A trip to the Tate Modern

England's newest art cause cilhbre is a massive power station turned gallery on the banks of the Thames.

Published July 11, 2000 7:01PM (EDT)

We don't own art, but increasingly we travel to see it. Owning original works of art is prohibitive for all but the superrich -- and, perhaps, even for them. But the so-called Bilbao effect has swept the world of tourism, and looking at art is in, which means that millions of dollars are being spent by governments on the most fabulous and architecturally radical of buildings, with an eye on urban redevelopment, tourism dollars and international prestige.

Now we have a new $200 million Tate Modern, enthroned upon the Thames in a decommissioned power station in central London. Cool Britannia, says petulant English critic Brian Sewell of the new museum and its P.R. puffery. But while Sewell may have meant the phrase sardonically -- oh, that British humor! -- the building's cool indeed. After the Tate Modern opened on May 12, approximately 120,000 people came to visit in three days.

That's 120,000 people, painter Joe Morse and I included, who descended into Turbine Hall, the massive, 500-foot-long, 75-foot-wide and 115-foot-high main hall of the Tate Modern. (Four of Morse's paintings accompany this story.) Our necks corkscrewed and craned, our jaws dropped, at the sight. Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron -- both of the principals of which teach at Harvard -- understands scale, at least in terms of our sense of grandeur. But even if the architecture did not inspire such extraordinary contortions, that's 120,000 visitors in three days to a modern art museum, which means who knows how many people dutifully trooped by Joseph Beuys' glorious and irritating installation "Lightning With Stag in Its Glare." The building may be the draw, and Cool Britannia may be the pitch, but lots of people are looking at modern art as a result.

On the south bank of the Thames, smack in central London, the Tate Modern is ideally located. Its neighborhood, Bankside, was once apparently a playpen of the Romans but has long been the provenance of light industry and shipping and has yet to be so gentrified as to become cute. The building itself, while visible from a number of vistas, and sporting a form that dominates the Bankside skyline, can't quite be seen in its entirety by a pedestrian in south London; in fact, one needs to be either on a bridge crossing the Thames or already across the river to see the museum as a whole. This phenomenon has contributed to the local hype, in a way, for the Tate Modern has necessarily become well known to Londoners from a remove, the drama of the project apparent. As the renovations proceeded, no Fleet Street flack rushing home to late tea could ignore what was happening so conspicuously in Bankside.

A long, rectangular form in red brick and steel, punctuated by a 325-foot-high chimney, the Tate Modern stands as a counterpart to the dome of St. Paul's across the river, at least in verticality. Up close, as the viewer approaches, the museum surprises, its size unexpected. Ultimately, one can enter the building from one of three directions, but the west is best, which takes one down into a scooped-out industrial space that could well be the marriage of Bauhaus and Terry Gilliam's "Brazil." There, below street level, the museum's enormous Turbine Hall communicates scale: how small the body feels when compared with the gigantism of industry, once we're suddenly indoors and yet walking the "street" of this refit technological ruin, the largest space in the neighborhood.

And yet, the size of the hall doesn't quite trivialize us -- perhaps as a function of all that's happening once one is inside. There are people everywhere in the hall, visible through numerous windows, as doubled and tripled reflections. People are visible in three viewing areas -- frosted-glass boxes mounted high on the north wall that look down upon the scene. So the architecture itself isn't what captures the gaze: It's the watching that intrigues most, in the grandeur of a remarkable space. The architecture of the Tate Modern is about seeing, and about life in a public visual culture. We watch them watch us watch them, a visual dialogue of sorts that prepares us all for Art.

Being inside such a massive industrial building nevertheless is constantly part of our perception, even when finally within the upstairs galleries. Everywhere one goes, Ye Olde Power Plant has the feel of our distant technological past. We were here, the building says. We built this. But perhaps more important, as both an industrial object and a museum, the Tate Modern communicates a sense of beauty and accomplishment salvaged from the ruins of our own technology. That the building is spectacular and that modern art now lives there seem right.

The oil-fired power station at Bankside was designed in 1947 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed libraries in Oxford and Cambridge, the Waterloo Bridge and the ubiquitous red telephone box. It wasn't completed until 1963, operated only until 1981 and then was decommissioned. For this incarnation, 3,750 tons of new steel work have been added; 524 glass panes complete the newly opened and lighted roof. The idea of a decommissioned power plant made more industrial to highlight its obsolescence, so that art might be shown in its midst, becomes important. Energy was once power, in economic terms: The Industrial Revolution tells that folktale best. Now technology has become a kind of empty sign, a place where commerce happens, where "power" has been refit. And here, at least this once, art is the coin of the realm.

