Tate Modern, made in (Tate) Britain

Tate Modern, made in (Tate) Britain

By Nina Zivancevic




What to say about a colossal art project which opened in 2000 housing 48 galleries devoted to the display of its permanent Collection? That it possesses numerous works of art which its mother-house, Tate Britain could not house any longer? That it hides in its vast basement a ghastly amount of art work which will never see the light of day due to an endless number of objects that are already scheduled to be displayed in there through the year 4000? And that in this particular respect it resembles madly the awesome temples of contemporary art such as New York’s MOMA and French Center Georges Pompidou?

However, as the Tate Modern, nested along the Waterloo’s riverside area, opened its doors to the Londoners and the international public not so long ago (in 2000) ago, surprisingly, and in May 2006 it decided to make a major amendment and rehang its permanent Collection around an entirely new concept. The rehang which features four wings (on levels 3 and 5 ) was generously backed by the UBS, British banking investors who enabled their visitors –unlike those who visit Center Pompidou or MOMA- to see the great works of the 20th century art history for free! The four wings correspond to the four periods in history associated with Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism; Surrealism and Surrealist tendencies; Abstract Expressionism and European Informal Art; and Minimalism. Around these focal points a range of displays move backwards and forwards in time, exploring how these movements echo a continuous dialogue between contemporary art and the past. There is an introductory room for each suite bringing together a striking pairing of major works by two artists with different artistic outlooks and from different generations.

The new display also includes a special showing drawn from the UBS Art Collection counting in the specific genres that were not well represented in the Tate Collection- last year, for instance, the show was drawn from their photography stock and this year we are offered a view of their rare drawings collection.

Around 40% of the works in the new display have never been shown at Tate Modern before including such luminary icons such as Lichtenstein’s Whaam! or important pieces by painter Picabia and sculptor Kapoor. Some 20% of works on display are brand new acquisitions by the most recent avantguard representatives such as the Guerrilla Girls or Christian Marclay. In addition, Tate Modern has included in its programme additional events and displays which take their inspiration from both the permanent Collection and the temporary one (located on level 4). The first of these events to celebrate the rehang, took place in 2006- it was a four day festival “The Long Weekend”; and in 2007/2008 there are other major live events scheduled as bi-monthly live performances (as the ones of Cai Guo-Quiang, DV8 and Merce Cunningham) As displays also focus on education and interpretation family initiatives, they allow for the performance of the events to be carried out in dedicated family space, as well as on the public concourses and computers linked to Tate’s online art database.

There are numerous important conferences and symposia related to the temporary shows which are exhibited on the level 2(in Starr Auditorium); among their highlights worth mentioning is the talk on David Smith in the series “Abstraction Across Media”(January 2007) and Sean Rainbird’s lecture on Kandinsky’s works which he himself curated at Tate in summer 2006. Among the most significant travelling exhibitions which have recently taken place at Tate Modern one can count in Wassily Kandinsky’s last year’s show. The Russian artist, who was one of the most significant artists of the 20th century was also considered as a pioneer in the development of a new visual language which is abstraction. The show “Kandinsky:Path to Abstraction” mainly focused on the early, exploratory period of his career when he was moving from mere observations of landscape towards the full abstract compositions. The show could serve as an example in good curatorial taste as it showed special caring for a compilation of the artist’s very beautiful, but at the same time very symbolic and above all, difficult to interpret, work. After Kandinsky’s show was over, the museum organised in collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation the big retrospective of David Smith’s work. Widely regarded as the greatest American sculptor of his generation, David Smith created some of the most memorable work in the twentieth century. Characterised by the use of the industrial materials, especially welded iron and steel, and the exploration of an open, linear structure, his work revolutionised the art of sculpture in the United States and elsewhere.

