inside the new tate modern
As the Tate Modern prepares to open the doors on its brand new building, we look at its new exhibitons and the way the gallery has changed art in Britain.
As you enter the new Tate Modern building, Switch House, you are greeted by the writhing performers of Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus' new performance work, slipping around one of the new gallery spaces devoted to performance art. They are busy re-enacting art works from the museum's collection as performance pieces. It is hard to place exactly which ones at times, as they range from the famous to infamous, from the seminal to the unknown, from Carl Andre to Mark Rothko, from Tania Bruguera to Doris Salcedo. When I enter one of the performers is squatting, hips thrust forward, legs splayed, a woman standing near by is shouting loudly about vaginas and orgasms. It could be a scene from a satire on modern art, but it is, suggestively, a satire of modern art, as well as celebration of it. What better way to ring in the new building?
It's indicative of the way contemporary art has changed and grown in this country in the 16 years since the Tate Modern first opened its doors that we are now comfortable enough with Contemporary Art for the country's biggest contemporary art museum to literally build their new building upon such experimental, metatextual, art practices (the performance spaces form the bottom floor of the new building). The first thing you encounter here, if you slip down the ramp of the Turbine Hall, is not some grand gesture that the museum is so famous for; no carpet of Ai Weiwei sunflower seeds, no giant fissure cracked down the concrete floor, no looming suns, no sweeping and swooshing Anish Kapoor designed monolith. Instead, here are the temporal, ephemeral, art practices that should be supported by museums and institutions, practices that aren't easily commercial, practices that are easily lost in the bluster and bravado of modern art.
When Tate Modern opened, all those years ago, no one expected it to be such a huge success. They expected, max, two million visitors a year, they now regularly get over five. The extension, increasing the size of the museum by 60%, recrafts the Tate for the 21st century. Recalibrates it for the art industry in this country that has sprung up in its wake, an industry whose tentacles slip into the provinces, not just in Tate Liverpool and St Ives, but in The Baltic in Gateshead, the CCA in Derry, MIMA in Middlesborough, FACT in Liverpool, The Turner Contemporary in Margate, Nottingham Contemporary, Wysing in Oxford.
By this measure alone the Tate has, undeniably, been successful in its mission to bring art to Britain, or at least to update its art culture. Before the Tate Modern there was no dedicated public museum for modern art. But the Tate Modern has made modern art part of the national consciousness, it rode the controversies of the YBAs and moved art forwards, it turned art into a vital part of our post-industrial industry, one of the few things we still make here these days, something that Brexit, would almost certainly kill off.
When it first opened the Tate was a bastion of the Western art narrative, a predominantly male, predominantly Modernist (or variation of) canon of 20th century; it was of New York and London, Paris and Vienna. Switch House though, and the rehung old galleries, tell a wider, more expansive story that takes in east and west, Chile, Brazil, Russia, Africa... there are 800 works by 300 artists from 50 countries. 50% of the work in Switch House is by women. The Tate Modern, with its thematic, rather than chronological, rooms, proposed a new approach to art curation. The new displays build on this, filled out with newly acquired works, 75% of which have been acquired since 2000.
The Switch House is what's really interesting though, what is going to get all the attention. Firstly, the building itself, with its subtly monumental quality, its brick concertina, folding into and out of the landscape, lurking behind the old power station as you approach from across the river. Up close it's riveting, a slightly off, slight askew, double, to the power station chimney. Inside, past the performance art, and up a slithering spiralling staircase you'll find three floors dedicated to art post-60s, art after post-modernism, art's changing relationship with audience, with itself, with the gallery. There's also a spectacular 10th floor viewing platform, which the old chimney dominates, like a church spire, just adjacent to the older, more sacred dome of St Paul's. You can't help but draw parallels between the two, one was once the centre of the city, the other, arguably, is now. Sadiq Khan, the newly elected mayor of London, certainly thinks so, speaking at the opening on Tuesday, he expounded on the place of culture, arts, creativity in the city and how his London need to supports its artists, its creatives, and create spaces for them, and explicitly speaking on making them affordable.
The art itself in Switch House is stuffed full of treasures, unexpected treats, often slipping off from the obvious into more subtle, contemplative territories. There are some blockbuster pieces, Helio Oiticia's Tropicalia immersive installation of real live macaws in a cage, sand strewn gallery floors, twisting labyrinthine boxes, is sure to become an instant favourite.
The themes of the floors, Living Cities, Performer and Participant, and Between Object and Architecture, plot out, between them, the developments in the gallery's collection in the last 16 years; performance art, photography, female artists, modern conceptual works, interactive pieces, video works, pieces from around the globe.
There are some other instant highlights in the collection here for the viewer, though not all the work is obviously instantly gripping; Carl Andre's Bricks have lost their shock value, and so, their aura. Roni Horn's Four Tons, four tonnes of pink glass, is beautiful and perplexing, next to the window, trapping light, slowing it down, bending it. Felix Gonzalez-Torres is represented, hot on the heels of an incredible revue of his work at Hauser and Wirth, with a stack of posters you are free to pluck from, detailed with two just touching gold circles, whose symmetry refers, throughout the artist's work, as a symbol of gay love. The whole of Level 2, in fact, where these works sits, feels like a masterful stroke of curation, a big long space stuffed full of some of the most powerful works of the recent past.
Louise Bourgeois' artists rooms presentation is, bar the Helio Oiticia, the other stand out though. A collection of her later works, some Cell works, a male body hung from the belly button, a mobile of clothes, a room of small sculptures, series of monumental drawings, and her last vitrine, made in 2010, before her death. It feels a neat bookend for Tate Phase Two, as Louise's spider famously crowned the original gallery's opening, 16 years ago.
Text Felix Petty