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Michael Clark in Charles Atlas’s Hail the New Puritan (1986), 16mm film transferred to video, sound, TRT: 00:84:54 (© Charles Atlas, image courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York)

LONDONThe work of Michael Clark is inherently difficult to pin down. Existing at the intersections of punk and club kid cultures, ballet and Black Sabbath, Clark’s work receives the full retrospective treatment in the Barbican’s Cosmic Dancer, an exhibition that draws on his work as a choreographer, as well as the work of his many collaborators, including Leigh Bowery, Charles Atlas, and Sarah Lucas. The most difficult question to answer when considering Clark’s work: simply, where to begin?

The exhibition responds by dedicating the first few rooms to a new work by Charles Atlas (who made the 1986 mockumentary Hail the New Puritan, about Clark’s work) — A Prune Twin (2020). The title itself is an anagram of New Puritan, and this illustrates the ways in which it serves as a perfect microcosm of Clark’s work, shattering boundaries between forms and artistic styles, and casting Clark as a choreographer who refuses to be pinned down by a single discipline or style.

Installation wiew of Charles Atlas’s A Prune Twin (2020) in Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 2020-–2021 (image courtesy the Barbican; photo © Tim Whitby/Getty Images)

A Prune Twin takes footage from Atlas’s other film collaborations with Clark, including Because We Must along with Hail the New Puritan, and repurposes them, turning them into a kind of collage that moves seamlessly between the collaborators and styles associated with his choreography, from interviews with ballet dancers, to footage of Leigh Bowery and Leslie Bryant trading barbs with one another. It brings together the classical formalism of ballet, and the countercultural styles and aesthetics that allowed Clark to challenge the limits of exploring dance only through its more traditional forms. A Prune Twin runs across multiple screens, allowing the contradictions and multitudes of Clark’s work to come through perfectly. Watching a ballet rehearsal on one screen, alongside pantomime-horse style costumes — a kind of parody of fantasy imagery — on a second, and footage of Leigh Bowery chiding “this girl is not kept, Miss Thing” on a third might sound like sensory overload, but the display acts as a perfect way of encapsulating Clark’s creative world.

Cosmic Dancer casts an incredibly wide net in its approach to Clark’s work, bringing together numerous other highlights of his illustrious, ongoing career. His collaboration with post-punk band The Fall, I Am Curious, Orange is even reproduced, represented via elaborate, pop art infused set design of giant burgers and red-packaged chips that recall McDonald’s, with the performance itself projected onto the wall.

The purpose of Cosmic Dancer is to provide a kaleidoscope of Clark according to his collaborators, and while this approach is occasionally successful — spotting some of Sarah Lucas’s sculptures and wallpaper, like Tits in Space (2000-20) and Sandwich (2004-20) is striking — the exhibition occasionally loses sight of Clark himself. That’s why A Prune Twin remains a highlight; it makes clear that, while Clark’s collaborators were invaluable, it’s the presence of Clark himself, and his weaving together of such disparate threads, that makes his work so singular and affective. The projections of various performances likewise highlight this, underscoring  how Clark’s work is animated by a refusal to be defined by a single thing. In one room, performers dressed in white dance to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”  The choreography is pristine, classical, poised; the music thunderous, heavy, ominous in the way it captures encroaching dread. Brought together, these elements yield quintessential Clark; a boundary-pushing act of refusal. 

Installation view of Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer, Barbican Art Gallery (image courtesy the Barbican; photo © Tim Whitby/Getty Images)

Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer continues through January 3, 2021 at the Barbican Centre (Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS). The exhibition is curated by Florence Ostende. 

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Sam Moore

Sam is a writer, artist, and editor. Their work has been published by the LA Review of Books, the BFI, i-D, and other places. They are one of the founding editors of Powder...

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