On Tate Modern’s first ten years

There are times when art matters a lot to me, but also times when it hardly registers. Over the past few weeks, for obvious reasons, politics has engaged, entertained and enraged in a way that art has not. It turns out that the end of an era, when viewed in the right sort of light, trumps even a very good picture. Who knew?

Of course, there have been exceptions. The magisterial Paul Sandby show at the Royal Academy, the important Paul Nash exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the happy rediscovery of Rupert Lee (one of Nash’s less well known contemporaries) at Gallery 27 in Cork Street were each as distracting as art ever can be, although of course not without their own various penumbras of political content. Who, for instance, could glance at Rupert Lee’s hurried, inelegant yet startlingly honest sketch of a dead fellow soldier without reflecting that for us, as much as our Great War predecessors, this remains a forbidden image — that during an election campaign in particular, there are some truths about conflict judged a little too ripe for consumption by the voting public? And by the same token, who can view Paul Sandby’s cool evocations of well-ordered, civilised, richly productive landscapes, or for that matter his vicious attacks on Hogarth, without wondering at the distance that Britain has travelled in a mere two centuries when it comes to making political arguments by means of popular culture?

So perhaps the distinction between art and politics isn’t as firm as that first sentence might have implied. All of which brings us to another topical matter — Tate Modern’s tenth birthday. Can it really be right that a decade has passed since those days when the atmosphere in the Turbine Hall was all but literally electric with the buzz of novelty, controversy and Cool Britannia ambience?

Yet even to scan the guest list for the launch event is to embark on a nostalgic voyage into a world now all but lost to us — a youthful-looking Tony Blair, Chris Smith in triumphalist mode, Ken Livingstone, Neil Tennant, Jarvis Cocker, Damon Hill, Tracey Emin, even the late Alexander McQueen, alas — just as to remember those early visits is to recapture a sort of lost innocence, when it was still possible to walk across Carl Andre’s Steel Zinc Plane for the simple reason that no one had yet thought to tell people not to walk across it, when lunchtime conversation in that then rather glamorous upstairs restaurant revolved around the deficient conservatism of William Hague in his role as Tory Party leader, and when it had to be explained to me what a blog was. This is literally true, by the way. The date, for the record, was Friday 19 May. Our waitress was a well-meaning young woman of East European origins who was quickly reduced to tears by flaws in the catering arrangements. Lunch, however, when it finally arrived, was perfectly adequate. As we ate, stormclouds first gathered over south London, then exploded into an attractively furious storm, before clearing away equally quickly, leaving a blamelessly blue sky in their wake.

I include these stale historical details not in any assertion that they possess intrinsic interest — quite clearly, they don’t — but rather because, in a sense, despite their obvious banality, they are all nevertheless the stuff of which art institutions are made. Which is to say, whatever claims may be made in terms of architecture, permanent collections or curatorial culture, for habitual art-botherers as well as more casual visitors, art institutions invariably come to be viewed through the filter of all the experiences one has had within them — not all of which have much, at least in any direct way, to do with art itself.

Dulwich, for instance, is more than just that extraordinary mausoleum, shrine to John Soane’s architectural daring, those little ouroboroi basking in the gold-green midday light above the sarcophagi — more than its permanent collection, indisputably great though it is, that treasure-trove of Claude, Poussin, Rembrandt, Watteau et al undiluted by anything second-rate — more, even, than the commitment of director Ian Dejardin to stage serious monographic shows of the work of Britain’s better twentieth century artists, wonderful though this surely must be to all of us who care about British art.

