from the ceiling. Clambering on to them and attempting to hang, swing and climb from one end of the installation to the other, we're confronted with the unwieldy weight of the self. A seesaw-like balancing board and a log installed by Robert Morris invite visitors to test their balance and feel the pull of gravity and the tension of their muscles, while Tania Bruguera's Untitled (Kassel) bombards the viewer with blinding lights, snatches of complete darkness, and disorienting noise.

Other works in the exhibition charm rather than disrupt: a holographic image seems to dance as we move around it, and a pile of hula hoops next to a roof terrace invite visitors to gyrate their bodies while admiring the splendid backdrop of central London. Boris Charmatz's héâter-élévision does both at once. It involves being invited into a private room to snuggle up in a bed with a blanket and then being left alone to watch a video of weird, disturbing performance art involving adults dressing up in flesh-coloured body stockings and acting as though they were mentally ill. There's a panic button in case the whole experience gets too intense.

The exhibition was accompanied in late November by a weekend of programmed dance shows, performance art "happenings", physical workshops and talks on the intersection between art, dance and other disciplines. Altogether, it makes a good case for dance to ditch its reputation as a niche art form and become something that everyone takes an interest in. Rosenthal suggests that this process might already be happening, saying that at the last Whitney Biennial she was heartened to see young video artists working with dancers and capturing their movements.

"There is a growing interest in the movement of the body and maybe also in working with a human being again," she adds, suggesting that this could be because of the increasing time people spend online. "We are so much in the virtual world," she says, "so I wonder if that interest in the body is not also an interest in saying, 'Well, actually, I'm alive. I'm a human being'.

"I do think for me, the major aspect of this show is that you feel your body," she continues. "If you're in front of a computer, even if you manipulate where a stand-in goes, you're still not feeling it. And I think visual art is about feeling. It's about you being there."

Choreographing You is at the Hayward Gallery in London until January 9.