In this latest opinion piece Edward Lucie-Smith gives us the low down on London’s ‘most significant’ cultural building since the new British Library
No-one can doubt that Tate Modern, with its vast new extension, a wonky brick castle designed by Herzog and de Meuron, intends to change the art world. More specifically, the world of contemporary art, now rapidly devouring all other possible art worlds. With one leap, this puts London in the forefront. Neither the Pompidou in Paris nor MoMA or the Guggenheim in New York, can quite compete. Not just because the building itself is so huge and ambitious – it adds 60% space to the existing museum – but because of the statements being made by what’s inside it.
The question now is: ‘In the forefront of what?’
In a way, the most significant statement made at the launch was apparently unintentional. It came in the form of two large monochrome posters, displayed side-by-side on one of the upper landings. No images, just typography. One poster – headed simply ART, text in white Gill sans on a red ground, the ultimate Modernist typeface, don’tcher know? – lists all the various displays now to be found, both in this and in Tate Modern’s older building. The other poster, identical in size, white sans on green, is headed EAT & SHOP. Equally image-free, it offers no less than five different restaurants and bars, plus four differently located shopping opportunities, In addition, it gives the url of a Tate online shop, just in case you don’t want to lug purchases away with you, but would rather have them delivered.
The posters are perfect mirror images of one another – and not just physically. You’d be hard put to it to find a more concisely accurate – and impeccably Conceptual Art – statement about our current consumer society. They tend to make the element of social commentary in some of the other displays seem otiose. Since appropriation is now so much in vogue, and they carry no label asserting authorship, I think I‘ll claim them for myself. ‘They’re art because I say they’re art.’ A work by ELS triumphantly enters the Tate collection.
The ‘art because I say it’s art’ syndrome is in fact fairly widespread in the displays available in the new wing. A pair of macaws in a cage, the male persistently pursuing the female, who raises an admonitory claw to fend him off? Yes, of course that’s art: who could be crass enough to doubt it? A notice on a nearby wall tells you that the birds are imprisoned in optimum conditions.
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Boxes are ticked are ticked throughout. Strong emphasis on women artists? Yes, never doubt Tate’s commitment to this: ‘Artist’s Rooms’ for Louise Nevelson and Phyllida Barlow; Bridget Riley shown as the peer of Rothko and Richter; Marina Abramovic and Rebecca Horn facing down Hélio Oiticica.
There’s also the promised enthusiasm for performance. Wandering about on Press Day, pretty much the first thing that met my eye was a handsome fellow in a t-shirt, making an arm for an acolyte with a camera. Whether or not he will be there to do the same thing for you, at the time when you choose to visit, is a slightly different question.
Equally, as the Brazilian Oiticica’s presence indicates, there is strong emphasis on out-of-the-mainstream, Third World artists. Without for a moment doubting that this is a good thing, a little voice whispers that one reason is money. Tate has been priced out of the market for the big auction-room stars of Modernism and Post-Modernism. If you want an encounter with the work of Jeff Koons, take a stroll up the road to Damien Hirst’s personal gallery in Vauxhall.
Basically, too, as you delve deeper into the displays, there’s a residual Puritanism about the whole thing – a not unfamiliar note in right-thinking, do-gooding official British culture, of which this building is a triumphant new product. You are here to be instructed, but not perhaps primarily to enjoy yourself. The subconscious message is: ‘Baby, is you want something that is really stunning actually to look at, you might do best to go right to the top of this building, and look out at the view. All those weird towers are amazing in themselves, and one glance will tell you a lot about the condition of things here in Britain.’
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Photos: P C Robinson © artlyst 2016