Tourist Stuff: The Tate Modern

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bad but unrepentant blogger – another two week gap between posts.  This time my excuse was an eight day visit from my sister and brother-in-law which was most excellent, but the visit on top of the full time job left little time for blogging.  So mea culpa once again, and let’s just move on.

We had another Bank Holiday Monday recently, which caused me to recall a holiday not so long ago when I tweeted about being ever-so-slightly bored and got a quick response from JT in Toronto requesting that I take my bored self down to the Tate Modern for him and report back.  On the day in question I seem to recall frittering away my time uselessly, but when another Bank Holiday came up I decided I needed to make plans.  I think you all know how it goes – you live somewhere and somehow you never end up going to see the stuff that’s right on your doorstep.  This is as true for Winnipeg as it is for London, it’s just that in London the stuff that you’re missing is on a sort of blockbuster scale.  Like St. Paul’s Cathedral?  Haven’t managed that yet.  Nor have I visited the Natural History Museum or Hampton Court Palace or Kew Gardens or blah blah blah.  I’ve been trying to be conscious of this trap, and I think (despite the list above) that I’ve made a greater effort than most Londoners.  So, determined to have a go at another one on the list, I hopped onto the trusty #59 bus for a trip down to the South Bank. (Note here the term South Bank is capitalized since I’m not referring to just anywhere on the southern side of the River Thames, but in fact to the area called South Bank, which, not surprisingly, is on the south bank of the river, roughly between Westminster Bridge and London Bridge.)

The Tate Modern is a modern art gallery located in the aforementioned South Bank area, right across the river from St. Paul’s Cathedral.  It’s housed in the old Bankside Power Station, which was closed in 1981.  The conversion of the building into a gallery started in 1996 and the finished building was opened in 2000.  It is, according to Wikipedia, the most visited modern art gallery in the world, which surprised me until I realized this is likely due to the fact that, like so many of the great museums and galleries in London, admission to the Tate is free.  Well, most of it is free.  There are special exhibitions for which admission is charged, but if you just want to walk in and have a look at the permanent collection it’s completely free.  As is the British Museum and the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert and on and on and on.  By contrast, the Museum of Modern Art in New York costs $20 to enter, so I guess it’s no wonder the Tate trumps MoMA’s admission stats.

So there really was no reason for me NOT to spend a sunny late morning walking along the Thames taking in the sights and wending my way to the gallery, which is exactly what I did.  The Tate’s permanent collection is displayed in four main areas and grouped into sort of themed areas - “Material Gestures”, “Poetry and Dream”, “Energy and Process”, and “States of Flux”.  Whatever.  I found these titles confusing and really unbearably arty, but I suppose they can be forgiven for the artiness part because, well, you know.  In any case, I selected the “Poetry and Dream” gallery, which is dedicated to Surrealism, and had a look around.
Some of you migrants from Go See Run Eat Drink might remember I have a little game I play in art galleries – something to help me pay a bit more attention to what I’m looking at.  The game, as explained in a post about my visit to the Museé D’Orsay, is this:
I like to wander around and think about what piece I would take home with me if the management of the Musée were to approach and say something like, “Madame, you are clearly not an average tourist, as evidenced by the fact that you have lingered for more than 4.2 seconds in front of this painting. Thank you also for not simply approaching, reading the tag, taking a digital photo of yourself with the painting, and then moving on to repeat this process with each piece in the room. Please, it would give us great pleasure to present you with a small memento of your visit. Perhaps this Monet? Mais non, we insist.”
The Surrealists, however, mostly defeated me.  Perhaps I was just not in the mood, but I struggled to really connect with anything.  In the end I found this one quite interesting, so I earmarked it as a finalist in the Gallery Game:

A Symposium “A Symposium” by Julian Trevelyan (1910-1988) 

And then what did I do? I left.  I’d been there for an hour at most, and I just wanted a break.  This is perhaps the most delicious thing about the combination of Living in London + Free Admission.  I felt no compulsion to see it all in one afternoon, unlike when I was traveling and knew that the next day I might well be on another continent.  It was really civilized. (Apologies JT, if this is simply rubbing salt into the wound…)  So I wandered a bit further along the riverbank and stopped at a café and had a nice café au lait and a pain raisin and I sat and worked on the crossword.

P1080095Thus fortified, I decided to give the Tate another go.  This time I opted for the “Energy and Process” gallery, which turned out to be just excellent. The gallery focused on the Arte Povera style of modern art, which I can’t possibly be bothered to explain here.  (If you’re actually interested, here’s the Wikipedia link.)  In any case, those Arte Povera types did some really interesting stuff, largely in the way of big interesting sculpture / installation sort of things, many of which were made from found materials.  I liked a lot of them, including this one called “Tree of 12 Metres” by Giuseppe Penone.  It started life as a tree which was felled and sawn into a big square chunk of timber.  Then Giuseppe came along and used chisels to remove the squared off bits and find the tree shape that was still inside.  This photo only shows part of one sculpture, but there were two, and, as the title suggest, they were up to about 12 metres high. I thought is was really clever.

