CREATURES of habit we may be, but whatever happened to the expectations raised at the Millennium? New Labour delivered us Cool Britannia, and the skyline of London unfolded with seeming euphoria across the first years of this century.
Norman Foster reconfigured the inner courtyard of the British Museum to offer a Golden Jubilee tribute to the Queen, and the City of London built a tower block for Swiss Re, an insurance company now indelibly associated with pickled gherkins. Even the once controversial Millennium Dome by Richard Rogers has found new life and some friends with improved DLR rail connections.
One of the first rebuilds that has gone on to unprecedented and undeserved success has, of course, been the transformation of the post-war Bankside power station, built between 1947 and 1963 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, into a second London home for the Tate. The Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron who undertook that have been invited back to extend the gallery space into a second, adjacent building.
Tate Modern, which opened in May 2000, reports that in the first 16 years it has received more than 40 million visitors, far exceeding the modest expectation of perhaps some two million a year. Depending on your point of view, this is either a remarkable commercial success or makes for a poor visitor experience. Success on one side of the Thames has not always been repeated at Milbank, where visitor numbers, coupled with poor direction, have brought a fall in Tate Britain’s popularity (and funding).
As I made my way to the South Bank for the opening, I found myself recalling Matthew 11.7. Where else might I expect to see so many selfie-stick-toting tourists wandering around vast spaces aimlessly with scant regard for anything in the building? Unlike so many of our cathedrals, Tate Modern does not charge for access and does allow photography. But what have they come out to see?
Offering 60 per cent more gallery space, the new building is, in this order, to my way of thinking, best for its stairwells and walkways, the tenth-floor viewing platform, the lifts, and the café (I did not sample the restaurant).
As for the art, arranged over three floors in rooms that deliberately echo those in the Boiler House, as the former building is called, it prompts the question: why is this still called Tate Modern?
Apparently, three-quarters of the collection (staggeringly, more than 800 works of art) has been bought or acquired since 2000, including Anthony d’Offay’s outstanding gift of work by 50 contemporary artists. In the same period, Tate Britain struggled to buy Turner’s Blue Rigi, Sunrise (1842) when it came up at auction.
Currently, the death of Queen Victoria is used as a rough marker for whether British art is consigned to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square or to the Tate. Surely it is time to advance the clock a bit (to pre-1945, for instance), especially since Tate Modern now buys widely, from 50 countries, and in one sense is no longer home to British art and has become Contemporary rather than Modern.
I limited my visit to the new building, and so cannot report on the re-hang in the other galleries. A display, “Between Object and Architecture”, in the largest gallery (210 × 50 ft), which is on Level 2, includes work by Tony Cragg with a pile of randomly collected and compressed materials forming a solid geometric structure (Stack, 1975, bought 1997), and the long-notorious 1972 acquisition of 120 firebricks arranged into a block by Carl Andre (Equivalent VIII, 1966).
The filigree steel panels that form a sort of Moorish decorated pavilion (Cristina Iglesias, 2005) allow visitors to walk into a dappled world of shifting light, and introduce an airy Andalusian feel to a gallery that is otherwise all too solid.
Mary Martin’s aluminium folded relief ripples along one wall. The artist, who died in 1969, aged 62, called this late work (1966) Inversions. Ninety-six polished aluminium panels are mounted on
a series of eight six-foot-high wooden panels that run for 24 feet.
Next to the door, a series of plywood box frames left facing against the wall seem to suggest
that the installers had not fully completed their work. The interested would spot that this is Bruce Nauman’s 1971 Corridor
with Mirror and White Lights. The Trustees must have seen the fluorescent tube lighting as the cutting edge of American inspiration.
Elsewhere, there are works by Joan Jonas, a loan of the late Lewis Baltz’s photographs, and, in conscious homage to the opening in 2000, when the Turbine Hall had been dominated by one of Louise Bourgeois’s arachnids, a whole gallery on Level 4 has been given over to her work.
The only performance art that drew much attention was the view from the tenth-floor platform of a couple getting out of bed, late morning, in one of the apartments opposite which are now wholly overlooked — a life behind curtains and blinds for the bashful. The platform itself, reached by slow lifts or a steady climb, offers wonderful views over the City, while much of Westminster is obscured by other high-rise blocks, and, indeed, those neighbours’ flats.
The Tate claims that in the first two days since the opening of the new wing to the public during Ascot Week, 100,000 visitors were recorded. You can do the maths, but the prospect of a continuation of this is nightmarish.
On Level 3 in the Switch House is an environmental art installation from 1966-67 by the late Brazilian Hélio Oiticica (1937-80). Three shanty-like huts in a sandy bed with discarded metal constitute the work Tropicália, Penetrables, PN 2 ‘Purity is a myth’ and PN 3 ‘Imagetical’. Next to it, a sign gave ungrammatical assurance: “Due to high visitor numbers expected this week, the macaws have been temporarily returned to their owner.” I reckon they have had a lucky escape.
Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1. Phone 020 7887 8888.