This week I paid a visit to the Tate Modern in London. The museum is the most-visited modern art gallery in the world with over 4.7 million visitors a year. Currently, the Tate has special exhibitions by Joan Miró and Taryn Simon. (The Simon exhibit is particularly interesting, but more on that in a future Gwarlingo article).
Some of my favorite highlights from the Tate Modern’s collection were Jenny Holzer’s “Blue Purple Tilt” and Cy Twombly’s striking Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos series, which is comprised of three large-scale, canvases covered in whorling, red brushstrokes. Like Matisse in his later years, Twombly created this 2005 series by attaching a paintbrush to the end of a long pole. The deep vermilion color is reminiscent of both blood and wine.
The Tate’s Rothko Room, which showcases Mark Rothko’s luminous, large-scale murals originally commissioned for The Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York, is particularly memorable and offers a welcome respite to weary museum-goers. Rothko’s soft-edged rectangles radiate deep maroon, orange, gray, and black and glow meditatively in the dimly lit gallery. I also enjoyed Cindy Sherman’s 1975 Super-8 film “Doll Clothes,” which dates back to Sherman’s art school days, as well as a collection of posters by The Guerilla Girls.
While the gallery’s permanent collection of modern and contemporary art is excellent, what makes a visit to the Tate Modern especially memorable is the building itself. The museum is housed in the former Bankside Power Station on the south bank of the Thames River. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect of the original station, was also the designer of the the now-famous, red telephone boxes scattered across Britain. The massive Turbine Hall, which once housed electricity generators, stands five stories tall and has 11,155 square feet of floor space.
The architects Herzog & de Meuron wisely chose to retain the character of Scott’s original design and have successfully transformed this utilitarian building into an engaging public space. The old and the new complement each other perfectly. I was particularly struck by Herzog and de Meuron’s sensitivity to the surrounding vistas. There are numerous vantage points for visitors to enjoy. I found myself lingering in one gallery contemplating a panoramic view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The way the scene is framed through the large, rectangular window encourages visitors to consider the cathedral as a work of art, just like the Twombly and Barnett Newman paintings hanging nearby. Another balcony offered a lovely vista of the river, Millennium Bridge, pigeon-filled courtyard, and London skyline.
But some of the most unique views were of the building’s own interior. Each level of the museum offered a different perspective of Turbine Hall. From the upper galleries I watched visitors move through the geometric shadows and ascend and descend the stairwell below. From this bird’s eye perspective, I had the sense that I was inside an M.C. Escher drawing. The Turbine Hall was especially striking at sunset as the light and shadows shifted minute by minute.
Between October and March each year, the Tate Modern uses the hall to display large commissioned pieces by contemporary artists. Louise Bourgeois was the first artist commissioned to create a special installation for the space. Since Bourgeois’s 2000 piece “I Do, I Undo, I Redo,” a number of memorable works have been installed there. Olafur Eliasson filled the space with a giant orange sun (“The Weather Project”), Rachel Whiteread cast and stacked 14,000 white boxes (“Embankment”), Doris Salcedo created a giant crack running down the center of the hall (“Shibboleth”), and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei filled the massive room with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds.
These large-scale installations have proven so popular that Unilever has extended the special series through 2012. Unfortunately, the series has been plagued with a number of small dramas. Fifteen people sustained minor injuries when they lost their footing and fell into the crack running the full length of Turbine Hall. Considering that “Shibboleth” had over 870,000 visitors, 15 minor injuries seems quite a small number in the scheme of things. There was brief talk of fencing off the crack, but to the Tate’s credit they insisted on leaving the work accessible and responded with less-intrusive security measures instead.
Most recently, the museum had to prohibit visitors from walking on Weiwei’s ceramic sunflower seeds because of health concerns over the porcelain dust being created by the large amount of foot traffic. But these incidents have done little to lessen the power of these imaginative art works. I applaud the Tate Modern for continuing to take risks with each new installation.
For more information on the Tate Modern you can visit their website.
If you’re interested in learning more about some of the installations mentioned above, I recommend watching these short videos:
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