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22 May, 2009

Adventure playground returns to the Tate

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The Tate’s first fully interactive exhibition met with such a boisterous response in 1971 it lasted just four days. Now it’s back

It’s always an anxious moment for curators when they see members of the public jumping on works of art. At Tate Modern, given the history of Robert Morris’s Bodyspacemotionthings, it’s downright terrifying.

In 1971, nothing like the American artist’s cross between sculpture and adventure playground had been seen in a national gallery. The public went wild. The slides, seesaws, tightrope, climbing frames and crawl spaces lasted just four days at Tate Britain before being closed on safety grounds. It took an act of reckless courage to reconstruct them in these health and safety-conscious times at Tate Modern.

“I should have been sacked,” the 1971 curator, Michael Compton, said. “I said so at the time, and I still believe that. It was my responsibility.”

There were bumps and bruises from the start, and a procession of mini-skirted art lovers who ended up with splinters in sensitive places. But the trouble really started when a heaving queue formed before the 2pm Sunday opening, then surged in and went berserk.

Compton’s most terrifying moment came the morning after he had seen, to his horror, a young woman fall from a high, narrow bar and taken the decision to close the show.

When he entered his director’s office on Monday morning to explain himself, he saw Sir Norman Reid sitting behind his gigantic desk, with the customary single piece of paper in front of him – and a highland dagger.

“He kept pulling it out, and snapping it back into its sheath. I thought, ‘Oh shit.’ But he was magnificent. He said ultimately it was his responsibility, and he would stand over what I had done – and he did.”

This time the curator is Catherine Wood. When she decided to invite Morris back to London to remake the first fully interactive exhibition ever staged by the Tate, the first person she consulted was the head of health and safety, Dennis Ahern.

Ahern is a veteran of dangerous art: he – and visitors to the gallery – have survived the vertiginous Carsten Höller slides, and Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth, a deep crack running the length of the Turbine Hall. “It’s not about eliminating risk but managing it,” he said.

At a glance, the installation looks identical to the 1971 version but, with the blessing of the artist, who has been helping install it, it has been made of non-splintering ply, on a steel frame to keep it all rigid and with sides offering protection from the sheerer drops.

One part of the original – sheets of scrap steel and a great swinging metal ball – has been dropped.

“The sound it made, in the echoing space of the Duveen gallery, was quite indescribable,” Compton said. “It was deafening, like being in a steel mill. I think it literally drove people slightly mad.”

• Bodyspacemotionthings is part of UBS Openings: The Long Weekend at Tate Modern throughout the bank holiday weekend, offering live events and activities.

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