Along the south wall of Turbine Hall, next to the information and membership area, can be found a small window that looks onto the remains of the power station -- originally designated as gallery space, according to the architects' blueprints, but not yet remade. There on the wall, a sign reads, "Hidden Spaces Level 1," and explains further that London Electricity still operates a "supply station" in the basement of the building. "The soft hum is the sound of transformers," announces the sign. And the soft hum is omnipresent: It may well be the electrical sound of our technological hearts.

If the ultraindustrial Turbine Hall, however, were merely to remind us that the body is a machine, and to heighten our awareness of ourselves as animate technology, then we would be rendered faceless, our individualism sacrificed. Instead, Turbine Hall needs us, in a way; our seeing is a necessary part of the building's public function, our individual behaviors a component of the architecture. What remains remarkable is that we stand in Turbine Hall and feel included, alienated from neither the building nor one another.

Such alienation lurks everywhere in the mod, advanced West, of course, and often seems -- at least to the naysayers -- a necessary product of technological innovation. For example, Europeans have become besotted with the cellphone, and when Joe and I were there, Londoners were almost equally besotted with the prospect that brain cancer might be caused by cellphone emissions. What interests me more, though, is not the thought of alienated and shriveled Brit brains in their seed cases, but the cellphone, and electronic accessibility, as emblematic of a shift in what we call "private" and "public." Intimate conversations, between people who have met online, are taking place on the underground during rush hour. "I am calling you to say that I'm outside waiting, here where I've been all my life." "What do you want for dinner, luv? Bangers and mash? I'm at the store." "Who was that on the back of your moto last night?" Rather than alienate us, the cellphone has changed how we act in public and who we are willing to be in the presence of others.

Museums have also contributed to the shift in living privately vs. publicly. Paintings were once hung in homes for the pleasure of their owners. Now there are billions of people who own no original art -- and ironically, those few who desire ownership seriously are often asked to come to the artist's home, for an open studio tour, rather than view the art at a "public" gallery where the work might be purchased. Moreover, in terms of viewing art in public, museums have lately become such architectural showpieces that the buildings themselves communicate value. This is our house, says the resplendent architecture. Come to our England, says the Tate.

But looking at art in a public building differs from looking at art in private, if only as a performance. What to wear? How to stand? What paths does one take around the work, against the flow of the crowd? The public spaces and the galleries of the Tate Modern, for the intricacies of its massive, industrial interior, seem to highlight these questions. This industrial space turns its viewers into a public implicated by history and informed by the dynamic relationship between humankind and technology.

The design of the exhibition spaces at the Tate Modern -- to be sure, one of the architects' priorities -- produces wandering rather than a room-to-room, A-to-B viewing pattern. This is not the Musie D'Orsay in Paris, where a wrong turn can lead to a dead end, or New York's MOMA, where someone else always seems to be in the way. Instead, the Tate Modern lets the viewer enter some rooms from as many as four approaches, and even walk within or across various objects; the floor plan is more of a "free plan," as the architects would say. Sculptures and installations abound: The viewer becomes part of the visual, the other viewers' behaviors and the works of art interconnected. Such a dynamic experience heightens our sense of those around us, whom we watch as we did in Turbine Hall. The first modern art museum of the 21st century thus creates its viewers as a product of the architecture and demands that we be seen as essential to what is seen. So please turn off your cellphone before entering.

Eighty-four exhibition spaces currently constitute the Tate Modern; the interior walls are movable, the galleries capable of significant reconfiguration. The collection proves as important as it has been hyped, highlighted by Picasso's "Weeping Woman" and various works by Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Joseph Beuys.

The Brit Pack, the so-called YBAs (young British artists) -- those dastardly curs who inspired Rudy Giuliani to violate as many constitutional amendments last fall as he could name -- come well represented, as one might expect. Most prominent of these is Damien Hirst, famed for his sliced-up farm animals. The Tate gift shop has even commissioned a series of "Ready Mades" by YBAs such as Jeff Wall and the dung master himself, Chris Ofili, "an exciting new way to buy modern art ... ready framed small prints packed in custom made carrier bags to take away," each for less than $25.

