Sunday, January 04, 2004

London - Jan 3 - Tate Modern

Bounced back after a good night's sleep: takes more than an overgrown calamari to do me in. And it hasn't soured Barcelona at all. Washing in the morning. Wander back from Monument tube stop along the Thames (overshot, but who cares when the way back is from Hooke's Monument after the Fire of London, along the river) to Millenium bridge and Tate Modern.
TM is in a former power station and the entrance is truly stunning: the former turbine hall (complete with overhead gantry crane) has been left empty, but a huge lit-up sun abstract is at the eastern end, and the ceiling is mirrored. There's a small mezzanine for viewing. People lie on the floor (in the 'sun'), make shapes, watch themselves in the roof, watch other people, take pictures pointing at the sun (which guarantees a Big Yellow Thing type photo unless you can control the camera exposure, which we can, thanks Nikon). It's a living work of art, just wonderful in conception, and constantly changing as the crowds come and go. A nice little tail-piece - a couple make as if they're pedalling a tandem, lying on their sides, watching themselves in the roof. A better introduction to abstract and kinetic art could not be had.
TM starts off very well - early 20th Century beginnings including one where I say to M - 'looks like that guy had seen a lot of Monet' - and it's a Monet!. Dali, Picasso (not much or interesting), some Tanguy, Ernst, Man Ray. Great kinetic art too - this sort of stuff just has to work. Then it gets a little silly (Man Ray again, someone who does heating vents, a flat-sided car). The crowds (TM is free, so lots of people of all sorts, knowledge and ages come) give some guide. Works that show (as I always look for) clear evidence of technical skill and familiarity with the materials attract people at least long enough to read the labels. A very popular work is a traditional musuem cabinet with opening exhibit drawers and display shelves, full of artefacts removed from two digs in the Thames outside the two Tates: South Bank (where we are) and Millbank (Tate British). There's everything from human bones to plastic Coke caps and AA cards. The installation runs to the head digger's overalls, boots and coat. People just love this stuff. There's drawer opening and closing, circling around and coming back, and the merest nod to 'Modernism' in that the artefacts are not arranged in a conventional way (no chronology or explanation - more by shape and size than anything). But it's capital A Accessible.
Which is more than can be said about some of the rest. The reaction of people en masse can't be mistaken for knowledgeable criticism, but it is noticeable that the circulation through is very fast, and the benches (except for that in front of a Pollock, for some reason) are not occupied by art lovers but, if at all, by parents and other fractious walkers who have just taken a few steps too far into the wrong part of town.
There are three main schools of art in this part of TM:
Hurl and Hope (Pollock),
Tray and Roller (Rothko) and
Squat and Push (we didn't stop to read the labels about which artist but they certainly had a good feed beforehand).
My Barcelona productions, framed, would have won prizes in two of the three categories I have devised. It is entirely understandable that artists of all sorts need to differentiate themselves, go against the perceived 'order of things' and generally challenge the senses. But when the effect (a Tray and Roller school piece) is a 2x3m solid red canvas, and the work has to stand on it's own against a lot of others, there is no context anymore, and the technical skill is certainly not evident. Most people can think of a partly stripped wall in a spare room that looks like some of these pieces. So they think to themselves, stuff this, there's bound to be something I can relate to further on, and just keep going.
Most of the works are too recent (this century) for real judgement to occur, but I feel history will quietly discard some of these pieces. Or the cleaners will make a dreadful mistake. Or, in the case of the heating vent 'artist', some hapless local heat/ventilation/air con (HVAC) engineering firm, summoned to attend to a malfunctioning plant unit in the vicinty, will take the thing away entirely. 'There's yer problem, guv'nor - thermostat's gawn'. Tee hee.
TM is of course well worth seeing for the sun, the art and the silliness. How else to figure it all out? It's only when things go way too far that a sense of where the middle lies, and what constitutes skill worth supporting, can evolve.

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