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REPOST: Tate Modern

Tate Modern and Bankside (photo by Andrew Onyemere from Time Out's Bankside Guide) Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 18/09/2000.

What, you want an update? It's still going, that's probably all the update you really need. Although the layout's obviously changed quite a bit over the last eight years.

Buzz is a mysterious quantity. The London Eye, for example, has it. These days, who remembers the fact that it opened two months later than scheduled? Nobody - they just want to ride on it, especially now the nights are drawing in. On the other hand, the Millennium Dome doesn't have it, as recent press has showed. Without wishing to return to the territory covered in Spank2K, it's sadly predictable that management are treating the Dome's losses not as an indication of problems with its content, but merely as a failure in marketing. They're wrong, of course: you can't manufacture buzz, no matter how large your ad budget is.

So can we assume that this is one of those dumbing-down things, where the public has rejected a detailed analysis and celebration of the British character in favour of a pumped-up fairground ride? Well, no. Because that doesn't explain the success of Tate Modern.

Since May, when the Tate Gallery separated their British and modern art collections - keeping the British art in its original Millbank home while moving the modern stuff to a disused power station in Bankside - Tate Modern has had more buzz than it knows what to do with. You know the British public, those people who apparently get all worked up when the papers run scare stories about post-menstrual bedsheets and aborted foetuses being put up for the Turner Prize? Well, they've been flocking to the gallery in droves, and are still doing so months after the initial hype. Even the screwup over the Millennium Bridge from St Paul's to Tate Modern - taken out of service one week after opening, following the discovery that people were uneasy about crossing the Thames on a bridge that swings like Michael Portillo in a gay bar - hasn't put anyone off.

Not too long after the gallery's launch, I went with Spank's Pals Christine and Rob on one of their now notorious Sunday Morning Art Runs, with the plan of doing an uninformed art review similar to the job I did on the 1999 Turner Prize. We whizzed round the permanent galleries in two hours, only to find that it really wasn't enough time to do this astonishing collection of modern art justice. I vowed to find some time later in the year to spend the best part of a day there and do it properly.

So here I am.

Detail from Patrick Caulfield's After Lunch (1975) As I mentioned, the Tate Modern gallery stands on the site of a cavernous old power station, and the designers have tried to do as little as possible to the structure of the old building. One of the killer features is the former Turbine Hall, which holds the main foyer and is a pretty spectacular several-storey exhibition space in itself. It's the ideal place to put large-scale works that will grab people's attention from the moment they enter, and the opening displays by Louise Bourgeois fit the bill beautifully. Maman, a gigantic iron sculpted spider, is a terrific hit with the kids, who enjoy walking under it and staring at the ready-to-drop collection of spider eggs suspended thirty or forty feet above their heads. Bourgeois' other work is a set of three metal towers (I Do, I Undo, I Redo) built to a similar gargantuan scale, and the queues to climb up them and look out over the Turbine Hall get longer and longer as the day goes on. (Christine has suggested that you'd have to be extraordinarily fit to climb all three towers in succession, and that maybe Tate Modern could sell this as some sort of Louise Bourgeois Workout Plan.)

Once you get to the main gallery area itself, you'll find three floors of exhibition space: two floors of permanent exhibits from the collection, sandwiching a temporary exhibition that will change every few months. The four permanent galleries collect artworks by subject and genre: if you're working from the bottom up, then the third floor gallery entitled Still Life/Object/Real Life is the first one you'll hit. As you enter, you'll see two works that sum up Tate Modern's display policy perfectly. To the left, a traditional Cezanne still life: next to it, a more abstract three-dimension treatment of a similar theme by Picasso. The curators aren't afraid to boldly mix and match genres and styles in the same space to show how modern art has progressed over the years, and it's an approach that repeats itself throughout the gallery.

Still Life/Object/Real Life looks at the various ways in which artists have tried to represent the things around them, using a variety of media. Fernand Léger's film Ballet Mécanique uses fast cutting and multiple images of machine parts and people to produce an impression of a mechanised society. This is groundbreaking stuff for 1924: it introduces itself as 'le premier film sans scenario', over seventy years before the movie of Lost In Space was even thought of. The digital audio guide to the gallery (£1 at the door) is particularly useful at this point: as well as the usual talking heads discussing the works, you get snippets of other interesting audio such as the original banging, crashing score for Ballet Mécanique, which complements Léger's machine fetishism perfectly.