But the collection isn't an easy one to display: How should the Tate Modern show art that often willfully violates chronology (a chronology that if it honored, say, the postmodernists could be understood as yet another imperialism)?

The Tate Modern's director, Lars Nittve, has addressed the problem directly. Invoking the 17th century French Academy's rubric for paintings (which divided the world into quattro partes: landscapes, still lifes, nudes and history paintings), Nittve has presented the Tate's collection thematically rather than chronologically. Consequently, the permanent collection has been reorganized into four thematic areas: Landscape/Matter/Environment, Still Life/Object/Real Life, Nude/Action/Body and History/Memory/Society.

So one might see an installation by Anselm Kiefer next to a sculpture by George Baselitz, and a photographic triptych by Richard Hamilton grouped together in the History/Memory/Society area, under the subtheme "The Figure as History." Kiefer, born in Germany in 1945, came to prominence in the early 1980s along with a number of "Trans-European" painters; as a result, one might expect to see his work in a European museum alongside that of Francesco Clemente, for example, or with his countrywoman Rebecca Horn, born in Germany in 1944. But rather than banish Kiefer to his period, the Tate offers us the work in the context of its content: Kiefer stands as a historically minded artist, and his installation "Ways of Worldly Wisdom -- Arminius' Battle" is best understood to be post-Holocaust rather than merely postmodern. Thus to exhibit his work with a series of Hamilton portraits titled "The Citizen, the Subject, the State" makes a kind of sense.

But the result has left many critics shaking their scruffy heads, such as Peter Schjeldahl in the May 29 issue of the New Yorker: "The hanging of the Tate Modern's augmented collections is a nightmare of over-curating and is all the more oppressive for being exceedingly tasteful, intelligent, and inventive." And in the Evening Standard, the invaluable Brian Sewell opines, "With its whims and fancies, Tate Modern utterly fails the public, local, national and international." (To offer some context, the same Sewell likes nothing at all about the building: "The effect is ugly and intimidating, and one thinks of Auschwitz.")

The Tate's controversial curatorial concept, which has also become the mandate for the Tate Britain at Millbank, the museum's other significant site, might be better understood as part of yet another cultural shift. Consider the Bilbao effect. Consider the advent of blockbuster exhibitions, the King Tut and van Gogh shows that sell out like rock concerts. A new kind of art viewer has emerged, someone less art literate than curators are used to imagining, a person upon whom museums have become financially dependent. As a result, the education of the viewer has become increasingly important to curators. Thus critics can bemoan the state of viewership, the commodification of the museum store and the fetishization of the art itself and fail to understand a fairly simple truth: Even in a so-called visual culture, people need help learning to see.

So I think that Nittve has a good idea here that often works: and even when it doesn't work, the thematic organization provokes thought and provides one way to begin viewing the work. Contemporary art challenges even the most art-literate among us; one of the notions that informs both the modern and the postmodern is a constant irritation of our pieties. That is what I meant when I described Beuys' work as "glorious and irritating" for its magnificently subversive use of materials and overwhelming resistance to interpretation. Consequently, for the Tate Modern to put Degas' "Dancer" next to a roomful of early Horn articles or artifacts -- she first made her name by constructing canvas and wire body extensions, such as wings and other prosthetic devices -- offers the viewer a way to interpret both artists' works.

Degas and Horn might be decades apart, but what they made corresponds, in a way. The body as Action, in this interpretation, operates within a mythology of our own making. Seen through the curatorial gaze, Degas' "Dancer" may also be understood as an "extension" of sorts, a figure made by the sculptor's hands. And even if the correspondence isn't what one understands, the thought has been offered to help us see better both Degas and Horn.

One can argue, though, that such curatorial decision making relies upon caprice and ultimately reduces each of the artworks in any given arrangement to the curator's personal insight. At times, this seems true, such as in the Tate Modern's roomful of Giacometti sculptures and Barnett Newman paintings. There, the thin dominates; the vertical line of the paintings becomes clearly analogous to the verticality of the sculptures. And yes, there the curator's idea could be what we see, rather than the work -- the room overcurated. But one could also argue that museums have always overcurated -- after all, aren't many "movements" mostly named as such by art historians, and thereby someone else's notion of what the work might mean?

Keep in mind the 2 million people the Tate Modern hopes to attract annually, 70 percent of whom it anticipates will come from outside London. For the neophytes and the non-art viewers among them, for whom Newman's bold conceptual paintings remain indecipherable, it's likely that the curator's arrangement of the vertical strokes will offer meaning where little was accessible. Under such circumstances, how can we condemn the gallery's achievement?

