Tag Archives: Nicholas Serota

Tate’s Tanks: Did they tank or triumph?

21 Jul

The build-up for the opening of Tate’s Tanks has been immense as this is the first major stage in the opening of the new section of Tate – The Tate Modern Project.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

The galleries will be permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art, performance, installation and film – the first spaces in the world to have these objectives as their focus.  This is a hugely important moment in the progression of the art world; one day in the not too distant future the Tanks will be part of the Survey course at the Courtauld, included in an introduction to art history and we are witnessing this at its inauguration.  It is all part of the evolution of Tate Modern, as Nick Serota cornily said the Tanks are a “new instrument in the orchestra that is Tate Modern.”  Tate wants the tanks to challenge the arts, they aren’t simply white cubes or black boxes, they are a new zone that falls somewhere in between.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

To kick-start this space Tate has launched, Art in Action, a fifteen week programme that will allow visitors to explore these art forms.  Originally designed to hold one million gallons of oil, the tanks are found industrial spaces of a particular shape.  I must say that I expected something more spectacular, the three interlinking spaces that attach to the Turbine Hall are beautiful but not domineering.  These are not neutral spaces, there is a lot of history associated with the tanks and all artists are responding very differently.  But, the reopened Tanks, for me, don’t connect strongly enough architecturally with their antecedents.

The Tanks at Tate. Own photograph.

The Turbine Hall has always felt as if it is the heart of the power station; the space is often compared to that of a cathedral in its proportions, the cavernous architecture lending power and majesty.  We know what this was and we know what it has become.  It perfectly gestures to its past while acting as one of London’s most well-known and best-loved public art spaces.  The Tanks are too austere to beckon to their heritage.  Whilst they use concrete and an industrial language, Herzog & de Meuron could have taken this further to better effect.  However, it’s great to see the spaces of hidden London being utilised.

The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.  Image via www.powerinspace.org

At the press preview, we were able to watch a dance performance, Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker with Ann Veronica Janssens.  The piece explores the relationship between music and dance, outlining the principles of music composition rather than just dancing to music.  As they closed the doors to this tank, the space became appropriately claustrophobic for this hugely repetitive piece of structured dance.  The audience watch from around the dance floor, enclosing the dancers and creating the walls of the room with their bodies.  Although Fase didn’t really grab me, it is a very accomplished performance linking the genres of dance and art and Tate has produced some very interesting programme notes to accompany the whole series that are well worth a read.

Fase in the Tanks. Own photograph.

The next stage in expanding Tate’s orchestra (ick!) will use the foundations embedded in the Tanks to support the creation of ten new storeys that radically reinterpret the brickwork of the original power station.  Due to the amazing pace that this project is unfolding, Tate has been fortunate enough to work again with Herzog & de Meuron for this extension.  The new part of Tate will use the same language with a literal twist.  Herzog & de Meuron have ensured that the Tanks seamlessly open from the Turbine Hall (which will remain as the building’s backbone), showing that they intend to maintain the integrity of the building with a continuous flow.  Due to these ambitious plans, the Tanks won’t yet remain open full time but they are giving us a taster of what is to come.  By 2016 we should have access to it all.

The plans for the next stage.  Image via www.hughpearman.com.

The Tanks are currently quite confusing.  We didn’t really know what was where, the labels are outside the galleries and don’t guide people satisfactorily and generally we weren’t sure what was going on.  But I imagine these are all teething problems and by the end of the fifteen weeks when over 40 artists will have performed, the Tanks will be an integral part of the London art scene and we’ll be starting the countdown to the opening of the next section of Tate.

Fifteen Weeks of Art in Action will be in Tate Modern’s Tanks until 28 October 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

More Surprised than Shocked – Hirst Takes Tate

4 Apr

There is a tendency to Hirst-bash which seems more prevalent since Gagosian recently oversaturated the public consciousness, concurrently displaying Hirst’s spot paintings in all of their galleries.  An alarming amount of negative press has led up to his Tate retrospective and, from conversations I overheard, people had turned up to Tate Modern on Monday morning determined to criticise.

