Saturday, March 22, 2008

Here We Dance

Last week I went to the launch of Here We Dance, at Tate Modern. The exhibition aims to look at 'the relationship between the body and the state, exploring how the physical presence and circulation of bodies in public space informs our perceptions of identity, nation, society and democracy. The title derives from a work by Ian Hamilton Finlay, which refers to the celebrations that took place during the French Revolution, and alludes to the importance of social gathering in any form of political action or resistance. Bodily movements and gestures, collective actions and games are examined through media as diverse as film, photography, neon text and performance'.

At the private view there was a performance of Gail Pickering's Zulu - a woman moving around wooden shapes while reciting texts which seemed to be from the Weather Underground and similar 60s/70s urban guerrilla groups. This is powerful material that needs a lot of critical discussion and I am not convinced that playing with it in a gallery context really allows the space for reflection - given that most people viewing it would have no idea of the context or even where these words come from.

For me, the most striking piece is the late Ian Hamilton Finlay’s neon sign Ici on Danse ('here we dance/here one dances') - the words displayed at the entrance to a festival that was held on the site of the Bastille in July 1790 to celebrate the anniversary of the storming of the prison. On the gallery wall next to the sign, there is an accompanying text by Camille Desmoulins:

‘While the spectators, who imagined themselves in the gardens on Alcinous, were unable to tear themselves away, the site of the Bastille and its dungeons, which had been converted into groves, held other charms for those whom the passage of a single year had not yet accustomed to believe their eyes. An artificial wood, consisting of large trees, had been planted there. It was extremely well lit. In the middle of this lair of despotism there had been planted a pike with a cap of liberty stuck on top. Close by had been buried the ruins of the Bastille. Amongst its irons and gratings could be seen the bas-relief representing slaves in chains which had aptly adorned the fortress’s great clock, the most surprising aspect of the sight perhaps being that the fortress could have been toppled without overwhelming in its fall the posterity of the tyrants by whom it had been raised and who had filled it with so many innocent victims. These ruins and the memories they called up were in singular contrast with the inscription that could be read at the entrance to the grove – a simple inscription whose placement gave it a truly sublime beauty – ici on danse’.

The image of dancing on the ruins of the Bastille certainly appeals to me, even if the experience of Desmoulins – a revolutionary executed in 1794 by the new post-revolutinary authorities – suggests that those celebrating should always be looking over their shoulder for those building new Bastilles around the corner.

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