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Work / Art

Stunning new Tate Britain commission mixes history with modernity and vogueing with Baroque

Making connections between 80s power dressing, neo-Classical architecture, vogueing and exemplary courtiership, Pablo Bronstein’s new Tate Britain commission is a highly ambitious, beautiful installation.

The work, Historical Dances in an Antique Setting, combines vast architectural imagery with a performance by three dancers, which will run every day at the gallery throughout the show’s six-month tenure. The commission directly responds to the vast and imposing interior architecture of Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries, making superb use of its cavernous space as the dancers move across it throughout the day.

The galleries are bookended by two large structures based on the grandiose Tate Britain architecture, created using digitally manipulated images of the building’s exterior to “turn the gallery inside out,” says Tate. This appropriation of mock-Classical forms into a facsimile of itself makes for very interesting viewing: layers of pretence that build up and create another new meaning alongside the gestures of the dancers.

The choreography was devised by the dancers (there are 12 in total, and three will perform at all times) along with Bronstein, with dance moves based on those of the Baroque era. Many were taken directly from the Book of the Courtier, a text originally published in 16th Century Italy that set out the rules, actions and constitution of a perfect courtier. The graceful, precise, and often rather camp motions feel staggeringly contemporary, showcasing Bronstein’s ongoing explorations of mixing the historical with the modern.

Dismissive hand signals and the communicative possibilities of the smallest of movements feel redolent of the voguing dance styles of the 70s and 80s, especially when coupled with the exaggerated costume jewellery and exaggerated cuts of the jumpers that make up the dancers’ costumes. The movements of the dancers and the work’s appreciation of the space forces the viewer into a calm, contemplative state, and in their actions create a paradoxical and welcome stillness.

Bronstein has often cited the idea of “Sprezzatura” in his work: an Italian word from the same courtiership book that means "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”

While the Sprezzatura’s insouciance is a wonderful component of the work, the jarring modernity of the architectural renders next to its neo-classical starting points makes everything feel both strange and perfect, making for a piece that’s brave and compelling.

Pablo Bronstein, Historical Dances in an Antique Setting, runs from 26 April – 9 October 2016 at the Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain

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Pablo Bronstein: Historical Dances in an Antique Setting, 2016
Photograph: BrothertonLock
© Pablo Bronstein

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Pablo Bronstein: Historical Dances in an Antique Setting, 2016
Photograph: BrothertonLock
© Pablo Bronstein

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Pablo Bronstein: Historical Dances in an Antique Setting, 2016
Photograph: BrothertonLock
© Pablo Bronstein

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