Glass reviews Michael Clark’s Cosmic Dancer at the Barbican

HAILED as a pioneer in the British cultural landscape, Aberdeen-born choreographer Michael Clark’s first major exhibition Cosmic Dancer at the Barbican, certainly lives up to its title. I have to admit I was slightly apprehensive at the prospect of an iconoclast like Clark being shown in the gallery setting, after all, such institutions often demand a certain amount of comme il faut.

Upon entering the exhibition, however, my fears were soon redundant, with visitors plunged into a show every bit as anarchic as it is hedonistic.

Michael Clark in a publicity photograph for Mmm…, 1992

A soundtrack of Bowie, Stravinsky, and The Fall echoes around the space, the accompaniment to a large-scale video installation by long term collaborator Charles Atlas. Spanning nine hanging screens and four monitors, A Prune Twin (2020) displays re-edited fragments of Clark’s previous films, with stylised dance sequences, TV interviews and documentary footage combined.

Inspired by queer subcultures and punk ethos the effect is a complexity of vivid images and sounds; at first overwhelming but which in time unravels a faceted profile of the choreographer as far more perceptive than his wild child epithet.

As the exhibition continues the spectator is accosted by a room filled with large gaudy props, tins of Heinz beans, and a giant hamburger – parts of the Pop Art-inspired set for Clark’s performance I am Curious Orange (1988) with post-punk band The Fall. Music videos by Cerith Wyn Evans are shown in the space, with costumes by cult icon Leigh Bowery and BodyMap a mesmerising addition.

Michael Clark & Company with The Fall in I Am Curious, Orange, 1988

Here, maybe more than ever, Clark demonstrates his ability to combine fashion, art, and rock and roll in order to redefine the parameters of classical dance; recognising it as a form capable of being not only graceful and pretty but also ugly, clumsy and conflicted. The importance of this multidisciplinary approach is further emphasised on the second floor, with work from Sarah Lucas, Wolfgang Tillmans, Duncan Campbell, and more.

Lucas presents Cnut, (2004) an uncanny concrete sculpture of Clark’s naked torso sat on the toilet, atop a giant ham sandwich. Here Clark is portrayed as a static, sagging figure; a stark juxtaposition to the disciplined spectacle seen throughout the rest of the show. It is an almost pathetic if not humorous image, one made more so thanks to the Tits in Space (2000 -20) wallpaper surrounding the piece. A new, albeit a more nauseating version of the work initially created in 2000, the motif of cigarette covered breasts act as a subtle ode to the pair’s friendship.

The remainder of the show takes on a more meditative quality, with intimate photographs by Tillmans, a monochrome film by Campbell and vitrines displaying a continued collection of Lucas’s pieces, including a tiny masturbating arm made for 2001’s Before and After: The Fall. A string of paintings by Elizabeth Peyton seem strangely out of place amongst the flamboyant costumes designed by Bowery and his collaborator Trojan, hung so the proficient pattern cutting is clear to see.

Lorena Randi and Victoria Insole in Before and After The Fall, 2001

Such a diverse plethora of work is dumbfounding, to say the least. However, amongst the brash, bold, and bare arsed, it is within the more delicate pieces that the magic really lies.

A painterly 16mm silent film from 2008 shows the company dancing on the rooftop of Le Corbusier’s brutalist Cité Radieuse in Marseille. Here we see the genius of Clark in the flick of a hip, or curve of a wrist, the effortless nuances of gesture that remind us of the equality of our bodies.

As the dancers fall in and out of rhythm the energy of dance is transferred, creating a transcendence of the individual into the awareness of themselves as one component within a larger whole. I notice the woman next to me tapping her foot, the man bobbing his head, the child pointing his fingers to mimic those on screen. It is in this lesson that Clark’s power really lies. Dance is a language we all, consciously or subconsciously, speak.

Michael Clark during the filming of Charles Atlas, Hail the New Puritan, 1986

by Ella Mottram

Cosmic Dancer, Barbican Centre, London EC2 is on until January 3, 2021


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