For when one thinks of Dulwich, surely there is so much more than the sum of these parts? For one thing, there’s the pilgrimage required to reach Dulwich, at least for those of us who live in central London — the rail journey that always turns out to be more complicated than anticipated, those unfamiliar vistas of endless roofs and back gardens, good light industrial building and nasty council infill — and then the station itself, smelling of lilacs and diesel — and then the walk past the playing-fields, the sound of children shouting, the miscellaneous recollections of school-days, grass-stained sports kit, skiving off. There’s the cafe — part of the very elegant new extension — with its permanent staffage of happy infants, middle-class parents and an occasional glimpse of Lord Irvine, filling his companion’s glass, smiling benevolently upon the scene. It’s the accounting of minor changes, like a tree that used to stand in the lawn, now reduced to a stump, although admittedly a stump tall and capacious enough to provide fun scrambling-and-hiding opportunities for lively little boys. Most of all, though, it’s all the stray memories, too various and self-contradictory to justify mentioning here, pressing in uninvited at the mere mention of the place — perhaps chief amongst them, for reasons I’m unable to unpick, an evening visit to the Henry Moore show in May 2004 when I was pregnant with my son, walking past those curving cold bronze surfaces with my hand on my belly, reflecting as I did so that art changes as we do — or rather, art changes because we do. To me, then, Dulwich is all these things, the art embedded in the same matrix of memory as all the rest of it.

And so it is with Tate Modern. It need hardly be pointed out that Tate Modern is, alas, no Dulwich. Its Tate heritage had not endowed it with even a passable collection of modern and / or contemporary art. The building that houses it, while eye-catching enough to make an all-too-conscious play for the adjective ‘iconic’, at the same time isn’t a purpose-built gallery. It still seems to struggle with issues of lighting, loud floors and ugly ceilings. It’s located in a spot which, back in the mists of 2000 at least, felt rather out-of-the-way. The quite literally industrial scale of Tate Modern favours the bold and the brash at the expense of anything small, quiet or subtle. At the same time, its institutional relationship with Tate Britain and the National Gallery is as magnificently irrational, but also sadly far less successful in practice, as any of the many weird historical accretions of Britain’s unwritten constitution. Tate’s habit of buying work from its own trustees is dubious in the extreme, perhaps even illegal. Meanwhile the narratives of art history promulgated more or less explicitly by Sir Nicholas Serota and his team — not only in terms of acquisitions but in the selections from the permanent collection which are allowed to see the light of day, the way in which these are hung and interpreted, the choices of major exhibitions, the commissions, the high-profile events and carefully-staged controversies — well, for the most part these modish little tales, as teleological in their logic as they are inflexible in their prejudices, do British art no good at all.

No, all too often Tate Modern’s take on visual culture has been all about novelty, shock value, celebrity status, scan-and-move-on, headlines in the red-tops, unreadable exegesis-cum-advertising-copy from Freize-frequenting academics and the sort of critics who never actually criticise anything. Which is to say, Tate Modern is not really about art at all — it’s about all the things around art, like money, entertainment and fame. Or to put it in yet another way, I don’t really buy the line that Tate Modern somehow made stodgy, insular philistine old Britain love modern art. I think what Tate Modern did was to package modern art in such a thoroughly persuasive way that Britain quite rightly threw the toy itself aside and has been playing happily with the wrapping-paper ever since.

And it’s for that reason, aside from anything else, Tate Modern will always feel to me like exactly what it was at the start, back in May 2000 — a shrine of High Blairite pieties, Cool Britannia in some sort of endless cryonic suspension, New Labour made quite literally concrete and permanent. It’s there everywhere in the whole Tate Modern project — ‘in its DNA’, as the lazier hacks might put it — and likely to remain there for some time. It’s present the unabashed cronyism, the faint reek of financial impropriety, the slightly desperate need to demonstrate trendiness, the urgent recourse to conservatism when trendiness suffers its predictable failures (c.f. Tate Modern’s run of crowd-pleasing blockbusters, few of them remotely cutting-edge), the peculiarly insecure brand of assertive internationalism, the high-quality media management, the ruthlessness, the cynicism — and, up to a point at least, the popular success as well.

For Tate Modern is, in this limited sense, very good indeed at what it does, just as New Labour was, at least for a while, very good at doing what it did. Whether any of these things are worth doing is, of course, a rather different question. Yet today of all days — the day after New Labour ended at least this most recent chapter of its ongoing tragi-comic / magic-realist narrative, complete with walk-on reprise performances from Lord Mandelson and Alastair Campbell — there’s something poignant about the coincidence.

