Pablo Bronstein's dancers at Tate Britain are breathing new life into living sculpture – review 

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Pablo Bronstein: Historical Dances in an Antique Setting, Tate Britain
Pablo Bronstein: Historical Dances in an Antique Setting, Tate Britain Credit: Eddie Mulholland

Pablo Bronstein: Historical Dances in an Antique Setting, Tate Britain

The annual Tate Britain commissions have become something of a vexed issue. Filling the gallery’s magnificent central Duveen Galleries with a single new work for six months, the results have ranged from the spectacular (Fiona Banner’s decommissioned fighter planes hanging from the ceiling in 2010) to the seriously underwhelming (Christina Mackie’s long stockings dangling from the ceiling).

Indeed, you have to wonder if giving this prime spot to a single artist for such a long time is the best use of space, at a time when attendance figures at our principle gallery of British art have been flagging, prompting the institution’s entire purpose to be questioned.

Mackie’s installation, for example, left much of the space empty, while the simultaneous landmark Barbara Hepworth exhibition, a natural draw for the gallery, you would assume, was crammed into the charmless, underground Manton Street Galleries.

The 38 year old Argentine-born British artist Pablo Bronstein, however, feels a more promising fit. His work concerns the “physical and psychological effects of art and design”, and grandiose architecture has been a consistent theme.

Pablo Bronstein’s dancers perform daily in the Duveen Galleries against a backdrop of Tate’s faux-classical facade Credit: Eddie Mulholland

Previous projects have included a beach hut in the style of baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor and The Grand Tour, a post-modern trip round the stately homes of the West Midlands.

The sense that this commission is a gift for Bronstein is confirmed as you enter to find the space blocked – except for two small doors – by wooden scaffolding, as though you’re at the back of some huge baroque stage set.

Passing through you find yourself in a kind of inside-out, digitally manipulated version of Tate Britain, with an image of the façade filling the whole of the far wall and a view of the Clore Galleries behind you. For all its apparent solidity, Bronstein seems to be saying, architecture is theatre, make believe, a place for performance – a sense compounded by the fact that the Duveen Galleries, for all the moral weightiness implied by their Roman proportions, are themselves something of a sham, having been built only in 1937.

Bronstein extends the performance metaphor by introducing live dancers (who will perform continuously from 11am to 5pm daily), twirling and pirouetting their way around geometric patterns on the floor, which reference both baroque garden design and the American conceptual artist Bruce Nauman.

'The sheer poise and rigour of the dancers allows them to animate the space in a truly satisfying way’ Credit: Eddie Mulholland

Not that I worked that out by myself, there are interpretive panels to help, which also include suggestions we associate the work with the 90s dance craze voguing, 16th century notions of courtly behaviour and Ken Russell’s 1971 schlock-buster The Devils. None of these connections are particularly obvious. 

If that sounds horribly indigestible, the sheer poise, elegance and professional rigour of the dancers allows them to animate the space in a truly satisfying way, bringing new life to the hackneyed notion of “living sculpture” as they interweave echoes of classical dance, classical sculpture and 21st century high camp.

Architecture, Nietzsche observed, is the language of power, a fact well understood by Hitler, Stalin and – it must be said – the architects of the Duveen Galleries.

Bronstein himself has touched the fringes of this dark territory in other works, but he keeps the tone light in this playful divertissement on the building and the body, solidity and movement, fantasy and reality. Indeed it’s the work’s sense of its own ephemerality, as well as its unashamed enjoyment of the space and the setting that make this one of the most successful of these commissions to date.

Until October 9; admission free; tate.org.uk