BACK TO THE FUTURE. The development of Tate Modern
THIS ARTICLE IS TITLED `BACK TO THE FUTURE’ BECAUSE THE PROJECT OF BUILDING TATE MODERN WAS PROPELLED BY A VISION OF RETRIEVING AND REANIMATING THE ART OF THE RECENT PAST FOR AUDIENCES NOW AND IN THE FUTURE.
Before the advent of Tate Modern London did not have a Museum of Modem Art. It had the Tate Gallery and the idea of creating a Museum of Modern art was born from the necessity of finding more space to accommodate Tate's burgeoning collection. The squeeze on space was already acutely felt in the 1 980s. Tate's nineteenth century buildings at Millbank in Southwest London with their various additions was totally unable to meet the demands of a collection that comprises over 60 thousand works - which covers not only international art of the twentieth century but aspires also to tell the story of British Art from around 1600 to the present day. Its displays, however well conceived tended to overcrowding and the architecture often vied with the demands of much contemporary art practice - installation, video, photography were all difficult to show in its classical galleries and sculpture halls.
Tate is a national museum and its ambitions had always outrun the share of the public purse allotted to it. However the advent of a national lottery in the 1992 and the government's decision to offer grants of 50% to major capital projects within the cultural field in celebration of the millennium gave the Tate the opportunity it had long been waiting for. In 1995 Tate was finally given the go ahead to develop a second site in central London to show its collection of twentieth century international art.
Of course finding a virgin site in central London presented something of a challenge. All the options were challenging, none obvious. One of them, Bankside power station on London's South bank, was particularly problematic. Not only was it a densely built up site, dominated by the looming bulk of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's 1930's power station - full of the complex workings of a power plant disused for almost two decades, but the building was also part-owned and still operated by London's Electricity board. Although dramatically placed across the river from St Paul's cathedral it was enmeshed in an environment of post-war government buildings, cut through with derelict warehouses, railway embankments and major roads. Far from public transport connections - 15 minutes walk to the nearest tube at London Bridge, the elderly and unemployed in local authority housing dominated the local community. There were in the vicinity almost no shops and certainly no obvious visitor amenities in the form of restaurants, hotels, or smaller galleries. On the plus side the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on its original site was moving towards completion next door while the river frontage afforded pedestrian access to the attractions a short distance upriver of the South bank centre's Hayward Gallery and concert halls and down river to London bridge and a developing frontage of tourist attractions. But the most important aspect of all was the staggering size of the site - eight acres of land for potential redevelopment - enough for now and the future, and in its comparative isolation from other cultural developments it offered Tate the possibility of being in at the start of a major piece of urban regeneration, of working with new audiences and making new relationships with a local community.
The site was acquired in 1993 and an architect was sought through an international competition - amongst others Rem Koolhaus, Tadao Ando and Renzo Piano bid for the project - and the many varied entries gave us the opportunity to consider what the options were for a site so large and so open. Herzog and de Meuron were a comparatively young Swiss team and their only gallery experience was for a German private collector in Munich. However their scheme, which left the austere and distinctive building relatively untouched in its outward appearance, presented the possibility of creating within the acutely restrained budget a building whose internal accommodation was considerably larger than the space the budget could stretch to if demolition and a new building were considered. The scheme thus developed was to remove the entire internal structure, retaining the detailed brick curtain walls. At the top of the building a glass and steel structure - known as the light beam would provide top lighting for galleries, a brilliantly light zip of light to signal its presence at night and vertiginous view points over the river and surrounding landscapes for audiences to its roof top cafe. Seven floors of galleries and public space were to be constructed within the north half of the building; the area that housed the old boilers and plant while the original Turbine Hall, cathedral like in its height and length would be left largely untreated as a truly urban public space - a covered street.