It is worth noticing that the so called travelling or temporary exhibitions which perfectly define the conceptual direction of the museum, always get their original initiative from the most exemplary work displayed in the permanent collection. So, what are the most recent trends in the Tate Modern curatorial policy and what are the possible tendencies in art to take shape in their future shows? “Learn to Read” is the latest exhibition in the Level 2 Gallery series which forecasts themes and trends in international contemporary art. This dense and visually diverse display brings together works by 29 artists which play with text, erasure and miscommunication resulting in the works which remind us of the legacy of early Dada, late Fluxus and conceptual art in general. The display from the UBS Art Collection in the Level 3 encourages the visitors to enlarge their experience of drawing. A vast collection of more than 40 drawings examines this medium thoroughly, both as a personal expression of famous artists and their primary exploration material. The display also includes the highlights of some of the best contemporary American artists such as Chuck Close (his unforgettable self-portrait evoking c lose resemblance with Allen Ginsberg!)and Robert Rauschenberg. We mentioned that the permanent Collection consists of four wings located in the Levels 3 and 5 and that at the heart of each wing is a central part offering an in-depth exploration of key periods in the development of modern art. The wing “Material Gestures” implies the spirit of action and gesture that are characteristic of the Futurists and the Expressionists whose work, created in the 1940s and 1950s, is to be found in this section. It opens into Boccioni’s futurist sculpture and is dominated by the works of abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana and Clyfford Still, along with the most recent acquisitions of Rothko’s immense and quiet “Seagram Murals”, of Guillermo’s Kuitca’s work (“Untitled”) and Douglas Gordon’s short video work (“10ms-1”) from the 1990s. The second wing in this level entitled “Poetry and Dream” is exclusively devoted to the Surrealist movement. Some of the movement’s most important works, including Max Ernst’s “Celebes”(1921) and Joan Miro’s “Painting” are to be found in its central hub. This section, as to its form and content, pays an excellent tribute to the Surrealist movement as no museum or gallery in France does – thus the proverb “familiarity breeds contempt”. As it examines the surrealist revolution in art with all its critical echoes in music , film, literature and theory, the Tate’s display takes a serious approach to this, perhaps the most subversive art movement in the 20th century. However, one gets the impression that the zealous curators of this display often have a tendency to overdo it as their choice of the surrealist works of art overfeed the visitor with the visual information; their choice of objects on display is admirable but as they are placed so tightly together, this sort of art work carpeting of the section’s interior creates a counterproductive effect. The wing named “Idea and Object” in Level 5 focuses on the development of the Minimalist movement during the 1960s. It includes some of the movement's most exemplary works such as Donald Judd's multi-dimensional objects, alongside with the pieces by Carl Andre. There are new acquisitions which put Ellsworth Kelly's work in new prospective as well as the recent work of Christina Iglesias.

Works which acted as precursors to Minimalism can also be seen in this level, as well as certain pieces which attest to the development to the Minimalist aesthetics and ideology. The wing opposite to this one is devoted to the “States of Flux” which explore the historic movements such as Cubism, Vorticism and Futurism. These movements which are often linked if not jumbled together in French museums are exemplified here mainly by the works of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger and Giacomo Balla. Among the younger artists who have already become classics we can observe the respective presences of Gerhard Richter, Jonas Mekas -with his imaginative documentaries of the New Yorkers- and Steve McQueen. There is an additional series of the original music tracks that go together with the visual pieces, as well as the artists' commentaries and archive recordings made by the leading cultural figures- all contained in the museum's so called Multimedia Tour.

It is worth noticing that all the entrances to these displays are free or if there is a suggested concession it is fairly minimal, up to £1 or £2 which is quite unusual for a European museum of that size and scope.

The famous temporary Level 4 which houses special shows curated for the occasion – and which implies a certain entrance fee- presents us with two different shows this season, Salvador Dali's work related to film and entitled “Dali and Film”, and the work of a contemporary Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica under the working title “The Body of Color”. Salvador Dali (1904-89) is one of the most controversial artists of the 20th century- accused from the Surrealists that he was not imaginative enough to join their crowd, often he was also criticised by other artists and art critics that he was too commercial to be truly artistic. One field where his commercial taste for self-promotion met true art was the seventh art, that is, film, thus this particular show at Tate pays homage to that particular aspect of Dali's work- his attachment to cinema. The show brings together more than 100 works by Dali, including major paintings, photographs, drawings and films in order to explore the central role of cinema in his work. The exhibition also displays collaborations between Dali and legtendary filmmakers and producers such as Bunuel, Disney, Hitchcock and the Marx Brothers including the entire screenings of his early films made with the poet Lorca and Bunuel such as “The Andalusian Dog”(1929) and the “Golden Age”(1930). The symbolic imagery that Dali established in these films as a sort of his own painterly idiosyncratic language had served him throughout lifetime and became his own personal branding and landmark. Dali explored human psychology and his own obsessions in all modes of his practise- the ants that pour out of human body, the dismembered hands, the melting clocks and ancient statues- we find them all in his “Le chien andalou” and then in a repetative manner in all of his paintings. His critique of religions , of a small middle-class life and manners and his love for a Spanish landscape and its peasants are visible both in his and Bunuel's film “L'age d'or” and in all of his early paintings. Very much like in Tadeus Kantor, Roman Polanski or Julian Beck, Salvador Dali saw theater and cinema as the extended painting medium where the so called paintings follow one another with an unprecedented speed but with live actors and settings that change quickly. Film was a major passion throughout Dali's career as he was one of the first artists for whom film was a key influence as well as a creative outlet. It is true though that sometimes he was too creative for Hollywood studios and their standards- Disney studios suppressed the animation “Destino” for which Dali had written the script- his images were simply too wild for Disney's spectators! Fortunately, the 12 minute animation has been restored successfully and is shown in Tate in its integrity. However, Hitchcock had well understood the fact that Dali's motifs had already formed part of our collective imagination so he invited the artist to design a dream sequence for his film “Spellbound” as early as 1945. It is a sequence only 2 minutes long but it has all of Dali in it- his shadows, his chess-tables and his dreamlike atmosphere as a part of a real dream or an imagined psychological nightmare. It is interesting to know that he was also quite a talented scriptwriter, very prolific indeed, but very few of his scenarios were ever realised as the entire process of film-making often eluded him. This particularly clarifying show is at Tate Modern through September 3, 2007.


Nina Zivancevic