Stars in their eyes: Constellations at Tate Liverpool

Mike Pinnington

This long-running Liverpool art show features work by art stars such as Marina Abramovic, Matisse and Picasso alongside the “satellites” they inspired.

They say a change is as good as a rest, and if Tate Liverpool’s recent re-hang of its collected works is anything to go by, there’s a lot of weight in that old adage. And featuring more than 100 works and sprawling across two floors, its DLA Piper Series: Constellations show suggests that something akin to a genuine – if quiet – evolution has occurred at the gallery in recent months.

The exhibition’s impact is two-fold. “Constellations” refers to the “stars” or “trigger artists” from the Tate Collection that sit at the centre of a series of clusters of works, which in turn reveal the impact those stars have had on their “satellites” throughout art history. Perhaps most interesting is the thematic device Tate Liverpool has employed to engage its audience in the matter of really looking at what hangs on their walls. Even the most casual of attendees leaves with a fairly substantial amount of art knowledge.

But what about the works themselves? You’re only going to want to learn more if the artwork itself does enough to snare your attention for longer than a passing glance. Fortunately, a run through the names of some of those stars artists is enough to whet any appetite: from Marina Abramovic, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to Barbara Kruger and Jackson Pollock (to name but five), these are heavyweights you would expect to find as the subject of entire exhibitions, never mind as facets of just one.

The exhibition gives us something to hold on to, without straying into spoon-feeding territory

Once those names and their modern masterpieces have drawn you in – and draw you in they will – it’s a short trip to their celestial neighbours. Each trigger artist is accompanied by a barrel-load of easy-to-grasp info and “word clouds” that show characteristics shared with their satellites. So the “grandmother of performance art,” Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 shares gallery space with Santiago Sierra’s 160cm Line Tattooed on 4 People and generates words such as “Exploitation,” “Feminism,” “Ritual” and “Control”. Nearby, the word, “COLOUR” (unsurprisingly) looms largest in Matisse’s cloud. The viewer has something they can hold on to, without being lead into spoon-feeding territory. If that all sounds a bit too much like enforced education, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Instead, visitors are left with a sense of having taken away more than they arrived with; a vital and rare piece of knowledge you wouldn’t otherwise have known. And let’s be honest, we all like to feel clever about art.

Aside from the obvious pleasure that comes from seeing these great works together under the same roof, this is the real triumph of Constellations: rather than take the easy option of trotting out key pieces from the Tate Collection (which, for 99.9% of us, would have been enough), genuine consideration has been given to the viewer and their gallery experience. For a free exhibition, that value is hard to put a figure on.

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