As you progress through the gallery, a variety of other approaches are on display. Frank Auerbach's The Sitting Room is done in oils applied with a trowel, giving it a fascinatingly tangible feel: if it wasn't for the protective layer of glass, people would have their hands all over it. (It's very nice to find a whole room dedicated to Auerbach later on, after this introduction.) Patrick Caulfield's After Lunch is a delightful study in modes of painting: an almost cartoony sketch of a deserted restaurant after the afternoon rush, dominated by a ludicrously photo-real mural. And it's nice to see a whole room dedicated to Bridget Riley's stripe paintings, especially when you watch kids stare at them for too long until they fall over.

The layout of this floor is such that you end up wandering into the next gallery - Landscape/Matter/Environment - without even realising it, until you suddenly come across a couple of monumental Joseph Beuys works in a room of their own. It's good that London now has a gallery space big enough to hold works this size on a permanent basis. Again, the approach is to mix and match styles, with some rooms dedicated to the work of a single artist. Highlight of this section has to be the Rothko Room, in which five of his maroonest works are displayed in a quiet, low-lit space that acts as a chill-out room for anyone who's reached this halfway mark in the permanent collection.

Detail from Bill Viola's Nantes Triptych (1992) In between this and the rest of the permanent display comes the fourth floor, which will be used for a series of rotating exhibitions (the only area of the Tate Modern to charge an entrance fee). The first one of these (running to December 3rd) is entitled Between Cinema And A Hard Place, and covers a wide variety of installation art. I missed out on this exhibition when I did my two hour lightning visit a few months ago, and it's good to catch up with it now, as there are some terrific pieces on display. Anthony Gormley's figures Mould, Hole and Passage are amusing as they display their major bodily orifices to the world. Similarly, Juan Muroz' sculpture Towards The Corner, featuring a laughing audience on a bench, is a lovely depiction of people having fun. (Is it significant that to see this properly, you've got to stand in the corner that the audience is facing towards, making us the source of their amusement?) And Rebecca Horn's Ballet Of The Woodpeckers is out-and-out hysterical, as a dozen or so out-of-sync automated hammers bang on mirrors to provide a syncopated racket that reverberates across most of the floor.

Not all of the installations work, though. Ilya Kabakov's Labyrinth: My Mother's Album is enormous in scope and size, but there's a whole novella's worth of text to be read as you walk around a maze of his mother's recollections, and sometimes it doesn't seem worth the effort. More curiously, Cornelia Parker's exploding shed, which looks stunning in photos, is a bit of a letdown in real life. (Maybe it's only in a photo we can accept the idea of a moment in time frozen like this: once we're confronted with it in the flesh, it just looks like several tons of debris hanging on wires.) But the presence of Bill Viola's stunning video Nantes Tryptich is enough to justify the £3 entrance many times over. A large screen is divided into three parts. To the left, a woman gives birth: to the right, another (Viola's mother) dies: in the middle, a man flounders around in water, half waving, half drowning. Any qualms you may have about real-life birth and death being used as the stuff of art are crushed within minutes by its sheer emotional power. It's literally life, death and everything in between, and you're left utterly breathless at the end of it.

Following a coffee and a muffin on the seventh floor, accompanied by some of the best free views of London available anywhere, it's time to move on to the fifth floor galleries, starting with History/Memory/Society. This starts off with an eruption of manifesti (from Wyndham Lewis to Marinetti and beyond), and moves on to look at how art has dealt with social issues from World War I to the present day. Lots of old favourites in these rooms, including Mondrian, Gilbert and George and assorted Picassos, notably the Weeping Woman who was so memorably debased in a recent Kleenex advert. Stanley Spencer's epically scaled The Resurrection: Port Glasgow is the work that really does it for me here, although at this point I start to realise that it's the larger scale works that have impressed me the most today, presumably mainly for their sheer size. How shallow I am. Luckily the smaller jokey pieces of the Fluxus collective (most notable for including Yoko Ono) help prove this to not be the case. And the room full of Warhols is rather entertaining as well, particularly if you take the audio guide's option to view them while listening to David Bowie's song Andy Warhol from 1971. (That line "Two new pence to have a go" really dates it.)