Alongside planning for the opening displays and exhibitions programme we were also able to undertake our own programme around and outside the building - a museum without walls - to provide a visible and vocal presence both for local and international audiences. Our pre-opening programme had many parts - large-scale projections of avantgarde films onto the naked fapade of the building, daylong art events in areas of community activity such as the local market place. Each one had a different but interlocking purpose: to encourage the growth of a fledging audience among the local community and to keep attention on the project during the long and difficult build. 'Bankside Browser', for example, was an open exhibition involving artists in the surrounding area. Artists were invited to submit works or associated materials on a small scale to be included in an archive of local art. The archive was then available to the public in a now disused government building and also accessible via a special website. The project was directed by Tate but developed and undertaken by art administration students from a local college. Visiting the archive was as 'real' as possible with all the lengthy museum bureaucracies in place - catalogues to browse, forms to fill in, gloves to wear. The over two hundred entries ranged from amateur painters to artists of international repute.
Other projects involved visiting artists from abroad. We invited Mark Dion, an American artist whose commitment to institutional critic has led him to work with many collections, to work with community groups in the local area. He initiated a summer-long archaeological project in which teams of volunteers combed the riverbank beaches at Tate Modern and the old Tate in search of remnants of their different histories. Roman oyster shells told of Southwark's ancient past just as quantities of bones, clay, bottles and nails evoked the many industries, which have flourished, and then declined along the riverbanks. More recent artefacts including voodoo dolls, Arabic poetry in a bottle, bullet cartridges as wells as shards of human bone evoked the darker side of London's recent past. The Finds were cleaned, identified and laid out for discussion and debate by visiting lectures from the academic world, the community, the river police and local historical associations and then displayed in a cabinet, wonderfully evocative of a private collector's Wunderkammer.
Both projects dealt with the mapping the terrain, with organising data and interpretation - key aspects of a collection in a process that was in someway parallel and certainly informed the lengthy discussions that were taking place with colleagues about how to present Tate's collection in the new building.
Tate's collection is really two collections - one of British Art from 1600 and the other a collection of international modern art from 1900 to the present day. The two collections have distinct characteristics. The British side is a broad survey telling many stories in depth, the highs and the lows, the great works and the lesser-known genres, the national and the regional. The international collection is smaller, patchy in its coverage of history - very little German or Italian art for example but with areas of strength such as Surrealism or Abstract Expressionism and a number of individuals such as Rothko, Pollock, Dubuffet and Giacometti represented in depth. Its holdings are stronger in the decades following the 1960s and its collection of video and installation from the early 1990s is very distinguished. Within Tate's collection read Western European and North American for 'International', Britain's links with her former colonies or her present diasporic communities are barely represented. The histories told are predominantly white, male and straightforwardly modernist. Little art from outside the conventional mainstream of western art history is represented and little art that challenged the political hegemonies of its day.
The decision was taken in the early 1990s to maintain the cohesiveness of the collection within one single institution but to divide it into distinct areas of display in separate buildings: British Art at the old Tate, International Art at the New Tate with a variety of different approaches at Tate's two regional outstations, Tate St. Ives in the South West of England and Tate Liverpool in the North West. Of course what looked seamless on paper was and continues to be necessarily complicated by the history of Twentieth Century Art and the desires of both Tate Britain and Tate Modern to involve the more international practitioners from Britain in their own displays. Are Gilbert and George or Damien Hirst British or International? At the onset of debates about our future many British Arts raised concerns about their potential ghetoisation. The result of the ensuing debate was that displays of the collection on all sites would be open to change with British artists being shown sometimes in a British, sometimes in an international context.
Other constraints reinforced this decision. Like other museums across the world exhibitions of major artists and important themes are part of the regular programme - Tate Modern itself makes at least six temporary loan exhibitions a year and for these we depend on the generosity and willingness to lend of other public and private collections. In return, wherever possible, Tate must lend from its own collection. Our local audiences treasure our most iconic works, Picasso's 'Weeping Woman', Matisse's 'Backs', Dali's 'Mountain Cannibalism' to name just three - but they are also those most desired by others. These are movable feasts within an ever more intense international cultural entertainment industry. At the same time political imperatives within Britain, most especially the importance of regional cultural development, have encouraged Tate to establish partnership schemes with smaller museums around Britain, to show national treasures beyond the metropolis of London. On a regular basis small displays from the collection, often focussing on a hand full of important works are put together in collaboration with these museums for local audiences who rarely, if ever, travel to the Capital city.
