Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer
On ViewBarbican Art Gallery
October 7, 2020 – January 3, 2021
Michael Clark (born 1962) is an internationally acclaimed Scottish dancer and choreographer based in London who has been active since the early 1980s. Despite his long-standing notoriety across the worlds of dance, art, and fashion, Cosmic Dancer, curated by Florence Ostende at the Barbican Centre in London (with which his eponymous dance company is partnered as an artistic associate) is the first in-depth exploration of Clark’s work. By foregrounding materials like films, interviews, sets, and costumes, Cosmic Dancer provides an opportunity to survey Clark’s career-to-date through the lens of its documentation.
This demonstrates how Clark’s choreography has been shaped by an active engagement with popular and subcultural forms as both sources of inspiration and sites of reception. His movements, costumes, and makeup, for example, are as informed by punk and drag as by his classical dance training. Similarly, Clark is as at home performing in a music video, fashion show, or at a nightclub, as he is on a theater stage. Performance curator and critic Catherine Wood notes in the exhibition catalogue that while the context of punk is often mentioned in discussions of Clark’s emergence, it is more precisely the queer undertones of the moment as they were channeled in the music and club culture associated with post-punk, New Romantic, and No Wave in the early 1980s that characterize Clark’s approach. The implicitly heterosexual machismo of punk’s rejective politics left little room for the expressive, sexually provocative, genre- and gender-blending approach favored by Clark and his friends, including regular collaborators like the fashion designers BodyMap, makeup artist Trojan, and performance artist and nightlife impresario Leigh Bowery. This is exemplified by the androgynous, bare-bottomed costumes, paired with ultra-high heels that Bowery designed for Clark’s New Puritans (1984).
Such provocative elements are just some of the ways Clark’s dances were made with the recording eye of the camera in mind. Witness—to name one of many examples—the way he directly addresses us in New Puritans, as if speaking to the spectator on the other side of the recording—not unlike a performer in a music video. Clark toyed with the emerging format by setting some of his performances to the work of musicians like The Fall, as in the epic pop masterpiece, I Am Curious, Orange (1988). The set by Cerith Wyn Evans is exhibited alongside the music videos Evans made from footage of the performance, which features costumes by Bowery and BodyMap.
Clark cannily understood how, in the early 1980s, it was inevitable that the presentation of the body—its movements as well as its appearance—would draw inspiration from mass culture, as a familiar, readily available repository of affects. This was opposed to the everyday and chance-derived gestures favored by the previous generation of avant-garde dancers like Yvonne Rainer and Merce Cunningham, with whom Clark briefly studied. Clark’s dances were also produced for consumption through the popular media, such as television. This has obvious relevance for our present moment, which bears witness to the acceleration of this relationship. Within Clark’s work it is perhaps best encapsulated by the presentation of both the photogenic choreographer and his dances on broadcast television, as in Hail the New Puritan (1986), which was commissioned for and screened by the UK’s Channel 4.
Extending from this, Cosmic Dancer highlights Clark’s frequent collaborations with painters (Elizabeth Peyton, Peter Doig, Silke Otto-Knapp), sculptors (Sarah Lucas), photographers (Wolfgang Tillmans), musicians (The Fall), and fashion designers (BodyMap, Alexander McQueen). The centerpiece is undoubtedly the environmental new work A Prune Twin (2020), an assembly of large-scale projections by the filmmaker Charles Atlas. This installation occupies the main, ground-floor area of the exhibition and incorporates re-edited segments from two of his previous Clark films, Hail the New Puritan (1986) and Because We Must (1989), displayed on nine hanging screens and four monitors. These films are the fruit of a perfect union: Clark’s coy acknowledgement of the camera with Atlas’s eye for translating dance for the screen, which he had already honed in work for Merce Cunningham. Hail the New Puritan, like many of Atlas’s Clark films, both presents the choreographer’s work and has its own narrative arc. A fictionalized documentary, footage of Clark’s dances, is interwoven with a scripted interview with a reporter, a night out at a club, and staged scenes of Clark in “his” loft, which was actually a studio rented for the film. Hail the New Puritan is thus both a TV art documentary and a campy reflection on the TV art documentary as a genre.
Merely scratching the surface of this dense and complex exhibition, I want to close by touching on a valence of Cosmic Dancer that was heightened by seeing it during the COVID-19 pandemic. Viewing Clark’s work while masked and socially distanced further draws out tensions between the work’s playful ebullience and the dark political climate of the time in which it was made: the AIDS crisis, mass unemployment, and the Thatcher administration’s repressive policies. Accordingly, studying Clark’s work now has the potential to allow us to imagine anew how art might, in the face of multiple crises, respond in empowering as well as critical ways.