I finish up in the Nude/Action/Body gallery, and I'm sure it's not just my imagination that this has more people in it that the other three combined. It's almost impossible to get in initially for the huge crowds gawping at Sam Taylor-Wood's video Brontosaurus (nude man dancing to Barber's Adagio For Strings). This gallery looks at all the ways that the human form has been represented over the last hundred years, from the classical beauty of Rodin's The Kiss to the terrifying abstractions of Francis Bacon. (Fun thing to try: sit in the Bacon room and watch people's faces as they walk in to be suddenly surprised by his Triptych August 1972.) Again, some very familiar names are on show here: 1999 Turner winner Steve McQueen still hasn't learned how to make a film with more than one idea in it, while Rebecca Horn returns with her splendidly loopy body extension kits. But the big finish for me was Gilbert and George again, seen sedately getting pissed in the self-explanatory short film Gordon's Gets Us Drunk.

Not all of the Tate's press has been uniformly positive, and even someone with as little artistic knowledge as myself can appreciate some of the criticisms. The gallery's own curators admit that it's a little top-heavy with works by Dead White European (& American) Males, the result of some careless purchasing policies in the past. And though in some ways the thematic grouping of works helps you view them in a new light, the lack of a focussed chronological perspective makes it hard to put them in a historical context, resulting in visitors drifting from one work to the next and reducing the whole building to nothing more than a large intellectual theme park.

But in the end, it's a great intellectual theme park, which helps explain the mysterious buzz that Tate Modern has accumulated in its opening months. No matter what your views on modern art are - even if you don't have any - this is an enormous treasure trove there for exploring, and most of it's completely free. Put aside a whole day for it, and explore the whole building searching for the one work that blows your head apart the way Nantes Triptych did for me. After all, I don't know much about art, but I know what I like. And I'll be back at Tate Modern because I really did like those banana muffins they serve on the top floor. Being a monkey, and all.

Links

The official Tate Gallery site is obviously the best place to start here. There are dedicated sections for Tate Modern, the somewhat neglected Tate Britain (still going strong at the Tate's original location) and their associated galleries across the country. And if you can't be here, there's a terrific online database of the Tate's collection with a pretty enormous selection of images (only one of which was stolen for this page, honestly).

Mongrel is an online art collective who were invited to celebrate Tate Modern's opening with an internet artwork of their own. They chose to produce a hacked version of the Tate site, featuring curious digital reworkings of some of the art on display, which randomly pops up while you're surfing the official site. This all has the blessing of the Tate, of course, so it was rather amusing when they suffered at the hands of a genuine cyberprankster during their first two months of running. Nick Crowe noticed that the domain http://www.tategallery.org.uk [dead link] was going begging, so he bought it for himself and used it to host a cheesy 'official' Tate site until they politely asked him to stop. This cached archive [dead link] (courtesy of Google) sadly omits the pukey background images, but Crowe's hilarious combination of hard data and hyped-up bragging ("it's blowing the Dome out of the water!!!") still remains intact.

London SE1 is a site dedicated to the newly up-and-coming Bankside area, celebrating the current explosion of developments taking place there, of which Tate Modern is just one. Please, God, don't let it be the new Hoxton.

Arts Journal scours the world's media for articles on art and gathers them together in a handy reference archive, so you can find lots of Tate Modern press coverage here. However, it looks like they missed the Daily Express' stunt of a few months ago, when they took one of those well-known connoisseurs of art - a London taxi driver - and asked him to do a comparative review of the Royal Academy and Tate Modern [dead link]. The results may surprise you.

ARTnewspaper [dead link] appeared to be run by total drooling nutters when I last looked at it for my Turner Prize review. However, in the intermediate seven months they've changed their name to Art Newsroom [dead link] and seemed to have calmed down tremendously. Among their stories about art exhibitions across the globe, you'll find thoughtful reviews of Tate Modern [dead link] and the Between Cinema And A Hard Place [dead link] exhibition.

The League Against Modern Art [dead link] was apparently set up by a guy who visited Tate Modern, was utterly horrified by what he saw, and wants it destroyed before it hurts anyone else. He rants for several pages about how he can't understand anything that's on display, refusing to consider that this may be because he's a first year Computer Science student and therefore incapable of non-linear abstract reasoning. Besides, he's not particularly funny. If you want to see how to rip the piss out of modern art and be entertaining with it, visit Martian.fm and check out their own guide to Tate Modern [dead link] ("for those who live in the suburbs or, worse, in the north of England").

London Art and Britart [now renamed Eyestorm] are two sites to look at if all this talk of art has inspired you into buying some online for your own living room.

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