Amidst the drills and concrete, white walls and big names of London’s Cork Street stands a new gallery, Nahmad Projects, hosting a few performers who crawl the floor, softly pawing their faces, on all-fours. Dressed in comfortable basics, they’re determinedly imagining that they’re cats. And that day, they were cats for six straight hours: emulating cat mannerisms, ignoring visitors, being aloof.
I Am A Cat, the title of the piece, is the creation of Finnish artist Tuuli Malla, one of 30 performance pieces over 30 days that herald the opening of Nahmad Gallery, collectively titled ‘I Am Not Tino Sehgal’. It’s a brave move for a commercial gallery founded by two under-30s, Tommaso Calabro, formerly a project coordinator at Sotheby’s in Milan and London, and Joseph Nahmad, younger brother of London-based gallerist and collector Helly.
Throughout the month-long exhibition – which, it should be noted, has no official affiliation with Tino Sehgal – there’s little that would be familiar to the old guard on Cork Street, which has for decades played host to the more exclusive of London’s contemporary art galleries in the West End. When there aren’t cats, there is a performer scrawling the name ‘Tino Sehgal’ in various animal shapes into notebooks on the floor (Damiano Fina’s But I have him), an artist playing at gallery invigilator, sitting silent and unmoving, reading Ulysses next to a walkie talkie (Beth Fox’s This Work).
For Italian/French art collective VOO’s piece, Coined Situation, the artists placed a single performer in the centre of the room, surrounded by 1p pieces. It’s a large mountain of tarnished bronze, but seems diminished when we learn that it amounts to £1,000 – the sum the collective receives for participating in the show. The performer sits alone, moving the coins around, piling them into towers. I ask what I’m supposed to do and little yellow cards are proffered, reading ‘1 MOVE for 1 COIN’. Eloise Lawson set the rules rather more clearly for her piece, What Is The Meaning of this Gathering? All participants were blindfolded and guided into a closed-off gallery space, where they joined other participants and the artist in conversation using only non-verbal sounds. ‘I’m not interested in the perpetual self-mythologising of art. There’s no magic involved. Making art is just a game of trying things out,’ says Lawson.
Performance art has traditionally been conducted outside the commercial gallery system, not least because the many of its pioneers understood it as a means of escaping or undermining the conflation of contemporary art with financial investment. Despite its problematic relationship with capitalist models, its relative novelty to traditional collectors, and the difficulty of making value-judgements according to traditional metrics, Nahmad Projects seems confident that performance art is now a viable commercial prospect, sufficient to launch a gallery. On the other hand, perhaps it’s little more than a month-long attention stunt.
The participants were selected from a worldwide callout for artists aged 20-35, and the overarching aim of the show, according to curator Francesco Bonami, was to expand on Sehgal’s ‘revolutionary’ steps in ‘dematerialising art, making us reflect on what art is, who creates it, and who owns it.’ Removing this experiment to ‘a gallery with a name associated with the market,’ he continued, ‘could be a very interesting exercise to see if experiments are still allowed in today’s art world and artistic production.’ That such experiments are ‘allowed’ has been amply demonstrated over the past fifty years of performance art; what is in doubt is whether they are now part of the system.
Certainly that is true on an institutional level, as a series of recent exhibitions in London attest. In 2014, Marina Abramović’s 512 Hours took over the Serpentine Gallery with only herself, the audience and a small set of props. Two years previously, Tino Sehgal’s piece for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall was formed of the interactions between the visitors and the performers milling throughout the space. The same gallery’s new Switch House extension has devoted its vast basement ‘tanks’ to performance, while the third floor is given over to a thematic presentation of the collection entitled ‘performer and participant’, which gathers artefacts including costumes by Rebecca Horn and the objects Abramović allowed the public to use on her in her infamous 1974 piece Rhythm 0.
The viewer has to work to be part of the work, and maybe now that’s what we want – something to cut through the spectacle and the banality that characterised so much art of the nineties and early twenty-first century. Alternatively, we might think that performance art is precisely the medium of our ‘experience’-chasing contemporary attitude to culture, in which the goal is to garner (and to document on Instagram) as many ‘unrepeatable’ and exclusive experiences as possible, whether that’s a tribal ceremony in Bali or a participatory performance in an East End warehouse. What seems certain is that we will now be exposed to a great deal more of it.
- This piece was amended on 19 September to include the phrase ‘Making art is just a game of trying things out.’