Tate Modern
the Switch House and Brexit

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

It seems a long time ago since the Tate Summer party to celebrate the opening of the new Switch House adjoining the original Bankside Power Station. It was a different world then. On the 16th June, the date of the party, we were still in Europe. The architects Herzog & de Meuron, who did the conversion, are a Swiss firm based in Basel. They have worked with Tate for 20 years, originally to transform Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station. Since Tate Modern opened in May 2000 it has had more than 40 million visitors, many of them from abroad, coming to sample the unique cultural pleasures of this multi-cultural city. As a result of Tate Modern’s presence the surrounding area of the South Bank that includes Shakespeare’s Globe, has turned from a web of grey streets into a buzzing cosmopolitan hub filled with street performers and food stalls selling cuisine from around the world. It’s become a must-see landmark. To walk across the Thames on Anthony Caro’s lightening-flash of a bridge, with its vistas along the river east and west, is to feel that you are at the centre of one of the most exciting global capitals of the world.

The night of the party – despite the inefficiency of the lifts and mounting queues – I went with friends up to the viewing platform on the 10th floor. The panorama is stunning. The city laid out below in 360-degrees with views of the Shard, Westminster Abbey, the Post Office Tower, Saint Paul’s Cathedral and, down river, Wembley Stadium. This is a building designed and built in hope and optimism. A cultural temple that firmly puts us at the epicentre of the artistic world: inclusive, challenging, forward looking. At the opening party the place was awash with the great and the good: royalty, journalists and international art stars. The sense of possibility and optimism was palpable.

Then, to look more closely at the new displays, I went back the day after the news broke that we were to about to leave the EU and suddenly all the optimism I’d felt seemed to belong to different age. The past, it’s said, is another country, where they do things differently. If we’d stayed in Europe I might have written about the building and the galleries in slightly different terms; certainly describing the interior of exposed raw concrete shooting up from the subterranean world of ‘The Tanks’, the sweeping concrete staircase and the perforated brickwork that allows for an extraordinary play of light, as sensational. But I might also have described it as bit hubristic and have suggested that the building often seems more dynamic than the art it contains. But now I haven’t the heart.

Now I just want to rejoice in what the new Tate represents, its multi-culturalism, its diversity, its passion. Seventy-five percent of the art on show has been acquired since Tate Modern first opened. All of it may not be excellent – time will tell. But in place of ‘the panorama of art history’ dominated by Western European and North American art, the collection now takes a broader view, sharing multiple histories that don’t just focus on the cannon of Western modernism. The displays mirror the shifts and changes of the contemporary world, the flux of movement and migration across continents. There are emerging artists from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe who embrace diverse religions and cultures not always sympathetic each to the other. But art is a language with fluid and permeable borders. Alternative histories and local narratives are reappraised through the prism of international awareness. Ibrahim El-Salahi, for example, who was born in The Sudan and studied at the Slade School of Art before returning to Khartoum, draws on avant-garde painters such as Picasso, who, ironically, borrowed from African primitive art, as well as from Islamic calligraphy. There’s also a good deal of work reflecting the nature of the modern city. In Kader Attia’s Untitled (Ghardaï) 2009, his cooked couscous citadel set among digital prints examines the social impact of colonialism through architecture. While Nil Yalter, who was born in Cairo but raised in Paris, investigates the sociology of ethnicity, identity, migration and class in his work Temporary Dwellings that explored, over a three year period, the lives of immigrant communities in Istanbul, Paris and New York.

There’s also a new and important emphasis on women artists with a powerful display of Louise Bourgeois’ matriarchal spiders and body parts, cages and womb-red drawings, along with a wunderkammer of her psychoanalytic fetishistic sculptures.

Digital technologies are represented by the Bloomberg Connects initiative in an array of new interactive spaces. Video as well as live performance has been given special prominence. From Tania Bruguera’s police on horseback to Tino Sehgal’s gallery attendants bursting into song. I’ve never been much of a fan of Sehgal’s work, which seems to emphasise that live art, which grew out of the counterculture of the 1960s, feels contrived when orchistrated in an official art gallery as opposed to spontaneously in some scruffy downtown industrial space but people were stopping to watch.

Before Brexit, I might have been more nit-picky about the apparent thinness of some of the art in the new Switch House, which can look dwarfed and second best to the magnificence of the building. But, now, I simply want to endorse, in this rather bleak, xenophobic new Britain that we find ourselves in, the Tate’s commitment to tell stories about modern and contemporary life which range across diverse histories and communities and make connections between artists across time and place. A discussion of how significant some of that art will be in the future, I’ll leave to another day. For now, what’s clear is that we’ve never needed galleries such as the Tate as much as we do now. Institutions that look out towards the world and show art that is inclusive, diverse, challenging and original. To visit Tate Modern and its optimistic new extension is a life affirming experience, one that stands in contradiction to the paranoia and xenophobia that is in danger of engulfing us.

Image Credits:

Switch House, Tate Modern © Iwan Baan

Ricardo Basbaum Capsules (NBP x me-you), 2000 4 steel capsules, fabric, polystyrene foam, vinyl wall texts, booklets and audio 800 x 1810 x 2640 mm overall display dimensions variable Tate. Presented by the Latin American Acquisitions Committee 2004 © Ricardo Basbaum

BMW Tate Live: Alexandra Pirici & Manuel Pelmus, Public Collection

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