Alexander Calder’s Performing Sculpture exhibition at the Tate Modern is a refreshing, playful and enlightening show of modern abstract art. Deemed ‘the artist who cannot keep still… the mobile man above all else’, Calder’s works are instantly recognisable as those colourful, hanging mobiles of abstract shapes and wires, swaying gently in the breeze. A delicate combination of frailty, balance and beauty, his mobile sculptures are not only pleasing to the eye but emotionally satisfying. They also lead the viewer to subjective interpretation: does that sequence of colour and space denote a branch of a tree? Which animal does that positioning of shapes remind me of?
While the exhibition is undoubtedly a superb collection of Calder’s works, ranging from the whimsical, toy-like mechanisms of his Le Grand Cirque to the all-encompassing and organic structures more often found in contemporary art galleries (or perhaps the foyers of architects’ offices), you can’t help but feel that something is missing. Whilst walking through the gallery, it doesn’t take long to identify this certain absent je ne sais quoi: a gallery sign prohibiting us from blowing on Calder’s mobile sculptures, as well as touching them. Strict gallery supervisors suffocate the exhibition space, watching the visitors’ every move.
Extolled as the pioneer of kinetic sculpture, Calder revolutionised abstract art by creating suspended forms that move. Comprising lengths of wires counterbalanced by shapes of varying materials, sizes and colours, the most interesting innovation behind these works is their unique interaction with space; the way they bob and swirl about in natural, spontaneous rhythm. A step away from the canvas artworks of his contemporaries Miró and Mondrian, Jean Paul Sartre described Calder’s mobiles (a term actually originating from Marcel Duchamp) as, ‘a little private celebration, an object defined by its movement and having no other existence. A mobile does not suggest anything. It captures genuine living movements.’
With such intent and meaning behind the movement of these works, it’s such a shame that visitors are unable to experience what really brings them to life. It almost follows that visitors aren’t actually able to experience them at all as these hanging mobiles are – by their very essence – an exercise in movement. If we can’t see them move and perform, what are we looking at? The air flows around the gallery so subtley that they actually appeared completely still, like their ‘stabile’ counterparts (and by definition, the opposite of what these mobiles represent).
I understand that the rationale behind the restrictions is to do with the preservation of these wonderful works. They are old and valuable and it is important that they are preserved for people to enjoy for as long as possible. I do question, however, how much cotton wool is really required, particularly given the fact that many of Calder’s works are displayed outdoors! Even just a regulated fan in the gallery space would improve the exhibition vastly, whilst also protecting against the seemingly unpredictable and dangerous blowing from visitors. It makes you wonder what Calder would prefer: stabile mobiles preserved against the test of time, or a little bit of risk to heighten the impact and dynamicism of these wonderful kinetic sculptures.