We started planning for the installation of the permanent collection at the end of1997 with just over two years to go before opening. We were looking for new ways to show a collection in a new museum. As part of that thinking process we attempted to explore every conceivable model. The conventional model and one that had served the old Tate well was that originated by Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Barr mapped out a chronological genealogy of modernism with the well- known isms of avant-gardism's as its generative growth points. By the end of the twentieth century, after three decades of post-modernist practice and an equivalent period of revisionist art history Barr's model seemed to us unnecessarily restrictive. It seemed to us that this teleological chronology told an important history but that its history was only one possible history among many. At the beginning of a new century it was our ambition to present history as a series of stories, to represent complexity and multiplicity, density and divergence and to reflect an expansion of the field of art practice as well as an expansion in the fields of interpretation. Above all we wanted to turn things upside down and reflect contemporary perspectives on the art of the past. We wanted to address the past history of the work in the collection from the vantage point of the present.
This radical thinking helped us define a new set of ambitions. The notion of working backwards from the present to the past encouraged us to plan for displays without regard to historic hierarchies between media. Contemporary artists move seamlessly between media. Someone working in video may also make photographs or sculpture. Plenty of painters also work in installation. Works on paper are often as large and as heavily worked as old master paintings. We would, therefore show all media without distinction or separation within the gallery. At the same time the desire to furnish practitioners with a sense of the history of the mediums they work with led us to seek ways of representing media, such as photography, which Tate had not hitherto been associated outside the contemporary field. Long discussions with the V&A museum which houses, amongst other things, the National Collection of the Art of photography led to an agreement whereby we should freely borrow from each other's collections. Photography can now be seen at Tate Modern in the context of visual culture, at the V&A in the context of applied art.
If these were among the ambitions that emerged within our thinking we were equally guided by constraints and I have already spoken of the need to originate a model for the display of the collection that would embrace change and allow for different parts of the collection to rotate. The other main area of constraint was the nature of the building itself and by the time the curatorial team was in place key decisions about gallery circulating, visitor access, lighting, surfaces etc had already been taken. Two floors of gallery accommodation had been identified for the permanent collection, on levels 3 and 5 with the forth floor between them assigned to temporary loan exhibitions. Each floor comprised two wings, with the chimney and circulation areas behind it bisecting the building. We had, in essence four relatively discrete, suites of galleries. The old Tate, with its galleries continuously interconnecting on a single gallery floor had suited a continuous chronological deployment of the collection. It was possible for the serious visitor to begin at the beginning and end at the present. No such continuity would be possible for the display at Tate Modern. Additionally research into visitor behaviour led us to believe that the average visitor would spend only about an hour looking at art before they did something different- have a coffee, go to the bookshop or leave. At 1200 square metres one of our suites would be about the right size for that visit. It was, it seemed to us at the time, unlikely that many visitors would visit more than one or at the most two suites. How then to generate a display that would make sense for a single suite, or two or indeed for all four? The answer was clearly to make four relatively self- contained displays each one answering a number of core aims but doing so with a distinct character. One of the great challenges of the modern art museum is to engage new audiences with the seemingly bewildering concerns of contemporary practice, or to encourage senior visitors to look for experiences of the sublime in new technology. A parallel challenge is to re-invoke for younger audiences the energy and dynamism of early twentieth century art. How dusty and brown those early cubist experiments seem to audiences brought up in a digital age. An agreed starting point was, therefore, that each suite would contain both old and new art and would at points bring these into dialogue.
