Pablo Bronstein’s works explore themes arising from the baroque and postmodern in media including drawings, installations and choreography. Between rehearsals for his Tate Britain commission, Historical Dances in an Antique Setting, Herbert Wright had the pleasure of an audience with him, and an opportunity to enquire about the new production, and sundry diverse matters
Portrait: Ivan Jones
Wearing a dark jacket suitable for the country, denim shirt and trainers, Pablo Bronstein takes a break from rehearsals to emerge from Tate Britain's Duveen Gallery. His Historical Dances in an Antique Setting is opening there imminently, but he is relaxed, and rather than stress, there's a readiness to laugh. I start by asking what the big idea is with this project involving performance and architectural intervention.
'In a way it's about serious or erroneous historical overlays,' Bronstein explains. 'When you look at a period film, the architecture is maybe from the 16th century, the furniture from the 19th century, and it's set in the 14th century. Or 19th-century paintings of Rome - the architecture was Greek, the furniture was Etruscan. It's squashed, a thousand years of history condensed. So what this is is an erroneous look back at ourselves from another point, in the future perhaps.'
That age-agnostic mash-up of historical elements describes postmodernism, a running theme in Bronstein's ouvre, and indeed the subject of his book of drawings and text, A Guide to Postmodern Architecture in London (2008). Sure enough, Bronstein affirms that the new work 'is classic postmodernism. It's straighforwardly a postmodern exercise in the lineage of [British film directors] Derek Jarman or Peter Greenaway.'
Dancers position themselves on lines laid upon the Duveen floors. Photo: Pablo Bronstein (b. 1977). Historical Dances in an antique setting, 2016. Photograph: Brothertonlock. © Pablo Bronstein
Tate Britain seems apt as a location, with its postmodernist Clore Gallery (1987) by James Stirling, but it's the Duveen Gallery, the long, axial neo-classical space designed by American John Russell Pope, (whose works include Washington DC's Jefferson Memorial), behind the Tate's 1897 Millbank frontage by Sidney Smith, that becomes Bronstein's stage. The ends walls incorporate laser-scans of Tate Britain itself printed on vinyl, flat but evoking a solemn depth with stark shadow. At the Millbank end, Stirling's Clore facade is amalgamated with 'a late Renaissance garden pavilion'.
Strike a pose! Bronstein's choreography expresses baroque 'sprezzatura' as well as having elements from later times, such as the 'pedestrian' school of movement. Photo: Pablo Bronstein (b. 1977). Historical Dances in an antique setting, 2016. Photograph: Brothertonlock. © Pablo Bronstein
The other, northern, end presents the Millbank facade (Bronstein compares its style to 19th-century Prussian neoclassic-meister Schinkel's), amended for a physical opening. But the postmodernism is not confined to architecture: 'The dancers, in a way, are the same,' says Bronstein. 'They are a concoction from different periods, from the 17th and 19th centuries and the late 20th century.' Referring to the 'pedestrian' avant-garde dance pioneered at New York's Judson Church Theater in the Sixties, which takes everyday actions as its subject, he continues: 'The idea is we produce movements that have an element of the pedestrian, so that we can seriously say, this is what we dance like, we move like, in the 2010s... The historical system is complete, it's just inaccurate.'
Bronstein's vinyl murals at each end of the Duveen use Tate Britain's exteriors itself to set the stage. The southern mural places a Renaissance alcove into a Stirling facade
Bronstein has used extravagant costumery before, but here, the dancers are dressed in ballet leggings and shoes, contemporary red t-shirts tucked in Eighties-style, and chunky white necklaces ('a little heavy' a dancer confessed to me, 'but it's fine'). They perform in threes, along the Duveen's two long sections and the octagonal, columned space between them.
Floor markings, each like magical matrix, position the dancers, and in the middle section, 15th-century Spanish court music performed by the Dufay Collective accompanies them. The dance is balletic and so full of 'strike a pose' moments that Madonna's Vogue liable to start playing in your head.
