'Rites of Passage' in London Purports to Identify End-of-the-Century Art

In an interview, Tate Gallery curator says artists have returned to the body as symbol

If you are going to stage an art exhibition with the portentous subtitle "Art for the End of the Century" - an exhibition whose even more portentous main title is "Rites of Passage" - then it might be safe to say that your intentions are hardly frivolous.

Frances Morris, assistant keeper of the modern collection at the Tate Gallery, is, with Stuart Morgan, co-curator of this intensely serious Tate Gallery exhibition, open from June 15 through Sept. 3).

Talking about the show's genesis and aims, she soon has the word "catharsis" on her lips. It is an exhibition, she says, to do with "the way that art can function as a moment of catharsis in people's lives." Catharsis comes from confronting and passing through the inescapably tragic. And the art in "Rites of Passage" promises to be confrontational.

The exhibition is being installed "as a series of encounters with the art object and the environment it creates," Ms. Morris says. "You will walk through light spaces to dark spaces - from open spaces to very closed spaces, from very high to very claustrophobic spaces.... What we want to do is trigger reaction."

A posthumous figure casts a shadow over this exhibition: the German artist Joseph Beuys. He will be represented by "Earthquake in the Palazzo," an installation that Morris sees as "full of images of destruction and fragmentation, but also of survival."

It was made in 1981 "after the Naples earthquake.... I think he saw the palace as a symbol of politically authoritarian regimes, but also of fixed ways of thinking and living. The work ... almost symbolizes the cleared ground on which the rest of the artists in the exhibition have worked."

That cleared ground includes a renewed energy brought by some artists of the 1980s and early '90s to the conviction that art should not be about art, about aesthetics, but should connect as directly as possible with life.

Morris says: "Beuys took a very radical stand against art that was about aesthetic ideology, a radical stand that it was about life. What he wanted was to prompt a visceral and emotional and intellectual response, whether negative or positive."

Morris calls the art in this exhibition "issue-based." She talks about "the imprint of all sorts of alternative non-art discourses on art: the ethical debate about things like euthanasia and abortion; the feminist debate about sexuality and identity; the political debate about collectivization or individual choice. Those sorts of debate that have to do with the individual on the one hand and the community on the other. It is almost as if there is a moral, critical, and spiritual crisis ... a moment of flux ... a period in which identities and barriers are blurred."

Some of the issues in the exhibition are the only-too-predictable litany of predicaments and concerns of our time, though treated in not necessarily predictable ways. These include questions of gender, genetics, AIDS, and also touch on matters of religion, birth and death, the need for more emotion, the nature of the body.

The show's titles came after the exhibition was curated. Morris's original assignment was to build an exhibition of contemporary art of the last 10 years - "to try to convey a notion of underlying sensibility. Not just the art, but the art and life." And an initial concept was that it might be a show about the body.

This was soon abandoned, however, as somewhat too generalized to have much meaning. Nevertheless, says Morris, it is "the body [that] comes back again and again as a reference point, either as an image in itself or as things that stand for the body.

"We have become so used to glibly reading symbols, that artists are increasingly drawn back to the body ... because there is nothing else that can speak." These points are discussed in the exhibition catalog in an interview with Julia Kristeva, a psychoanalyst and professor of linguistics whom Morris describes as "a voice for the artists."

The persistent interest in the body links up, Morris says, "with the recourse to biography that all the artists have." But they use "biography to speak of something that is not about themselves - drawing on an individual experience but in a communal sense."

One of the artists included - and this is not a kind of trend-conscious young-contemporaries affair at all - is American Louise Bourgeois (she was born in France in 1911). She once said: "For me, sculpture is the body. My body is my sculpture." Although Ms. Bourgeois has been producing her works for decades, it is only in the last decade that she has been given central rather than peripheral recognition.

Another participant is the American video artist Bill Viola, who also represents the United States at this year's Venice Biennale (which began June 11). He has said that he believes art to be "a whole-body, physical experience" and wants to get away from purely "visual" art. He also wants to restore emotions "as one of the higher orders of the mind of a human being."

Morris feels strongly that this exhibition will represent art for the end of the century. She says the selection of artists, while they are by no means a group (though some, she discovered, were actually friends already), have in common a sense of "threshold" in their work - "a liminal state between two things."

John Coplans's work she sees as "a threshold between states of identity ... showing his body in all kinds of poses." He is the only artist to make a work specifically for the show - a frieze of images of his own body.

Mona Hatoum's work, a video installation called "Foreign Body" made in 1994, Morris says is "about body and soul, in search of the soul; it's about the threshold between outside and inside."

The work of one artist is quite openly about AIDS, while another - by a hitherto virtually unknown artist, touches on this subject "in an unspoken way" as Morris puts it. "It doesn't scream its genesis or its meaning. It is a very beautiful abstract minimal work."

So one message from this show may be that there are various ways of confronting issues through art. And Morris herself is keen to dispel any idea that all the art in her exhibition is shocking.

"It's very gutsy stuff. But it is not difficult. Some of it is extremely entertaining."

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