I wasn’t expecting any surprises with this exhibition as we all know Hirst’s work inside out, nor was I aiming to analyse the individual pieces; this has been done before and I know what I like and what I don’t like.  I was more interested to see how these works had been collectively displayed.

Damien Hirst, Spot Painting, 1986. Own photograph.

The exhibition brings together works from across his entire oeuvre with over 70 pieces ranging from The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (his large shark in formaldehyde) to his notorious diamond encrusted skull.  Of course, the exhibition doesn’t seek to show everything he has ever produced and his paintings that were briefly shown (and slated) at the Wallace Collection are notably missing.

Damien Hirst, detail of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991. Own photograph.

Hirst first hit the art scene in 1988 when he conceived and curated Freeze, an exhibition of his own work and that of his fellow students from Goldsmiths.  Many of the works shown there are included in this exhibition for only their second public showing.

Damien Hirst with For the Love of God, 2007. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Hirst once said that ‘becoming a brand name is an important part of life’ and he has certainly achieved that.  He does not deny the importance of money and the exhibition screams of blatant wealth; For the Love of God, a platinum cast of an eighteenth-century human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, sold in 2007 for £50 million, has its own security guards and is displayed in isolation in the Turbine Hall.  For the first 12 weeks of the exhibition, his iconic skull stands as a distinct element to the main retrospective, a free display illustrating Hirst’s ideas of mortality and value that will tempt people to head upstairs and pay admission.  It’s harder to get in to see than the Crown Jewels.

The skull’s special exhibition room. Own photograph.

The wow factor and status associated by many with owning a Hirst overflows into the exhibition shop where they clearly believe people will pay £36,800 for a limited edition plastic skull!

Hirst’s shop at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

Hirst’s works present a study of the transience and frailty of life – areas with which he has been obsessed over the years in a repetitive process that can sometimes be tiring even for the most ardent fans.  But, whatever you think of him, everyone knows Damien Hirst and he has marked our culture like no other contemporary artist.

The exhibition is beautifully presented and the curators have succeeded in showing Hirst at his best.  Hirst has never been one to follow conventional artistic paths; in 2008, in an unprecedented event, he sold 244 of his works through Sotheby’s rather than through a commercial gallery, engaging directly with the art market in a method that enraged many.  The walls of room 13 are clad with wallpaper derived from the covers of catalogues from this sale and it is this sort of curatorial spark that excites the exhibition.

Room 13 at Tate Modern’s Damien Hirst retrospective. Own photograph.

My main criticism and dislike, however, is the room of live butterflies – a recreation of In and Out of Love, his installation from 1991 that was shown at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery where one floor contained five white canvases embedded with pupae from which butterflies hatched.  They then spent their lives eating, feeding and breeding.  Downstairs in the gallery, dead butterflies were pressed onto brightly covered monochrome canvases.

Damien Hirst, detail of In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991. Own photograph.

The butterfly installation can now be seen in a very humid room six which has been specially designed for this purpose.  Tate are quick to point out that the butterflies are all sourced from reputable UK butterfly houses and are known to thrive in these conditions (overcrowded galleries?).  They are also working with a professional consultant to check that the butterflies are comfortable.  There is no doubt they are stunning specimens but I found this work horrific.  Let Hirst play with dead animals but leave the live ones alone (I know I’m a hypocrite but I don’t feel as strongly when he kills flies).  Although there is a strict one-way system that allows staff to check that no one leaves with butterflies clinging to their clothes, the butterflies are still escaping all the time;  I saw several being returned on Monday morning, one even carried back to its habitat by Nick Serota.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this room has to shut; it is in a ridiculous location, forcing people into a hot room filled with live insects who keep flying towards the plastic sheeting in a bid for freedom.

Damien Hirst, detail of In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991. Own photograph.

Moving on, Pharmacy takes over an entire gallery with drug-filled vitrines and colourful jars creating an ecclesiastical aura.  Hirst’s art continues to become bigger, bolder and brasher.