The northern mural shows the Millbank facade modified to accommodate an opening
Bronstein feels satisfied with it: 'In terms of contemporary performance, it's pretty out there. It's gushing, it's delicate, it's dancey, it's got lots of mannerisms and studied, camp movement; it's very theatrical.' In 2012 Bronstein said he wanted his future performances to 'have more romance, trashiness and desperation', but he's since forgotten that, and Historical Dances is no 'trash-fest of outrageousness', he says. Rather, it's 'a weird concoction that juxtaposes two periods in dance, one of which is very fashionable - the Judson Church school of pedestrian movement. The other is the 17th century, and people don't touch historical dance -- they find it disgusting'.
This brings us to 'sprezzatura', a language of mannerisms that was big in baroque times, but originally defined in 1528 by Baldassari Castiglione, as 'a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does... appear to be without effort'.
Bronstein has explored sprezzatura before, notably in the dance element of his 2011 show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), Sketches for Regency Living. Bronstein summarises it as 'staged informality. Technically, it's quite difficult to do, and within it there's a codified snobbery. Being camp isn't necessarily a trick to doing it. The point is to ornament the line all the time... there's a kind of baroque S-curve shape that travels through the body'.
For Rambert's production of Haydn's Creation, Bronstein has designed a 21m-wide screen which precisely configures performers. Photo: Pablo Bronstein
To get that right in Historical Dances, his assistant choreographer, the Swedish Rosalie Wahlfrid, who performed in Sketches for Regency Living, was invaluable. 'There's something very important about having someone able to translate the artist's garble into a language that makes sense to other dancers,' he says. He also notes the role of Tate's senior performance curator Catherine Wood, with whom he's 'had an ongoing conversation all my working life'.
Pablo Bronstein's 2007 drawing No 1 Poultry, from his book Postmodern Architecture in London, imagines a Piransian view
He credits her with the rise of performance in the art world, something reflected in Tate Modern dedicating space to it in Herzog and de Meuron's new Switch House extension. Wood, he says, is 'very responsible for generating a good part of the scene and bringing it in for a contemporary audience', but continues: 'These things are fashion, right? At the moment, people are very interested in the internet, and performance is a little bit frumpy now, so there's less for the old hacks who've been doing it a while.'
Bronstein studied art at Central St Martins, the Slade School of Art and Goldsmiths, butnever trained in choreography, so why is it such a major strand of his work? 'I go through phases, but I always come back to drawing,' he replies. 'It's impossible not to, because I think like a draftsman. Essentially it's about the aesthetic. It's not that I have a deep understanding of the human body or choreographic history, or how people move. It's got to fit in a visual pattern that I'm looking for. In that sense, I'm not a choreographer; I make pictures with people.'
Pablo Bronstein: Pink Objects in Museum Interior (2016) Ink and watercolour on paper. Photo: Courtesy Herald St
As a draftsman, the pictures Bronstein has always made of structures, whether in imagined baroque scenes or Piranesian decay, are whimsical and as meticulous as architectural schematics. Did he ever want to be an architect? 'Yes I did, but only erroneously. I drew compulsively, a castle or a stable or a garage, and I would design cars. I grew up thinking I wanted to be an architect probably because my parents assumed that I did.' A spell in an architecture school changed that -- he found 'this bunch of grim wankers worried about stress loads and AutoCAD and those awful pens you work with your mouth. We got taken to the Barbican to group masturbate about concrete'.
