On paper it was the best news from the European art world this season. Tate Modern, the epicentre of modern and contemporary art in Britain, is tightening its grip by adding 60% more exhibition space in a new extension designed – like the original gallery, which opened in 2000 – by the Basel architects Herzog & de Meuron. Unfortunately on leaving the new building, which opens to the public on 17 June, all hopes, or near enough, are dashed.
Admittedly the cold but functional architecture is attractive, but the exhibition of the collections is cold and boring. Its biggest sin is pandering too much to political correctness. While the gallery should be commended for the massive presence of female artists and talent from oft-overlooked horizons such as Brazil and the African continent, you can’t help feeling that the overall impression it gives is that contemporary art is boring and hermetic.
Epicurus was clearly not among those involved in the rehang of the new 21,000m2 quasi triangular ziggurat that extends across 10 floors. For the opening, the gallery has reorganised its collections, consisting of 300 artists selected from among 70,000 works. 75% of these have acquired since 2000, many through the gallery’s highly efficient overseas acquisitions committees.
The old former power station building has been renamed the Boiler House and contains art up to the 1960s. The new building, known as the Switch House – which on the inside looks on many levels like the Schaulager, the giant museum-safe in Basel housing the Hoffman family collection – is reserved for more recent artforms.
Given prominent display, for instance, is performance art. While it’s hard to argue with the historic importance of Serbian-born, NY-based artist Marina Abramovic and her courageous, avant-garde and spectacular interventions, by choosing to only show the relics of her performances gives a morbid edge to her work.
Ditto for the German artist Rebecca Horn even if in this case the objects seem more poetic by themselves.
On the subject of performance, the press release talks about ‘how the boundaries between art and real life have been broken down’. But where is the real life to these objects?
The room dedicated to ‘objects and architecture’ covering Minimalism and its various legacies is one of the more aesthetically pleasing with its seven-metre-high ceilings.
Fortunately the Brazilian Hélio Oiticica (1937 – 1980) brings a dose of good humour and derision within a sinister context with his ‘Tropicalia’ from 1966-67, a reconstruction of the stereotypes behind the postcard image of Brazil. Cue multicoloured birds in a cage, fine sand that will get into the shoes of urbanites, and a beach shack that shelters an old television set that shows adverts… Or when exoticism was a selling point in a consumer society that was then in full expansion…
Every visit should end on the Switch House’s fourth floor. This is where you find the ‘artist room’ that shows a single name drawn from the collection donated to the Tate and the National Gallery of Scotland by the famous dealer Anthony D’Offay. Finally, some undiluted pleasure: the space dedicated to Louise Bourgeois, the American artist with French roots, is in perfect harmony. Even if the subject matter is not new, your eyes are captivated as you wander around in the nonetheless obsessional and tormented mental universe of this woman.
Proof, if proof be needed, that looking at contemporary art is not an ordeal.