Michael Clark was still only in his mid-twenties when he danced solo on Italian television to Marc Bolan’s 1971 song that gives this epic exhibition of Clark’s vast back-catalogue its title. In the footage, Clark moves slowly, swathed in a swishy yellow dress and black lipstick as Bolan sings over elegiac strings of how he danced himself ‘right out of the womb’.
Broadcast in 1986, with Thatcher’s Britain in full pomp, it was a daring and tender routine for Clark, already feted as a taboo-busting enfant terrible of contemporary dance. Thirty-six years on, and with Clark now in his sixtieth year, his performance looks as vulnerable and as heroic a show of strength as it ever did.
The clip forms part of a loop of archive material that graces screens large and small before you even step in to the exhibition itself. As a tone-setting tease of things to come, it is the perfect curtain-raiser to what might be regarded as a sort-of prodigal’s return to Scotland for the Aberdeen-born polymath following the show’s London run at Barbican, who initiated and curated the show.
The first of fourteen rooms is an expanse of nine large screens and four small TV monitors arranged in such a way as to require viewers to promenade their way through the criss-crossing barrage of sound and vision on show. This is A Prune Twin (2020), Charles Atlas’s mash-up of two films he made with Clark in the 1980s, the quasi-biographical Hail the New Puritan(1986), and the even more impressionistic Because We Must(1989).
Set to a sound clash of The Fall, The Velvet Underground and Debussy, Atlas’s realigned footage captures Clark and his gang of lost boys and girls at work, rest and play, children of the revolution taking steps towards building their own brave new world. Cut up like this, A Prune Twin(an anagram of New Puritan) becomes a noisy snapshot of Clark’s entire raison d’être.
Pulsed by a narcotic mix of outrageousness and naughty fun as it is, beyond the bare bums, the up-all-night hedonism, the why-the-hell-notness and the sheer bloody two-fingered cheek of it all, Clark’s early prick-kicking artistry made its surface edge even more subversive.
Beyond A Prune Twin, each room charts Clark’s creative connections as an icon of the underground who came in from the cold to become a cause celebre. There are understated portraits by Elizabeth Peyton, and extravagant costumes by performance artist Leigh Bowery, BodyMap and Stevie Stewart.
There is the Proustian thrill of standing on the chessboard floor of I Am Curious, Orange(1988), Clark’s ballet that put Mark E. Smith and The Fall onstage for a week at the King’s Theatre during the 1988 Edinburgh International Festival. As Ceryth Win Evans’ videos of two Fall songs beam out across the show’s oversized Big Mac set, designed by Clark and built by Michael Whitely, it is hard not to recall then Fall guitarist Brix Smith performing while perched on the giant hamburger as Bowery span it round like a record.
A similarly visceral bombast resonates from Sophie Fiennes’s film of current/SEE(1998), set to a live score by Susan Stenger’s all bass band, Big Bottom. Presented as an installation, the soundtrack’s coruscating goth-metal blasting through big speakers evokes the black box primitivism of a dive bar rock club, while the dancers on screen map out even more ancient rituals.
A room chock-full of posters and programmes of The Michael Clark Company styles Clark as the ultimate poster-boy pin-up. There are more TV interviews and performances, videos by Derek Jarman, and footage of Clark as Caliban in Prospero’s Books(1991), Peter Greenaway’s arthouse reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
There are constructions made by Clark with Sarah Lucas, and a room of photographs of Clark at work by Wolfgang Tillmans. Edinburgh born artist Peter Doig’s Portrait (Corbusier)(2009), originally made for Clark’s production, come, been and gone(2009), is set against home movie footage of Clark’s dancers taking a walk across the rooftop of Cite Radieuse, Le Corbusier’s brutalist apartment block in Marseille.
Silke Otto-Knapp has painted a series of monochromatic watercolours of choreographic impressions. Just as black and white is Duncan Campbell’s film, It for Others(2013), a bird’s eye view of two dancers filmed at the Centre of Contemporary Arts in Glasgow marking out interpretations of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. And why not?
The seriousness of his subject shows how Clark was always doing much more than striking a pose as a Zelig-like barometer of pop culture. As Cosmic Dancer lays bare, there is an exploratory and meditative depth to Clark’s work that is profound and unflinching in its lines of inquiry.
Cosmic Dancer charts a journey - to use a much overused word - of inquisitiveness, enlightenment, artistic purity, self destruction, recovery and beyond. This creates an ongoing body of work - and the word ‘body’ is obviously vital here, both at rest and in motion - where life and art are inseparable.
Above all, Cosmic Dancer exposes Clark as a collaborator and a catalyst. The array of designers, filmmakers, photographers, composers and pop groups on show are effectively duetting with Clark as part of his extended ensemble. MC by initials, and master of ceremonies in everything that follows, Clark remains at its inspirational centre.
Cosmic Dancer isn’t so much a retrospective, then, as a (self) portrait writ large; part living sculpture, part design for life, part choreographed chorus line of Total Art, formed from the explosion of ideas bursting forth from Clark’s personal and artistic evolution. This is what happens if you dance yourself right out of the womb. Check the guy’s track record. Appreciate.
Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer runs at V&A Dundee until September 4th 2022
A version of this article appeared in Scottish Art News, June 2022