There's too much of "guess the concept" played upon entering a room containing apparently disparate works. As a result, the mind of the curator does remain ever present, the notion of someone else's intellectual process intertwined with the works themselves. Still, these are artworks, and most are powerful enough to overwhelm any attempts to reduce their meanings. Do Richard Long (British, b. 1945) and Claude Monet belong together? If a museum says so, one feels inclined to consider the prospect, a kind of didacticism that also provokes resistance. "How do the works not correspond?" I end up asking, and the thought inspires. So I can't admit to being either irritated or disheartened by the thematic organization: Ideas are good for art, which may otherwise be too easily dismissed (and I think this is true especially of postmodern art) on the basis of incomprehension pretending to be taste.

The museum still faces an enormous challenge in its economic survival, as do most museums that display "transgressive" art. Despite the overwhelming popularity of the YBAs, and the contributions made by their notoriety to the fundraising and ultimate construction of the Tate Modern -- one can think of this museum as the House That Hirst Built, in a way, with the help of his cross-sectioned cow -- the institutionalization of transgression doesn't necessarily work, ever. After all, once the Bad Boy becomes property of the Crown, how can he call himself bad? And what next scandal will become the next blockbuster show? To be fair, the Tate Modern doesn't face this problem alone: An uneasy relationship among institutional power structures, money and artistic expression pervades Western cultures, as our most transgressive artists are often snatched up, claimed by the very powers that be those artists have dared to challenge.

So it wouldn't be fair either to single out Hirst as an undeserving success or to say that his work seems out of place here, even though he did perform enough of a public sulk to skip meeting the queen at the Tate Modern's christening. Notwithstanding Hirst's peevishness, the museum also doesn't know how to behave properly when it comes to misbehavior. For example, that a dozen or so of the most in-your-face assemblages are banished to a room called "Subversive Objects," where the walls are painted red, seems banal rather than humorous. This is not to accuse the gallery of prudishness: Many sexually confrontational works, mostly videos, can be found elsewhere. Instead, this is to call the silly remarkably silly.

In Turbine Hall, courtesy of a grant from a corporate sponsor, stand four enormous sculptures by Louise Bourgeois. One of the sculptures, "Maman," dominates the second-floor bridge across Turbine Hall, a 30-foot-high steel spider, her marble eggs visible. With a leg span of 32 feet, and a dramatic impact created by her enormity, "Maman" serves as a suitable introduction to the materials and complexity of the collection, as the first artwork one sees, in dialogue with the materials and complexity of the building. She is steel, "natural," human-made, burnished, appealing and overwhelming. And in the time I stood and watched, almost every nearby viewer was compelled to touch at least one of her legs.

The other three Bourgeois works consist of the installation "I Do, I Undo and I Redo," three 30-foot-high towers built of spiral staircases, steel and mirrors. The three towers are visible from the light boxes, as well as from the second-floor walkway -- a walkway connected outside to the new Millennium Bridge spanning the Thames from St. Paul's. (The Millennium Bridge, the first new bridge to be built in central London since 1894, both opened and closed on June 10, as a result of "undue swaying.")

This Bourgeois installation calls to mind guard towers and observatories both -- but not, I hasten to add, Auschwitz. Topped by their various enormous mirrors, the sculptures reflect and refract the viewer and the views. That each Bourgeois tower also contains sculpted figures in bell jars, three Piet`s of a sort, contributes significantly to the humanizing of the industrial material and to how the viewer identifies with the people seen altered in the mirror.

For those not by inclination fans of industrial spaces, or of the supermoderne, the Tate Modern could be a challenge aesthetically. But remember, the building was something before it became this, and the intelligence with which its transformation has occurred is extraordinary. Grand, stark and yet somehow fanciful, the refit power station has already entered into the public discourse as a P.R. story. But more important, it is my guess that the Tate Modern may well change the way we talk about art, as a good museum should, for how it calls into question the public and the private, the seen and the seeing, and for how necessary the viewer becomes in relation to the art, as a product of the architecture if not our new century.

By Alan Michael Parker

Alan Michael Parker is an essayist, novelist, poet, and squeaky wheel. He's the Douglas C. Houchens Professor of English at Davidson College, and he also teaches in the University of Tampa's low-residency M.F.A. Program. Follow him on Twitter @AMPoProse

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