In approaching an overarching structural scheme we explored a number of different historical templates - by art history, by art's institutional history, by geo-political time frames. We discussed categories according to styles in art, according to different geographical boundaries, with reference to dominant philosophies, to different strategies of making art. At the beginning of the twenty-first century we are still familiar with the language of genre that audiences and practitioners at the beginning of the last century would have understood. And yet images and artefacts to which we ascribe such descriptions have undergone momentous and radical changes. We chose to adopt this familiar language as a way of exploring both innovation and continuity over time. Each of the four suites would unfold as a series of stories connected with a subject or genre and moving from the familiar and close into the increasingly complex field of contemporary art. In one suite a series of rooms would establish the development of the still-life genre in the early twentieth century - the centrality of the subject to Cubist experiments for example. The display would then move on to exploring the ways in which, from Duchamp onwards artists have appropriated objects and introduced them into the work of art. Finally the suite would introduce ways in which contemporary artists increasingly engage with the everyday. The suite contains, at present, a specific focus on the continuing persistence of memento mori subjects as well as a focus on the postSurrealist legacy of the fetish in art. There are also a number of monographic displays including rooms devoted to Mark Dion and Cornelia Parker. The title of this suite, signifying this expanded field is Still-Life/Object/Real Life. For the genre of landscape, the move in the twentieth century, from landscape painting as a window onto the world towards an engagement with the physical substance of our environment and on to the creation of environments of sublime experience is explored in a Suite entitled Landscape/Matter/ Environment. History painting, as engaged commentary on the world of actions and events, has a complex evolution in the twentieth century moving from radical aesthetic engagement with social and political ideas to mediations on the past and the continuous presence of the past in the here and now, hence our title History/Memory/ Society. Finally the Nude, denoting at the beginning of the twentieth century a studio practice of observation follows a number of different directions - into an engagement with the perfomative body and the gesture of the artist and audience, and later in more recent years to the exploration of issues around gender, identity and mortality: hence Nude/Action/Body.
Each suite includes a number of different types of display such as monographic rooms where an artist's work speaks alone and 'In focus' rooms where a particular work is explored as part of its historical and cultural context. Some displays focus on a very small time frame, presenting works related in time and type. Others take a longer view. In each suite, using the four genres as starting points it is possible to demonstrate continuity, conflict, radical innovation and retrenchment. It is possible to make connections between the histories of film and painting, between abstract and figurative, between then and now. Overtime individual displays are changed.
One of the key charges against Tate Modern has been that it is overcurated. Certainly it is very densely curated - in place of the traditionally anonymous canonical stance of most major museums Curator's at Tate 'author' their displays - each room comes from a specific viewpoint - a selection has been made. However there are other parts of Tate Modern's programme where the curator recedes.
Tate Modern's turbine hall offers one of the most challenging spaces for art. Supported by Unilever we have, on an annual basis, been able to offer the space to a living artist. This commissioning process enables visitors to have the most incredible contact with the most daring and experimental work of the moment. If successful the artist is guaranteed extraordinary attention. The first to take up the challenge was French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, the youngest of old. Her three vertiginous towers, entitled 'I do, I Undo, I Redo' 2000 and her monstrous Spider, entitled 'Maman' 2000 animated the space as a place of encounter and self-reflection. Spanish artist Juan Munoz followed with 'Double Bind' 2001, a series of enigmatic tableau set within a visionary architecture of frustration and alienation. Anish Kapoor was number three with 'Marsyias' an amazing stretched fabric structure spanning the length and breadth of the building - a piece of engineering which can be described by the term 'technological sublime'. Finally at present Tate Modern hosts the most extraordinary of all, a space of reflection, light and moving cloud choreographed by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Entitled 'The Weather Project', this most dematerialised of environments has been occupied and appropriated by the literally thousands of visitors who have flocked to spend time in the environment, walking, lying down, observing themselves and each other - to visit is to become part of the art work, part of history.
When powerful contemporary artists are able to generate such extraordinary experiences for visitors to the museum the challenge remains to present the past in a way that connects with the experience of the present to make links between art and life, life and art.
Oil on canvas. 215 by 142.2 cm
Purchased with a special Grant-in-Aid and the Florence Fox Bequest with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery and the Contemporary Art Society 1965
© Succession Pablo Picasso / DACS, London 2003
Steel, glass, marble and mirrors. 236 by 210 by 219 cm
Bread and wax. 28 by 220 by 168 cm
Acrylic on canvas. 242.5 by 243.9 cm
Oil on canvas. 183 by 183 cm
Photographs, some handcoloured. 303 by 303 cm
© Gilbert and George
View from above
It is believed to be the largest bent structural glass window in the world
Projected digital animation. 380 by 500 cm
© Gourtesy The Approach, London