Transforming the gallery from a white cube to a space for mass participation is an established practice, but now it’s the turn of French architect Claude Parent at Tate Liverpool. Emma Palmer investigates his latest project La colline de l'art at the Liverpool Biennial, and the artist interventions that came before it

Claude Parent La colline de l’art 2014 Installation
Claude Parent La colline de l’art 2014

Claude Parent has transformed the Tate Liverpool’s Wolfson gallery space under his Fonction Oblique design rules. With inclines, sloping walkways and curved walls instead of ninety degree angles his intervention makes for an impressive, inviting and unique alternative to the classical gallery viewing space. In the past, when an audience has been confronted by opportunities for play and interaction in a formal gallery setting - usually reserved for the polite, subdued viewing of art - a form of mass-hysteria has been known to take hold, and even lead to the early closure of an exhibition.

One of the most notorious ‘participatory’ interventions took place at the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) in 1971. American artist Robert Morris’s Bodyspacemotionthings was the first fully interactive show ever held at Tate, but it closed after only four days due to the extraordinary exuberance of museum goers. Bodyspacemotionthings viewers became part of a Morris sculptural intervention, performing the role of ‘big kids’ in a gallery-come-playground. Ramps, beams, tunnels and weights became giant toys inviting the public to ‘play’. To quote a Guardian report: ‘Some of the 1,500 visitors became so intoxicated by [the] opportunities that they went around “jumping and screaming”. They went berserk on the giant see-saws, and they loosened the boards on other exhibits by trampling on them … “It was just a case of exceptionally exuberant or energetic participation.”’

Some 38 years later, the Morris exhibition was rebuilt in its entirety in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Instead of the raw, unfinished materials of the original, the 2009 recreation was a modernised affair, with contemporary design methods and materials bringing the work up to current health and safety standards (with health and safety signs visible throughout). In an interview with one of Morris’s students at Hunter College in New York, Wade Guyon, for Interview magazine in 2013, Morris declared this re-installation ‘a disaster’, deeming the Turbine Hall ‘a grotesquely large space’ where the works ‘were unanchored and flopped around’.

Morris’s was not the first foray into the world of gallery interventions. Three years prior to Bodyspacemotionthings, Danish artist Palle Nielsen’s The Model – A Model for a Qualitative Society transformed the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, into an adventure playground.

Palle Nielsen The Model: childen playing in large foam blocks
Palle Nielsen The Model – A Model for a Qualitative Society 1968

The Model was an expansion of Nielsen’s community action, where he constructed playgrounds in under-privileged areas of Stockholm. His intervention at the Moderna Museet saw new walls and flooring installed, along with jungle gyms, a foam-rubber basin, swings, climbing ropes, and water chutes. Tools, paint, building materials and fabrics were provided to aid participants’ creativity, while the Royal Theatre donated a selection of period costumes to be used for dressing up. Where Morris’s structures were dominated by adults in ‘big-kid’ mode, Nielsen’s space was created solely for the use of children. Nielsen had transformed the traditional setting into an open area for protected play and social irrationality; during its three week life, The Model received more than 33,000 visitors, 20,000 of whom were children.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, art that required the participation of the viewer was a novelty; a rare event in a world where solemnly beholding an artwork was the norm. Today however we are often asked to make the adjustment from viewer to doer. Ann Hamilton’s The event of a thread, 2012 at the Park Avenue Armory, New York, saw visitors swinging as high as they could on wooden swings whose chains were connected to a giant silk curtain hanging from the room’s ceiling. The event of a thread wasn’t a replica of a playground, but a meditation on connection and communion. In a statement on the work, Hamilton said, ‘This condition of the social is the event of a thread. Our crossings with its motions, sounds, and textures is its weaving; is a social act’. Thus, to fulfil the work’s objectives a visitor should physically engage with the installation else no social act is completed. But is it actually important for the audience to contemplate the ‘true’, often philosophical, intentions of these interventions?

For Morris, Bodyspacemotionthings gave participants the opportunity to become ‘more aware of themselves and their own experience rather than more aware of some version of my experience’. Nielsen said of his intervention: ‘this is only an exhibition for those who are not playing.’

Claude Parent La colline de l’art 2014 Installation 2
Claude Parent La colline de l'art 2014

Parent’s transformation of Tate Liverpool’s Wolfson Gallery may just provide a harmonious balance between considering visual art and physical participation, depending on your point of view. With its grey and yellow ramps, semi-transparent walls, sloped walls and not a 90 degree angle in sight, Claude Parent’s intervention invites you not only to look, but to physically engage. Whether traversing ramps, leaning against curved walls or relaxing on in-laid platforms, you can also take in work by Francis Picabia, Edward Wadsworth and Mark Leckey. The gallery is still a gallery, but it has been transformed into one man’s ’machine for viewing’ artworks, and in doing so, might just make you question why many galleries stick to the white cube.

Emma Palmer is Marketing Assistant at Tate Liverpool

‘Liverpool Biennial: Claude Parent’ is on display at Tate Liverpool until 26 October 2014