So – you think you know Modern Art, eh? Well think again. The Tate Modern isn’t your soft fuzzy easy approach to art. This is ranchy, hard core, over the top (and sometimes under the bottom) art. None of those cutsie Impressionists – no sir. We are the Tate MODERN!
Which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t visit – it just means come prepared for some rather surprising things to be called art. And some pretty nice things too. This is a museum devoted to the surprise, the curious, the edgy and it definitely delivers.
The building itself is hardly the glory that is the Herschorn in Bilboa, Spain with it’s stunning silvered outside and huge Koons Puppy. Nope – the Tate Modern is housed in an old pumping station and switch house located on London’s South Shore, catty-corner from the Sommerset House with it’s outstanding collection of Impressionists. Talk about contrast. And between the Tate Modern and the Thames is one of the main sections of the Queen’s Jubliee Greenway – a walking, strolling, family friendly path that winds for miles along the Thames. Just walking in to the Tate Modern past the bubble blowers and living statues is an experience!
The building is huge, and the collection is also huge. The ceilings are at least 40 feet high – as befits it’s factory origins. And the renovation has creatively made light as important as the art. The ceiling of the inner courtyard is a massive 2 floor high light box – and the enormous hallowness of the courtyard echos the emptiness that most of the art on display is attempting to explain.
Modern is not necessairly comfortable or easy.
The inner courtyard links the two original buildings. On the Thames side is the Boiler House – 6 floors high, only 2 of which contained ‘art’. The restaurant on the 6th floor was – for us – an overpriced waste of money, but the view was lovely. More stunning was the view from the open observation floor on the 10th floor of the building on the ‘not’ Thames side – the Switch House. Open to the air, and running completely around the entire exterior – you had massive views into the million dollar appartments that are the Tate’s neighbors. No curtains or window treatments blocked the view into these homes, although their mininmal decor made it hard to imagine who might be living in these places. Curiously – signs on the columns of the viewing platform suggested it would be nice to be polite to the neighbors – I’m not sure how we could have been polite given our birds-eye view directly into their homes.
But as usual I meander. This is supposed to be about the art.
We splurged and paid for the audio guides, an expense that is well worth it in this case. Too often you get cheap and figure the audio guides will slow you down – but I find that the better guides give you insights into the art and the artist – and sometimes even the curator – that you would never normally get. And in the case of the Tate Modern – the audio guide is a clear winner. Each selection had at least one short discussion about the art – but often there were additional options, including videos of the artist at work (I loved the one where the artist is shooting at balloons filled with paint hidden under the surface of the work). Do get the guide.
While there are many ‘rooms’ – there are really only two sections that require a significant time to explore – both on the 2nd floor of the Boiler House – the building nearer the Thames. Entitled ‘Artist and Society’ and ‘In the Studio’. I found both well worth the 4 hours we spent in them, although I will admit that ‘Artist and Society’ made more sense to me. It was clear in this section that the artists were responding to the society of their times – and often they were taking on opposing and/or contrasting view points. The counterplay made for interesting viewing.
We had to come back a 2nd day to do the rest of the museum, fortunately the staff maning the audio tour guide desk took pity on us and gave us a 2nd day free. Good thing – you really need the audio tours to make any sense at all of these surprising works of art.
There is one section that I think is a must-see for any woman – artist or not. It’s on the 4th floor of the Boiler House – the building closer to the Thames, and it’s in a general display area called ‘Media Networks’. The room is called ‘Andy Warhol and the Guerrilla Girl’ – and it contrasts the approach towards gender equality that these artists were championing. Andy Warhol’s art appears sexless – while the Guerrilla Girl art is more in your face obvious. One piece was actually a poster showing a naked woman in a traditional reclining pose with the caption – Women – if you want to get in a museum – do it nude! The poster goes on the explain that while 70% of the women in a major museum are in paintings as nudes, only 2 are artists.
Another poster has the headline: The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist:
followed by a list of 13 advantages including:
“Working without the pressure of success”
“Having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs”
“Knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty”
“Not being stuck in a tenured teaching position”
“Having more time to work after your mate dumps you for someone younger”
You get the drift.
Most memorable piece of art? A huge room filled with what we originally thought were giant potatoes, but turned out to be hand sewn brown and burlap sacks stuffed with paper. They were scattered around the room – and the audio defended the display as art explaining that the amorphous forms were made to make us think of bodies.
I must also admit a fondness for the urinal turned sideways and labeled fountain.
Bottom line – worth two days – but not an easy two days.
And if you want to go to the 10th floor to see the view (and you should) – start on floor 0. If you try to catch the elevators upward at any other floor – they will be packed – and you won’t get in. Start at the very bottom. And don’t tell anyone else.
Off to see some more of the Impressionists – now that’s art I can understand without an audio guide….
The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler