From the start, the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern has been unusual. Taking its name from the function of the vast space when the building was still a power station, it’s really not a typical museum space. The artists commissioned to make work for it have all responded to it in very different ways but it’s the response of the audience, almost as much as the work itself, that makes the annual Unilever Commission fascinating. From Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (which I’ve written about before) to those brief few days when visitors to Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds were allowed the access the artist had intended before health and safety concerns caused the work to be cordoned off, the Turbine Hall somehow makes people behave more like they would at the beach than in an art museum. All of which makes Tino Sehgal (whose work I’ve touched upon before elsewhere) an intriguing choice for this year’s commission. How would an artist whose work lies in the dynamic between audience and performer make work for such a cavernous space? And how would the audience respond?
Lis Rhodes, Light Music, 1975 (installed at Tate Modern, 2012)
Performance art in museums is still something of a rarity. Though film/video installations do fare a bit better, the prospect of having a space dedicated to showing practices such as these in a major museum is an exciting one. Given that I am also intrigued by the reuse of former industrial spaces, all in all I’m quite excited about the opening of The Tanks – the vast underground tanks that once held the oil for Bankside power station – at Tate Modern. Converted, like the building itself, by architects Herzog + De Meuron, The Tanks are not remotely like the white wall gallery spaces we’ve come to expect. Like the Turbine Hall, The Tanks – two large circular spaces plus some smaller rooms – have been left unashamedly industrial.
In many ways Lis Rhodes’s Light Music which I saw in The Tanks at Tate Modern reminded me of Anthony McCall’s solid light works, such as Line Describing a Cone (1973). There is the same use of a hazy space to accentuate the beams of projected light. But it is also a very different work. Though both can be described as drawings, Light Music feels more random, as the lines one screen come and go; like much of Rhodes’s work, in some ways, this feels more like collage.
Mark Dion, Tate Thames Dig, 1999
In 1999 the process of transforming what had once been Bankside Powerstation into Tate Modern was well underway. Tate had long since needed more space in which to show its two collections – the national collections of British Art and of Modern Art (here considered to be post-1900) – and the new space was eagerly anticipated. The collections would at last get their own spaces, each museum facing the Thames one from Millbank on the northern bank, the other from Bankside, further east and on the southern bank of the river.
In anticipation of the new space, Mark Dion adopted the role of archaeologist to create the installation Tate Thames Dig, initially shown in the Art Now room at what was then known as the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain).
Miroslaw Balka, How It Is, 2009
Disorientation is a powerful force. Whereas Klein’s white void might have amounted to nothingness as art, Miroslaw Balka’s How It Is, the 2009 Unilever Commission for the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, couldn’t be seen as nothingness in quite the same way. This was an altogether heavier void and, for me, its weight was a significant part of its power.
Mirrors can make a room look bigger. We all know that. They can also make a space confusing. We all know that too. At some stage, most of us have probably been in a public place with a mirrored wall and though the room extended further than it actually did. We may even have walked into the mirror by accident. These things happen.
The idea of a mirrored ceiling is a strange one. On the one, hand it’s an idea with somewhat seedy connotations. On the other hand, it can double the height of a room; okay, so it can only seem to do that, but you know what I mean. It’s this, somewhat disorientating, effect that Olafur Eliasson was going for when he installed a false ceiling in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern as part of his 2003 installation The Weather Project. In the event, it both messed with our perception of the height of the space and made people behave in a way that they usually don’t in an art museum.
There are three paying exhibitions at Tate Modern at the moment. The Damien Hirst exhibition is being widely advertised and has been the subject of a lot of media attention. Of the other two, the Yayoi Kusama seems to have generated the most discussion. Hirst is of course a household name and Kusama was already firmly in the consciousness of Londoners with an interest in contemporary art following Walking in my Mind at the Hayward Gallery in 2009 which was heavily centred on her work, indeed her polka dot wrapping of the trees along the South Bank ensured that her work also reached a signifcant non-art audience. The Hirst and Kusama exhibitions are also the ones making the most – visual – noise in the gallery, and while the Hirst was proved mercifully quieter than I had expected when I visited, they do seem to be attracting the bigger crowds.
There were things I liked about the Hirst – it was good to see those early works again and entertaining to stare in horror at the worst excesses of his more recent output – and I really liked the Kusama exhibition (at some stage I may well write about both) but it’s the other show – Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan – that I found by far the most inspiring.
Perhaps it’s down to my preoccupation with forests this week, but I decided it was time to revisit Giuseppe Penone’s Tree of 12 Metres at Tate Modern. The starting point of this sculpture – an industrially sawn timber beam – remains visible at the base of the pieces but Penone has carved it back meticulously and – by following the clues given by the knots in the wood – revealed the wood’s past as a tree.