Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Part of my afternoon yesterday

In the comments of the previous post, Cecile Dubois was kind enough to ask me what I was doing to celebrate my birthday. As I answered there, the answer was basically that I met up with a friend and pottered around the South Bank of the Thames and then part of the City of London. My friend wanted to visit the Tate Modern art gallery, because she had heard that the present display in the turbine room was worth going to see.

Traditionally, the Tate Gallery has been the second art gallery you go to after the National Gallery. It's traditional specialties were both British art and modern art. In practice, modern art was not held in high regard in Britain for much of the last century, and although the Tate's collection of British art was (and is) marvellous, the modern art collection was at best patchy. However, it was decided a few years ago that London needed a big museum devoted to modern art, and with some lottery money the Tate got new premises on South Bank. The existing building at Millbank near Pimlico became Tate Britain, and the new museum became Tate Modern. (The Tate Museum has in recent years also been opening branches in other parts of the UK: one in Liverpool and one in St Ives in Cornwall). The really interesting thing about it was the building chosen for redevelopment was the Bankside Power Station - a disused (coal fired) power station on the South Bank of the Thames, just across the river from St Paul's Cathedral. This was and is a rather brutal structure, but it has the advantage for a modern art museum of being utterly enormous, although I can only find a tiny photo. (Photo © London Tourist Board).

It also has the advantage of being extremely central. The south bank of the Thames was once held in disrepute, so the power station was built just a few hundred yards from St Paul's Cathedral. To connect the two once the power station was converted into an art gallery, a footbridge was all that was needed. So they built one. (The footbridge has another story that I have written about before).

The front section of the building consists of half a dozen different levels filled with modern museum galleries, and the other associated things that go with them in a modern museum, including several restaurants, cafeterias, cafes and bars. If Brian Micklethwait is right that the major purpose of modern art museums is to provide places where middle class intellectually minded people people can look at a couple of paintings and sit down in a nice cafe and have a cup of coffee while they feel cultured, this museum functions very well. (In fact the locations of the relative facilities have been rearranged since it opened. I don't think this was admitted, but the take away cafeteria, which was initially placed on the top floor with the best view, was simply too popular. People would buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee and then sit at tables, on the floor, next to the window, or almost anywhere where they could watch one of the best views in London, and it was always extremely crowded. I think you now have to pay more money to eat with the best view).

But the back of the building is one enormous empty space, the turbine room. This must be the largest single room in any art gallery anywhere. In particular, the ceiling is vastly higher than it would be in any purpose built gallery. The main way of entering the gallery is through this room, and it can also be seen through glass windows from the back of each of the more conventional gallery levels.

However, the size of this room is good, because modern art can at times require large spaces, and there is a lot that can be done with them. When I visited the Bilbao Guggenheim earlier this year, the brochure they handed out that talked about the architecture mentioned this a lot. The Bilbao Guggenheim has one very big gallery on the ground floor that stretches under a nearby bridge and has a high section on the other side of the bridge, but nothing on the scale of the turbine room at Tate Modern.

The curators of the museum have changed the content of the turbine room a few times since the museum opened. Often these have been such things as giant spider like sculptures with ladders and observation decks that can be climbed. At the moment, however, the turbine room is devoted to something called "The Weather Project" by Olafur Eliasson. I will not bother with the discussion of its symbolic importance on the accompanying brochure, but essentially a large artificial sun has been installed on the wall. This has been done with a very monochromatic yellow light, so that everything in the room appears this one shade of yellow. The room is also partially filled with artificial fog, and the ceiling has been replaced with a giant mirror. There is a section at the far end from the entrance where people can sit on the floor and with the reflection on the ceiling it has the look of people sitting on a beach.

I am not sure what this symbolises, but it is certainly the sort of exhibition you walk into and say "cool". It probably doesn't require any more than five minutes of your time, but those five minutes are a pretty cool five minutes. It also demonstates the effect that weather and climate and light has on mood. You walk in from the grey English winter, and it is something different.

Make a point of looking at the reflections on the ceiling at the top of the photo.

So how old do you think I look?

It's interesting that different digital cameras behave quite differently in an optical sense in low light.

What I find interesting is that art light this is not possible without modern cheap technology. The fog machine, the large monochromatic light source, the very large mirror on the ceiling. Just a few years ago, these things were extremely expensive to create if they could be created at all. They are now cheap and easy, and the effects that can be achieved are quite spectacular. I am not sure whether it is art, however, or whether it would be better described as theatre - certainly effects departments in theatres do an awful lot of this kind of things these days too - or perhaps whether it simply belongs in the Science museum. Certainly when creating large artificial environments, these sorts of issues are considered in great detail by people who would not consider themselves artists. (Yes, Virginia Postrel has written about this kind of thing, too).

This is not the first time I have had this kind of feeling. When I visited the Saatchi Gallery with the same friend earlier this year, the best item in the whole museum consisted almost entirely of a tank of sump oil, and rather than being art in any meaningful sense it was more a demonstration of the very interesting reflective properties of high density liquids. The fact is that the surface of this oil scatters a negligible amount of light, the surface itself is not visible, it is close to impossible to realise that what you are seeing reflected in the oil is actually a reflection of the ceiling, because it does not look like a reflection. Again, it might better belong in the Science museum.

Or perhaps it is fine where it is. If a demonstration was ever needed that there is no hard line between art and science, I suppose this is it. The strongest argument for putting this Weather Project in Tate Modern is simply that they had a room big enough for it, although the obvious industrial qualities of the building help, too. If any of my readers are in London, I recommend going and having a look. (It is free). You can walk into Tate Modern, look at the turbine room for five minues, say "cool" and then head for the cafe. To be quite honest the art in the permanent collection at Tate Modern is a little lacking. (This may be simply the consequences of Tate Modern being a new museum. After 100 years of bequests it may have a very fine collection. For now though, it is a long way from being the Museum of Modern Art, or even the Pompidou Centre). What the curators of Tate Modern do have is a very unusual and extraordinary building and it is clear that they are learning how to use it effectively.

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