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Challenging gender-based stereotypes: Michael Clark, Cosmic Dancer

A summary of the choreographer’s work marks fifteen years of collaboration with the Barbican and presents to the public an icon of English counterculture

The Barbican Art gallery in London, supported by Bottega Veneta, will feature Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer, an exhibition focused on the British dancer and choreographer known for mixing traditional ballet with punk influences and challenging gender-based stereotypes. Born in Aberdeen, Clark was introduced to dance in his childhood, sparking a passion that would lead him to the Royal Ballet School. After a bunch of shows performed with his company, Clark encountered filmmaker Charles Atlas during summer school led by Merce Cunningham and John Cage: the two began a collaboration crowned by the avantgarde documentaries Hail the New Puritan (1986) and Because We Must (1989). After Atlas’ films, Clark collaborated with names from every corner of the art world, from music to film: most of his costumes were from fashion designers or mainstream celebrities like Vivienne Westwood, Alexander Mc Queen and Gucci, while he appeared as Caliban in Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991) and created a ballet on the notes of The Fall’s, I Am Kurious, Oranji (1988). 

Marking the 15th year of collaboration between the Michael Clark Company and the Barbican, Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer aims to create a summary of the choreographer’s work, waltzing between video art, installations, photography, sculptures and fashion, presenting to the public an icon of English counterculture. As Jane Alison, head of the Visual Arts for the Barbican says: «We are thrilled to be sharing this rare opportunity for audiences to get to know the inspirational work of one of UK’s most influential choreographers and performers, Michael Clark. Michael Clark Company has been our Artistic Associate since 2005 and this exhibition celebrates the richness of Clark’s provocative and electrifying presence in our cultural landscape and explores how art, film, music and fashion have been integral to his work». Central in the exhibition formula is new work from Atlas, A Prune Twin. The performance, whose name is an anagram of «new puritan», echoing the old collaboration between the two, is a series of re-edited film footage scattered between screens in the same room, aiming to «translate to the screen the kinesthetic experience you get from watching live dance». Images of Clark’s ballets and clubbing from Hail the New Puritan are mixed with the green screen sequence of Because We Must, creating a new way to discover the choreographer’s work. Clark’s collaboration with The Fall is documented by I Am Curious, Orange, named after The Fall’s I Am Kurious, Oranji album.  

Ellen van Schuylenburch and Michael Clark during the filming of Charles Atlas Hail the New Puritan 1986 1
ELLEN VAN SCHUYLENBURCH AND MICHAEL CLARK DURING THE FILMING OF CHARLES ATLAS, HAIL THE NEW PURITAN, 1986

Commissioned by the Holland Festival to pay tribute to the coronation of William of Orange as the King of England, the performance features costumes designed by Leigh Bowery and BodyMap, and shows a critic of England’s Thatcher Period. A burger prop stands in front of a reconstruction of the British Parliament, denouncing the deregulation of the neoliberal politics, while the depiction of King William III dressed as an orange, alluding to his homosexuality, challenges the Thatcher administration introduced in Section 28, a Local Government Act forbidding local authorities to promote this behavior. The exhibition explores the relationship between Clark and his Company, tracing their story with flyers of their spectacles. The posters show the progressive intimacy that stems from a group working together, slowly becoming a family. Those works also show the collaborations with graphics like Peter Saville, formerly known for his ransom-notes-inspired style shown in the Sex Pistols logo. 

Clark’s impact on British culture interests also contemporary art: Sarah Lucas’ work Cnut represents a beheaded concrete cast of the choreographer’s body sitting on a toilet and smoking a cigarette, placed onto a giant sandwich. The sculpture explores the themes of vulnerability, stated by the naked headless cast of the artist, letting them dialogue with the production of junk food, reverberating the critique of I Am Curious, Orange. Even the painter Peter Doig is fascinated with Clark’s figure: after knowing him while working as a dresser for the English National opera, Doig mixed his features with Le Corbusier’s in Portrait (Corbusier) (2009), bringing to the public their common admiration for the architecture maestro «I know that Michael also loves a photograph of Le Corbusier with those particular glasses. The painting was like an homage to Le Corbusier but also an homage to a kind of look. It was slightly absurd as well».

IMAGE GALLERY

Barbican Centre Art Gallery
Silk Street, London
EC2Y 8DS
Supported by Bottega Veneta, the exhibition will be open until January 3rd, 2021

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