Damien Hirst, Pharmacy, 1992. Own photograph.

Although it is a powerful work, I’ve never been keen on A Thousand Years.  When it was last shown at the RA, I found the smell quite nauseating.  But even worse was Crematorium, an oversized ashtray filled with cigarette butts and ash, a contemporary memento mori – a lifetime’s accumulation of the debris of smoking that also parallels the cremated remains of the human body.

Damien Hirst, Crematorium, 1996. Own photograph.

A Thousand Years shows Hirst’s overt debt to Bacon and, of course, this is not the only work that alludes to his greatest influence.  The Acquired Inability to Escape plays on Bacon’s methods of enclosing figures within cage-like lines.  The objects suggest a human presence within the vitrine while the structure generates a sense of confinement and distances the viewer to another remove.

Damien Hirst, The Acquired Inability to Escape , 1991. Own photograph.

The very clever titles that Hirst uses give his work more gravitas than it would otherwise have and they do not require too much close attention so the crowds may be more bearable than at most of the other London blockbusters.  Instead, this exhibition is about the concept of the retrospective and overall impression of the exhibition aesthetic as a whole.  Whatever you think of Hirst, he has made his mark on art history.

Hirst’s spin paintings at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

I was surprised by how good the exhibition is; in parts, it presents Hirst as a serious artist and shows a progression in his thinking.  It is generating a love/hate response but, this is what he does and really I don’t think he would want things any other way!

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern until 9th September 2012 and For the Love of God can be seen in the Turbine Hall until 24th June 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

(I’ve come down with the dreaded lurgy so I’m sorry that there will only be one post this week.  Happy Easter!)

Tate Triumph as Serota Leads the Way – Gerhard Richter’s incredible Panorama

5 Oct

The last large-scale Gerhard Richter exhibition was held at Tate in 1991.  Although we have seen his works in many other exhibitions since, and he is considered as the world’s most important living artist, this exhibition looks at his whole career, presenting his oeuvre as an unbroken panorama.

Richter is an artist who examines reality from a very particular point of view, using different languages (whether that is expressed through painting, 3D works on works on paper) for different moments in his career.  The exhibition, curated in part by Nicholas Serota, is a collaboration with the artist and maybe this is one of the reasons why it is so wonderful.

Gerhard Richter’s Panorama at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

Broadly speaking this exhibition is a chronological hang, although each of the 14 rooms has a specific concern or theme so this isn’t always strict.  The curators had two ambitions: to rethink Richter’s abstraction versus figuration and to bring together his wide-ranging media including amazing new glass sculptures that lose and transform our reflections, in a similar way to his figures that become lost in veils of paint.  Richter never wished to differentiate between abstract and image or figure-based paintings and we frequently see these two, supposedly opposite, practices coming together in harmony.

Gerhard Richter’s Panorama at Tate Modern.  Own photograph.

Gerhard Richter is amazing – I was able to hear him speak yesterday (if you can term his extremely brief replies as conversation) and he was wonderful (there are going to be a lot of superlative adjectives in this post as I’m smitten with him and the exhibition).  For an artist of his calibre, fame and renown, he comes across as completely down-to-earth, ordinary and, dare I say, loveable.  When questioned on an upcoming auction estimate for one his works, predicted to sell for several million pounds, he said he finds it absurd.  He seems so well-grounded.

Gerhard Richter in conversation with Nicholas Serota and Mark Godfrey. Own photograph.

The exhibition curators, as ever, were reading far more into Richter’s work than he does himself, but that is the way he likes it.  Richter believes that his most successful paintings are the ones that remain incomprehensible which is, perhaps, why he is so reluctant to talk about the works – he doesn’t want to ruin them.  He said that he wants to leave the explaining up to experts, his job is to create them. It is not that Richter has nothing to say but that he says it through his paintings.  There is no need for him to speak and explain the works to us.  That is our job.