There was also a video installation by Igor and Svetlana Kopystiansky which I found utterly mesmerizing. Filmed over a two year period in Manhattan, it “traces the almost balletic movements of discarded remnants from an urban consumer culture.  Projected on a large scale, these seemingly random and insignificant materials are transformed, taking on momentary sculptural or architectural quality before they move fleetingly out of the frame.”  In other words, it was a 15 minute movie of garbage blowing around on city streets.  It’s hard to describe, but it was charming and funny and I have to tell you that watching an empty foam clamshell that once held a double cheeseburger skitter around on the pavement is oddly absorbing.  I watched the whole thing and I think there were moments when I laughed out loud.

But I think the piece liked most that day was “Staircase III” by Do Ho Suh, also in the "Energy and Process” gallery. I took several photos of it (all up at the Flickr account) but I must have been so taken with it that I forgot to write down any details.  Luckily, the internet is all-knowing and all I had to do was Google “red stairs tate modern” to be led to this excellent video of the piece at the Tate’s own website.  How cool is this?

Sadly, the people at the Tate did not offer to let me take “Staircase III” home, which is probably just as well, because even if Do Ho Suh made a specially dimensioned ceiling for the installation, it would still be somewhat challenging to live with the piece in a room that’s a mere 12’ x 13’.

Finally I have to mention one piece that I didn’t get to see at the Tate, but the story of the which is too fascinating not to pass on. The largest exhibition space at the Tate is the Turbine Hall, which I presume once housed the turbines of the old power plant.  It’s an enormous room - five stories high with more than 36,000 square feet of floor space.  It’s used to display specially commissioned work, and the piece that was on display last fall was one called   “Sunflower Seeds”, by Ai Weiwei.  The work got a lot of media attention, and rightfully so, since it consisted of approximately 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, each of which was painted by hand. 

Sunflower Seeds
The seeds filled the entire Turbine Hall to a depth of a about three or four inches and at first, gallery-goers were able to walk around on the seeds.  You could feel them crunch under the feet and dig your hands down into them.  Then, after just 48 hours, the Elfin Safety Police descended declaring that the fine porcelain dust produced when the seeds broke “could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time.”  And the wankers closed down access to the exhibition, allowing viewing only from the side or from the gallery one floor up.  Thus, a work of art made up of things smaller than your fingernail could only be viewed from twenty feet away.  I tell you, it’s ‘ealth and safety gone mad.

I missed it because I was too lazy to travel the 45 minutes down to the gallery last October during the two days while it was possible to actually interact with the piece.  (In my defense it seemed like there was no rush, since the seeds were scheduled to be there until April.) However, there is an excellent video on a permanent loop in a viewing area near the Turbine Hall about the process of making all those sunflower seeds.  It’s a fascinating film, showing how the raw materials were mined and refined in the traditional way in China.  There are great shots of the enormous kilns used to fire the seeds.  And it shows the small workshops in the city of Jingdezhen where hundreds of local women sat hunched over work tables for months (or possibly years) painting each sunflower seed individually.  It’s a lovely little film. 

Sadly, the reason that it’s still being shown is as part of a protest by the Tate.  This is because “On April 3, internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was detained at the Beijing airport while en route to Hong Kong, and his papers and computers were seized from his studio compound. Ai’s whereabouts remain unknown and due process under Chinese law has been denied him.”  The Tate, along with other major galleries around the world have launched an online petition calling for his release.  Details on the petition are here.

And that was my afternoon at the Tate Modern: a little Surrealism, and little coffee break, a little sculpture and a little protest politics.  All for free, except for the coffee and pastry, which was £3.34.  And that’s a bargain no matter how you slice it.


jst1203 said...

Thanks a million Pam! I hope all is well. We should skype soon.

Colleen said...

Hey Pam,
I visited the Tate in 2000 with a woman who was really an afficionado of modern art. As I shook my head in confused dismay at one video/performance piece and said something like "Can you make anything out of this??!?" she proceeded to provide me with a rather lengthy and convoluted (to me) interpretation of the artist's intent and message. Alas, as I left, I was still confused by many of the pieces but really enjoyed a giant spider sculpture. Glad to hear you are taking some time to explore the city and the wide range of experiences it provides. Hugs, ck

Lisa said...

Update* Ai Weiwei was released from prison yesterday but is under a gag order...and "refused" (was prevented?) to speak to media.

Baby steps I suppose.

Great new blog - I enjoy following!

Robert Hamilton said...

Count your blessings that you are currently living in a city that has such World-Class Art and other cultural possibilities. When I see such things it makes me feel all too keenly how provincial a town I live in. Enjoy it while you can.

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