Pictures of the latest Unilever installation seemed to confirm my Turbine Hall pet hate; this has long been one of my favourite spaces yet, although some of the installations have been magnificent, no one really seems to quite master the enormity of this space at Tate Modern. The Turbine Hall, which once housed the electricity generators of the old power station, is five storeys tall with 3,400 square metres of floor space. The Unilever Series has been going since 2000 when Louise Bourgeois embarked on the first commission. Since then many famous artists, including Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread and, most recently, Ai Weiwei, have undertaken the project.
The Turbine Hall. Image via www.tate.org.uk.
It is a daunting challenge. Do you fill it all like Kapoor’s Marsyas did? Fill it vertically? Use just a bit of it? There must be a checklist –Olafur Eliasson did light, Bruce Nauman, who played with the concept of empty space, conquered sound, Carsten Hőller even turned it into a giant playground. There is often controversy or debate surrounding the installations and, last year, Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds famously had to be portioned for health and safety reasons.
Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds. Image via http://contemporary-art-blog.tumblr.com.
Tacita Dean has decided to embrace the height of the space. Her work calls to mind many forerunners who tried this too. In 2006-7, Hőller’s Test Site (five spiralling steel Makrolon slides) descended from various levels of Tate Modern, culminating under the bridge of the Turbine Hall. Visitors were able to interact personally with the works that aimed to release them from everyday restraints, questioning human behaviour and offering the possibility of self-exploration in the process.
Carsten Hőller’s Test Site. Own photograph.
This was the first installation, until now, to take real advantage of the tremendous verticality of the hall. Test Site made viewers, or participants, look at the Turbine Hall and the slides from different perspectives and heights and to experience the sensation of descending through the hall. No other commission had attempted anything to such an extent, although the three steel towers of Louise Bourgeois’ 2000 installation, I Do, I Undo and I Redo, encouraged its audience to climb the spiral staircases that ascended around central columns supporting platforms surrounded by large circular mirrors.
Louise Bourgeois’ I Do, I Undo, I Redo. Image via http://poulwebb.blogspot.com.
Like Test Site, Dean’s work neglects most of the available horizontal space of the Turbine Hall. When you first enter Tate Modern, the piece is quite insignificant within the cavernous architecture and does not attract your first glance. The entry to the commission is equally underwhelming, compared to the spectacle of its predecessors. But, when you do arrive at the section given over to Dean’s work it is brilliant, atmospheric and near-perfect.
The entrance to Tacita Dean’s FILM. Own photograph.
FILM is an 11 minute, silent, 35mm looped film, that is projected onto an enormous monolith dwarfing all who approach the darkened end of the hall. The work upends the usual landscape format of moving image. Taking the appearance of a filmstrip with sprocket holes, exposed onto the emulsion, it pays homage to the traditional analogue process, highlighting the threat to which film is subjected nowadays and the impact its loss will have on our culture. The work often looks transparent, as if someone is hanging a film reel from the ceiling. Rather than being an actual film, FILM seems to offer a portrait of a film shown in portrait format. The work is about the importance and specificity of the medium. The film itself is a montage of imagery – a Mondrian painting, hand-tinted pictures, the mountains of René Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue, a spurting fountain, the Paramount Studio logo, a giant snail, the Turbine Hall, a giant ostrich leg, escalators, pigeons, the sea…. I don’t think the content is the key factor here. Dean has transformed this end of the Turbine Hall into a cinematic theatre where visitors sprawl across the floor, transfixed by the giant screen.
Tacita Dean’s FILM. Own photograph.
This response to Dean’s FILM reminds me of the climatic landscape that Eliasson’s large sun created in the Turbine Hall when a gigantic, illuminated orange disc was suspended from the ceiling at the far end of the hall. The Weather Project, was, in actual fact, an illusion; in reality, a semi-circular, fragmentary mirror was hung on the lit ceiling creating the appearance of a full circle. Visitors became immersed in the piece, lying on the floor of the Turbine Hall for hours in an attempt to find their own reflection in the mass of swarming shapes. The Eliasson, the Hőller and now the Dean installations have initiated cults; filling the Turbine Hall with people and turning it into a meeting place for social interaction with art, leading to various interpretations of social activism where the pieces are not only sculptures and installations but performances and encounters.
Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project. Image via www.urban75.org.uk.
I personally didn’t lie down – still exhausted from last night’s art exhibition at Chinawhite, I was worried I might have fallen asleep.
The Unilever Series 2011 – Tacita Dean: FILM will be in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern until 11th March 2012, www.tate.org.uk.