If you were to stand outside the Tate Modern, on the south bank of the Thames River, gaze up at the building and think ‘Ergh!’ most people would forgive you. Luckily, once inside the turbine hall (where Tacita Dean’s Tate-commissioned FILM (2011) is screened in the dark), the magnitude of the transformed Bankside Power Station elicits the opposite response.
Here Ben Street(art lover, lecturer, curator and guide) begins with a short history of how the collection in the Tate Modern is exhibited. Visit MoMA or the Guggenheim, and you’ll find a chronologically curated exhibition of modern and contemporary art – from all the major and minor players in history – because American philanthropists started collecting art long before there was a market for it. Britain by contrast took a little longer to cotton on and really only started collecting contemporary art on a major scale after the Second World War (interestingly, around the same time the Bankside Power Station was being designed and rebuilt). Thus the Tate does not and cannot hang its collection chronologically, but rather thematically - juxtaposing Modern with Contemporary in gallery wings titled Poetry and Dream, New States of Flux and Energy and Process.
Energy and Process opens with a physically intimidating sculpture, Trip Hammer (1988) by Richard Serra, balanced opposite a meagre looking abstract painting, Dynamic Suprematism (1915 or 1916) by Kasimir Malevich (and purchased in 1978). The tension within these pieces overpowers the tension between them, despite the 70 odd years between their creations. Malevich was clearly experimenting with form, the geometrical shapes in the image gravitate without any visible momentum towards and away from each other. Serra is likewise experimenting with form, adding another dimension, that of performance and movement, creating a physical anxiety. For both Serra and Malevich, abstraction is key.
While early changes in contemporary art primarily occurred on 2D surfaces thanks to artists like Malevich and Picasso, artists like Michelangelo Pistoletto (prime contributor to Arte Povera) yanked those changes out into 3D. Although contemporary sculpture took a while longer to develop than advances on canvas, it was no less shocking. As Pistoletto’s Venus of the Rags (1967, 1974) proved with it’s cheaply purchased copy of a Venus de Milo statue from a roadside garden centre and the pile of discarded clothes she appears to be battling, everything is ‘art’.
I was next bowled over by the strength (yet weightlessness) of Staircase III (2010), by South Korean-born,Do Ho Suh. It’s an unreachable, transparent silk staircase and floor spanning the room, hanging four meters above our heads. Although not officially exiled from his homeland, Suh’s staircase echoes the nostalgia and heartache of an exile, for places once real to him, but which now belong only to his memory.
And in no way is this even the tip of the iceberg. The Tate’s private collection is impressive due the variety of contemporary art it exhibits, but it’s the display of differences between modern and contemporary art and the way art digressed from personal to public spheres, that makes the collection invaluable. It deserves the dedication of an entire blog, not a mere 500 words.