Well, Tate has explained it perfectly and this exhibition is sensational.  A brilliantly lit show (on white walls!!) that is cleverly devised and presents some incredible works – Tate has hit the nail on the head.

It is hard to pick individual exhibition highlights as I’d say the entire exhibition is the highlight of the year.  Room 2 looks at Richter’s conversation with the works of Marcel Duchamp – most engagingly, his painting of a toilet roll in dialogue with Duchamp’s Fountain and his 4 Panes of Glass, his first glass sculpture, which empties Duchamp’s The Large Glass of imagery, instead focusing on purity and the importance of media in its own right.

Gerhard Richter, 4 Panes of Glass, 1967. Own photograph.

Richter was one of the first German artists to reflect on the history of National Socialism, creating works of family members who had been members, as well as victims, of the Nazi party.  In room 3, we find Richter’s Townscape Works, a series of paintings documenting the reconstruction of an area damaged by bombing during the war.  Townscape Paris shows densely packed buildings, presented in a claustrophobic way with thick, abstracted paint.  The colours smear into each other but Richter does not attempt to blend and unify these.  Instead, he leaves the contrast, working with strokes of different widths.  From varied distances, the images look different – sometimes a recognisable city, sometimes a devastated mess, like the rubble after a bomb has hit.  His paintings often confront disastrous events in history such as his September 11th work.

Gerhard Richter, Townscape Paris, 1968. Own photograph.

Room 5 explores Richter’s interest in chance and randomness – one of the motifs that led him to depict clouds.  The clouds are all painted in varying shades of grey through which it is sometimes possible to see the ordered countryside below.  It is impossible to pin down the cloud as it is a constantly changing entity and it is this that captures Richter’s imagination.

Room 5 at the Gerhard Richter exhibition. Own photograph.

In contrast to the greyness of these works, his squeegee abstractions present an amazing array of colour with deep layers of paint revealing the history of the works’ creation.  Richter has never been shy of dominant colours, often working boldly with only the primaries.

Richter has always had a unique relationship with photography and is known for his paintings based on photographs, scrutinising their use and place in today’s culture.  Room 11 shows War Cut where the artist combined close-ups of a 1987 painting with texts derived from German newspapers about the Iraq war.  Here, Richter is reversing his usual relationship with photography in a fascinating and unorthodox way.  The smaller-scale works in this room are more intimate – his style just keeps on changing like an ever-rotating cog.

Room 11 at the Gerhard Richter exhibition showing War Cut, 2004. Own photograph.

The final room is, regrettably, on the other side of the espresso bar but there was little alternative with a show of this size.  This, room 14, shows his Cage Paintings from 2006.  Painted while listening to the music of John Cage, Richter has used several layers of painting and erasure to create more of his animated, textured surfaces.

Detail of one of Gerhard Richter’s Cage Paintings, 2006. Own photograph.

Richter’s works are diverse, but there is continuity across his whole career, and this diversity is to be celebrated as Tate does here.  His works can be found on opposite ends of the spectrum, his practice defined by a series of contradictions and oppositions which present the poignant versus the banal in a very moving way.  His practice is better outlined in the beautiful catalogue that accompanies the show, which no doubt will become the definitive Richter book for many years to come.

I don’t seek to tell you about every room in the exhibition or discuss his work in detail as this is a show you must see for yourself.  His works are absorbing.  This exhibition and, for me, Richter’s works are beyond criticism.

Gerhard Richter’s Panorama at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

Over the years Richter feels that art has turned into just another form of entertainment.  There is no doubt that some art is entertaining but Richter’s surpasses anything of this ilk – his paintings can provoke passion or sadness and, often, joy.  He once said that “art is the highest form of hope” – a comment that he still believes to this day.  Certainly, we felt hopeful as we left the exhibition.  The exhibition coincides with Richter’s 80th birthday and is the most wonderful birthday gift to him from Tate (and from him to us), showcasing decades of excellence and genius.

Gerhard Richter: Panorama opens tomorrow, 6th October 2011, until 8th January 2012 at Tate Modern, www.tate.org.uk.

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