But all this risks sounds marginally more ungrateful than intended. Perhaps, then, I had better point out the obvious fact that I, like so many of my art-consuming confederates, have enjoyed some truly memorable experiences inside Tate Modern’s echoing immensity. Not least, some of those visiting exhibitions were really amazingly good, especially where the art on show actually suited the limitations of the building itself. Barnett Newman‘s big canvases, for instance, were given the space they needed in one very strong monographic show. The pale, milky, slightly grimy light somehow matched Luc Tuymans‘ palette. And although I didn’t review it at the time, the Albers / Moholy-Nagy exhibition was so marvellously eye-opening that three visits didn’t seem nearly enough. For all the shows that didn’t really work — the recent Rothko one, for instance, where an inept hang contrive to drain the Seagram murals of their dark magic — there were always some relatively worthwhile offerings, if not absolute triumphs, to compensate. And while even a less gappy strike-record probably wouldn’t justify the amount of public expenditure which has sloshed through the Turbine Hall over the past decade, the display of the permanent collect does, at least, serve some educational purpose, albeit one largely focussed on reminded us all how badly some very famous artists’ actual work accords with the hype appended to it.

But of course Tate Modern is more than just its exhibitions, architecture and permanent collection. It, too, is a place of memories. It’s been fun to wander its eccentrically-hung enfilades with friends and strangers, to watch my little son engaging with Rachael Whiteread’s Embankment for all the world as if navigating some slightly limited adventure-playground — not such a bad way to regard contemporary art, come to think of it — to discuss the flawed politics of the Futurists and the Rodchenko & Popova shows with commentators both immediate and virtual, to reflect that some of Donald Judd’s sculpture would make a rather striking shelf for CDs, to glare at my least favourite Richard Hamilton work in passing or, as far as that goes, to cast a loving glance upon a favourite Auerbach painting, even though Tate Modern’s light does its startling colours no favours whatsoever. But then I’ve also enjoyed spin-off visits to Marcus Campbell, the excellent art book shop in Tate Modern’s shadow, not least for the wealth of copies of Fuller-era Modern Painters that used to emerge occasionally from its bargain-bins. I’ve enjoyed walks along the river, alone or in company. And of course, as implied at the start of all this, I’ve enjoyed lunches, coffees, drinks in the members’ bar upstairs, raids on the bookshop — precisely that peripheral, low-brow, ‘accessible’ stuff at which all right-thinking people naturally sneer a bit, before going on to enjoy it all as much as everyone else. (Stephen Bayley tackles this paradox from a different angle in a rather good Times article, here.)

So while I struggle to get excited about the new acquisitions announced to coincide with Tate Modern’s birthday — and while I worry that the following might be trying slightly too hard, even by Tate PR department standards, with just the faintest whiff of ‘don’t feed the trolls’ about it —

Among [the new acquisitions] are an installation piece by Mahmoud Bakhshi Moakhar called Air Pollution of Iran 2004-06 and a scale model of an ancient north African city called Ghardaia made from cooked couscous by the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia

— is broad self-parody now a recognised art form? — all the same, I do so realising that my bemused and cynical semi-indifference in some sense misses the point.

The fact remains that Tate Modern has achieved remarkable success in its own terms — attracting crowds, attention, funding — precisely because it has not allowed itself to become too distracted by art, while at the same time proving itself to be very good at something else entirely — at providing a series of fun, unthreatening, slyly flattering experiences for its many and various visitors, not a few of whom pass through its doors only in order to eye each other up, to strike poses of hipness or dandyish obliviousness, to keep restless children entertained or to enjoy a slightly expensive latte while enjoying the view across the Millenium Bridge towards St. Paul’s cathedral. And having done at least some of these thing myself over the past ten years — art changes as we change — who am I to condemn them?