Pablo Bronstein: European building from the 1990's subsequently redecorated and abandoned (2014) Ink and watercolour in artist's frame. Photo: Courtesy Herald St
And yet architecture is fundamental to his work. Neoclassical may not seem fashionable (although there is a quiet trend to attach ornamented faux-stucco panels to newbuild) but the other subject of his scrutiny, postmodernism, has been a live topic. 'I'm not an expert in the ins and outs of current architectural thinking about postmodernism,' he says, but 'I have a feeling that young architects are into it again. Fashion Architecture Taste [FAT, Sam Jacob's practice] was the pioneer and there's probably a course at the Royal College of Arts on how to succeed as a postmodern architect.' He shares dismay at the loss of Ian Pollard's Marco Polo House, and brings up threats to James Stirling's No 1 Poultry (1997), recently refused listing. Such buildings were the subject of his 'crusading' book, A Guide to Postmodern Architecture in London. On the other hand, he admits that, 'I do love the loss in architecture, and the catastrophes and the fuck-ups. I'm not a Georgian queen who wants everything to be treasured and we have everything'.
Pablo Bronstein: Terraces by Nash with an attic by Soane (2011). This ink and watercolour features the Pall Mall terrace, a section of which the ICA occupies. This work was exhibited in Bronstein's Regency Living show there.
There's plenty in store from Bronstein to follow Historical Dances, and unsurprisingly Georgian remains on the agenda. A RIBA show in late 2017 will be 'dedicated hopefully to really, really shit development muck which is in the Georgian style.
This stuff is genuine British vernacular... yellow brick garbage just to get through planning and to get the Daily Mail to not hate it. There's something unique about that stuff'.
Pablo Bronstein: Large cabinet / Office (2011), an example of the artist's most extraordinary metamorphic furniture, here at the ICA
Before that, we may see some more metamorphic furniture too. Furniture that could change shape and function was a Georgian craze, and at the ICA demonstrations of his large cabinet/office and his console table transforming into a camp bed mesmerised onlookers. 'I'm doing a show at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester this autumn,' he says, promising 'it will have a furniture component and be Georgian-y because that fits the Georgian house [there]'. He is also making wallpaper - as with the Duveen murals, he says 'these vinyl products are potentially spatially dynamic or have a trompe d'oeil element'.
Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth (2015), installation view at Nottingham Contemporary. Photo: Andy Keate
But the next project is unusually serious. Working with Rambert dance company and Garsington Opera, Bronstein has created a stage set for The Creation by Haydn, to be performed at the Wormsley Estate, Buckinghamshire in July, then moving to Sadler's Wells in the autumn: 'This is the first time that I've been asked to act as a designer. Normally you get asked to be the artist on something, and then you can be as whacky as you want and everyone else has to work around you.' He's come up with a huge, perforated gothic screen, 20.68m wide and up to 7.12m high, through which 50 dancers pass while the conductor is in the central arch and the chorus on plinths.
'It's a very organising device... this was about trying to contain and organise a huge amount of people on stage [so] they'll not interfere with each other.' The choreography is not his, and he admits that he finds 'Haydn really stodgy. The English love Handel's Messiah and Haydn's Creation. We are convinced they are the pinnacle of civilisation'. But he grasps how 'the orchestra has to be heard and the dancers have to be dancing in their own place; you can't have them next to some annoying violinist who reaches down to pick up a box of mints from a handbag...'
Pablo Bronstein: Beach Hut in the Style of Nicholas Hawksmoor (2014). The red-doored installation was for the Folkestone Triennial. Photo: Hydar Dewachi
Returning to Historical Dances, Bronstein says in summary: 'The construction is postmodernist, the relationships and context in it are very contemporary art, and the rest of it is surface. I'm very interested in that thinness, that's what this performance is about; very modernistic choreographic shapes, with a flick of the wrist here and there, to take it back in time.'
Bronstein's output has always been such, whatever the medium. He admires the dilettante in figures such as Jarman, a 'competent amateur quality: It's a very English thing, James Stirling has a bit of that in a way. There's something that feels self-taught.' That must apply to Bronstein himself, the consummate draftsman ever since childhood, now drawing with movement and space in the Duveen. The spectacle he has created there is as much a pinnacle of civilisation as any Haydn music - and far more delightful.