The New Tate Modern opens

Why a post on the New Tate Modern? (It opens this weekend – I went to a preview.) In a Zenpolitics blog?

In one sentence. The New Tate Modern is international, diverse, a little bit crazy, inclusive, outward-looking, subverting, fun – and free.

The Tate is a big big institution, and has its downsides. Not least that it’s tied in with the international art market, and its absurdities and over-valuations. But at a time when we’re busy looking inward and being nostalgic for an old order it’s great to see London flying the flag for a different more positive, more optimistic take on the world.

**

The entrance is round the back. Not where I expect. Up a broad flight of stairs, to the second floor…

Tony Cragg’s Stack – a stack of material from everyday life-  instantly catches the eye. Its crushed content intrigues. Louise Bourgeois’s vitrines enclose a private tactile world, with connections to her own and other lives, and her paintings lining the walls are bright ribbons of colour.

Helio Oiticica’s reconstruction of a Rio de Janeiro favela (without the macaws on the day I was there) is colourful and curiously quaint. Ana Lupas’s wreaths began as straw, inspired by the Romanian countryside, they’re now encased in metal, and there’s a photographic record around the walls: it’s a 50-year project, and age gives it resonance.

The sheer variety of exhibits in the new Switch House is impressive. They need space, space so we can walk around exhibits, as in the case of Tony Cragg’s stack, or Louise Bourgeois’ spider, or simply because of their size, or because they need room to breathe. Few galleries on earth have this amount of space, and none in big cities, unless MOMA in New York has something planned. Normally in galleries you hug the walls. But the Switch House is not about painting or specifically wall-hung art. Walls are just one mode of presentation. Roni Horn’s block of pink glass sits in the middle of the floor, a line drawn discreetly around it. It may be visual but it seems it’s not intended to be tactile. Carl Andre’s bricks re-appear, and Rachel Whiteread has the underside of a wooden floor – the underside.

Where it gets more claustrophobic is one floor up, the space is called “Performer and Participant’. Tropicalia greets you immediately, and Ana Lupas. Women and Work is a collective exhibit examining just that – women and work. They intrigue. They ask questions. They subvert our ordinary ways of looking at things. They’re out of context – they create new contexts. Tropicalia includes simple evocative poems, wall-hung, and Women and Work displays the daily working life schedules of a number of very ordinary men and women.

The question is – where does this take us? To Brazil, to Romania… But does it really take us somewhere different, somewhere unusual, does it help us question our lives or environment? Is it just easy gratification, fun spaces, history lessons? Conceptual art does of course have a conceptual base, and often that’s one simple idea painstakingly worked out, sometimes over decades. It is art as project, rather than art as aesthetics.

There haven’t as yet been many reviews of the New Tate Modern. One, in the FT, is lyrical. It’s a game-changer – ‘the most cohesive narrative in any public institution so far of the paradigm shift since the 1960s, when minimalists, conceptualists and performance artists ditched expressiveness and set out to move audiences physically rather than emotionally.’ That is quite a statement.  ‘Move audiences physically rather than emotionally.’ And she, the reviewer (Jackie Wullschlager), is right – there is little emotion here in the New Tate Modern. A tinge of fear in a room full of Louise Bourgeois items, though the little boy sitting under the spider and having his photograph taken rather softened any apprehension we might feel! Bourgeois’ colourful ribbon paintings also elicit an emotional response. And that’s one reason maybe why she stands out. She’d been around too long: she subverted this divide between the emotional and the physical.

But otherwise – we walk through, we enquire, we even stand inside an exhibit, we have our notions of space and colour and presence challenged.

And it’s mostly a pleasant experience. Oak floors as yet unstained by use, and natural lighting often complementing the gallery lights.  From the bridge (between the Boiler House, the old Tate Modern, and the Switch House, the new) you can look down on Al Weiwei’s skeleton tree, and it has an eerie presence.

But emotion is limited to frissons of disturbance. Pleasure as a response to be encouraged is disavowed. And so too is art as an aesthetic experience. It depends on how we define aesthetics of course. But if the definition is ‘relating to pure beauty rather than to other considerations’, then it’s certainly not about aesthetics.

But then is art – should art be – about aesthetics? Once upon a time it was, but that definition has been smashed and subverted. Art is now best defined as an original and challenging interpretation of our environment – making the ordinary extraordinary – undermining conventional approaches – playing a little but not too much with the psyche – getting into our minds. And by and large we’re OK with that. We enjoy this different take on the world. And if we want aesthetics we can go to the Tate Britain. Or to displays from earlier 20th century periods in the other Boiler House section of the Tate Modern. There’s beauty, even spiritual content, in Mark Rothko. Max Ernst and Salvador Dali are pleasing on the eye as well as searching out a deeper response. Picasso transforms the vision of Cezanne: it’s a radical but still an aesthetic response.

The FT review quotes Richard Morphet as saying in 1976 that  ‘Carl Andre’s [bricks[ will in time be generally accepted as among the most important art of its period’. In a sense he’s right. That sensibility, or intentional lack of sensibility, has established itself. Nicholas Serota has championed it, and his vision has won through. Whether I’m on side with it – I keep an open mind. But am I intrigued? Do I want to visit the Tate Modern? Am I moved to write about it all? Yes, I clearly am. And that speaks volumes.

One final point, back to the FT article. The New Tate Modern as a ‘game-changer’. ‘For an economically divided London it is a huge, important statement about inclusiveness and connectivity. In a cultural climate threatened by the nostalgic insularity of Brexit, it displays art radically, putting geography [artists are drawn from across the world – this is no best of British display – no kowtowing to Britart] before history, space before time.’

And, as she says, in a world of wildly inflated values  – it’s free.

It’s also fun. You’re free to enthuse or disdain. We walk through quietly but we’re not constrained by hush. And you can take photos. There is nothing precious here.

So almost three cheers. And oh yes – there’s the view London 360 degree from the top…

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