Catherine Wood
Photo courtesy of Tate photography

Catherine Wood: “How can we inhabit the image?”

Short Profile

Name: Catherine Wood
Place of birth: Bexhill-on-Sea, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Art curator, art historian

Ms. Wood, is the relationship between the curator and the artist a fine line to walk?

Definitely. On the one hand, as a curator, you need to be able to enter the imaginative world of the artist, and be in it with them, and play and co-imagine. They need to trust you enough to share their vision, which can be fragile at the beginning. At the Tate, where I’ve been curator of Contemporary Art and Performance since 2002, I can offer a space such as the Turbine Hall or the Tanks — it's a high-stakes invitation. So there’s a lot of trust involved. And then there's the other side of the relationship, which is totally pedestrian, administrative, financial, and institutionally responsible. That's the really difficult thing.

How come?

Because you’re beautifully co-imagining this amazing art project together with the artist, and then you're saying, “Yes, but we only have half the money to do that. And we're not allowed to do this with our visitors for health and safety reasons.” (Laughs) It's very delicate, balancing those two sides. I can sometimes find it hard to keep an objective distance because it's not like I'm working with my friends…

But the connections you make with your artists are still very real.

I feel very lucky to be working in this world! People sometimes have a negative impression of the art world. But there's a spirit of artists, curators, and writers that I've met who are looking for something in common, and I've really experienced some profound connections with the people that I've met through art. I don't want to say I love the art world, because it's not that, there are loads of things about it that I hate, and I was always very shy about meeting people in the beginning. But just working with artists and with like-minded people has been so moving, profound, and an enormous education, actually. I think artists often get a reputation of being difficult to work with.

“When I was a young curator, I'd get completely consumed in the world of the artist. And then I’d do anything I could to make it work.”

Because they are relentless in following their vision?

And because they often want to do impossible things! I really have such respect for artists, they're always working on their own, with their vision, and trying to change the mind of the world. And that is a really hard thing to do. They have to be difficult, they have to insist. But I think when I was a young curator, I'd get completely consumed in the world of the artist. And then I’d do anything I could to make it work for the institution. And now with more experience, I know which are the battles that we will win and which are the ones we have to adapt to. And often for artists, the constraints can end up feeding the artistic vision.

 Apparently when you first interviewed to join the Tate’s curatorial team in the early 2000s, you advocated for performance art’s place in art institutions. What made you feel so strongly about it?

It's true! And if I look back now, I think, “How was I so confident?” I mean, I'm not an overconfident person in life. There were two reasons: one was historical. The research and writing that I'd done as part of my formal art history training — it was a revelation to see that the minimalist art made by mostly male artists that I was learning about, had in fact emerged from the work of female dancers and choreographers like Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer, for instance. But they were not attributed or recognized at all. So I felt very sure that it was important to bring this work to Tate.

Even at a time when many other art institutions were not overly interested in live performance art.

Right, and being young as an institution, Tate was quite open minded. And secondly, in the early 2000s I was just starting to see work by artists like Mark Leckey, Monster Chetwynd, David Thorpe, Michael Clark, a generation of artists making a new kind of performance. They suddenly spoke a new language: how can we exist in this late capitalist landscape, in which you have to be an image, a brand, and you're wrestling with all these other very powerful and seductive forms of image-making? How do we inhabit the image? So artists like Mark Leckey were using music, glamour and pop culture references, he was working with a band called DonAteller, which would do this mash-up of pop songs in a slightly falsetto, karaoke way — hard to explain, but it was brilliant! (Laughs)  Or Monster Chetwynd, who was making these crazy lo-fi remakes of The Wicker Man or Thriller, in a nightclub in Hoxton.

But how would you then bring the performance from a nightclub in Hoxton to an institution like Tate?

Well, because performance art is not collectible, or it was seen as not collectible, it could never enter the main narrative. So it was always an extra-curricular, outside after-hours, late-night liminal kind of activity, despite the fact that, for instance, it had a massive influence on the art that was exposed upstairs at Tate for example: the Rauschenberg paintings, all the minimalist sculptures — so much in the collection was intertwined with the history of performance, but you wouldn't see the documents because they were considered secondary.

What shifted that perception?

There were artists like Tino Sehgal, Roman Ondák, and later, Tania Bruguera, who said, “I'm going to refuse the model that performance or live art has to be outside the market, outside the museum. And I'm going to make my performance into an object that is a commodity, and I'm going to sell it.” Which was kind of horrifying to the Joan Jonas 1970s generation of performance artists at first! Even Marina Abramović initially was a bit horrified by young artists taking this stance. But it actually ended up having an effect on them selling their own work later on, that they had previously imagined wasn't possible to do. I always think with performance history goes backwards.

One of the first shows you put together at Tate was Mark Leckey’s Big Box Statue Action, how did you experience that?

It was a really transformative experience. I think that show was emblematic of what it means to bring contemporary performance into a historic museum. His approach was genius: first, he asked to do it in the grandest space of the museum. He wanted to borrow one of the most iconic works from the museum’s collection, Jacob Epstein's, Jacob and the Angel, this huge alabaster block sculpture, and then Mark was having a huge speaker system made to match the sculpture. And he had Bonnie Camplin, Lucy Mackenzie, Enrico David collaborating with him to create this piece of music that was part serenade, part attack — extremely loud. And during those 20 minutes, I was just looking at the glass ceiling and the sculpture thinking, “Please do not explode.” (Laughs) But it was the most beautiful thing!

“Nowadays, the young generation of artists completely understand performance as a natural part of the art practice, and they embrace this fluidity.”

In the images of that event, the audience seems completely mesmerized.

There was this eerie feeling, looking at this sculpture through the love and hate that the artist had for it. Because the sculpture was such a symbol of the establishment! A big lump of rock that's really permanent, which the opposite of Mark’s fugitive and performative practice. It was a kind of confrontation, but also a very beautiful communion between people witnessing art. It felt like there was a sort of living entity in the museum.

And now, nearly a decade and a half later, a live show such as Anne Imhof’s SEX which you co-curated in 2019 reached an almost superstar status, and was sold out within days.

Well, Anne Imhof has evolved the language of performance in such an amazing way: how she uses space, restricted access, viewpoints; how she combines painting, choreography and music and how she applies a kind of online mindset to real time. She is so clever in understanding how performance circulates in the imagination. I think nowadays, the young generation of artists completely understand performance as a natural part of the art practice, and they embrace this fluidity. They would very rarely say, ”I'm a painter,” or “I'm a performance artist,” or “I'm a sculptor” — they're just an artist. They don't define themselves according to the medium. They’re naturally expecting that movement between mediums, and I love that spirit of really wanting to open things up experimentally.