In short, then, that’s the verdict. Shallow, materialistic, frequently wrong-headed and faintly tawdry Tate Modern may be, but then that’s the period charm of the place. Indeed, if it makes it easier for you, don’t even think of it as a proper art museum — think of it as a time capsule. Think of it as an attractively fossilized form of what once claimed to be the future. Here in the real world it is May 2010, the Conservatives are back in Downing Street, the political landscape has been transformed by the logic of Lib-Con coalition, and New Labour now keeps itself busy licking its many suppurating wounds. In Tate Modern, though, at least for some of us, it will always be May 2000, Blair will always be PM, and the certainty will always persist that Things Can Only Get Better. And who knows? There may be moments in the months and years ahead when that long-lost age of innocence, corrupted with fibs though it was from the first, will take on a sort of bleak, nostalgic appeal — quite enjoyable, really, as long as we don’t stop to think how it all turned out in the end.

Happy birthday, then Tate Modern! Please don’t change a thing.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “On Tate Modern’s first ten years

  1. “I think what Tate Modern did was to package modern art with in such a thoroughly persuasive way that Britain quite rightly threw the toy itself aside and has been playing with the wrapping-paper ever since.”

    Nice… I think this could easily be applied to many contemporary venues.
    By the way , nice Auerbach ~ I’m particularly fond of his landscapes & for some reason I’ve yet to figure out, he seems to run rather low on the radar here in the US.

  2. Excellent writing!

    The most telling sentence in your post is “its institutional relationship with Tate Britain and the National Gallery is as magnificently irrational, but also sadly far less successful in practice, than any of the many weird etc”. I think that was inevitable.. and always was, when galleries split and reallocate their treasures. Piddling on the boundaries, to mark sacred territory, never works.

    And I agree that the Albers / Moholy-Nagy exhibition was super.

    But I want to come back to something you said, almost in passing. “Rupert Lee’s hurried, inelegant yet startlingly honest sketch of a dead fellow soldier without reflecting that for us, as much as our Great War predecessors, this remains a forbidden image”. Even if Lee’s works were not specifically commissioned, they still would have been subject to moral or formal censorship. So who made the decisions about which works to show immediately after the war ended? And who makes the decisions now?

  3. Mark, I think Auerbach suffers in the publicity stakes from being ‘just’ a painter — not even someone who paints celebrities, as Freud sometimes does — here as well as in the US. Also, his work doesn’t reproduce very well. But those early building site paintings are astonishing. There was a fascinating show of them at the Courtauld earlier this year. Anyway, I am glad you like his work too.

    And thanks, Hels, for the kind comment. There’s a lot to be said on the subject of displaying images of very obviously dead soldiers, both in wartime and immediately afterwards — too much, really, for this morning. Lee wasn’t an official war artist, and I should really consult the very good book that accompanied the show before trying to figure out how that particular image came about, how it was shown and what motivated Lee. Of course some artists created very strong pictures of dead soldiers — think of Orpen’s terrible image of dead German troops in a trench — which still have the power to distress us even now.

    The point I was really trying to make, though — in some haste, alas, which is perhaps why I didn’t make it very clearly! — relates to the recent election here in the UK, where frontline media coverage of the Afghan conflict seems to have been banned by the government — apart, of course, from the announcement of deaths in conflict. We don’t, of course, see pictures of our own dead soldiers, and there are good reasons for that. But for what it’s worth, I do think that there was something terribly wrong with the lack of debate amongst the main parties on a subject of such significance, and something wrong in the assumption that if we somehow ignore this problem, it will go away. It won’t, nor will the casualties cease, just because we’re too polite to depict them or to describe the circumstances in which they took place.

  4. The stroll from the number 56 bus stop at St Paul’s station through Paternoster Square, around the Cathedral, and across the wobbly bridge to Bankside is probably my favourite London walk. That it occasionally culminates in a wander around some galleries is often a pleasant bonus but isn’t really the point. You’ve expressed precisely, subtly and insightfully why this is so. It’s a huge pleasure to read such fine writing.

  5. Thanks, Gareth — what a really kind thing to write.

    For what it’s worth, I love the area around St. Paul’s, too. One of the great incentives to walk back from Tate Modern to Soho is the opportunity to get pleasantly lost in those confusing little streets just south west of the cathedral, where there’s something discernably medieval, or perhaps even older, about the layout of the streets themselves, if not the actual buildings — happy evidence of something substantial and enduring, particularly on those occasions where Tate Modern’s offerings have felt a bit thin.