The Tate Modern is described as a modern art gallery but I think, following a recent visit, it is better appreciated as a place of comedy. Rather than stoically but misguidedly supporting your uni friends at the Edinburgh festival as they perform an interpretation of Chicken Run relocated to Franco’s Spain out of a pub-cum-barber that flogs microwaves on the side, you can instead wander up Southbank and take the Tate in for free, so long as you’re happy to trade in a few critical brain functions.
It is a ridiculous place – a memorial to the optimism of a new millennium, where ‘art’ is ‘synergised’ with ‘space’ within a ‘performative landscape’ and whose central chimney irreverently scratches the heavens, a middle finger to anyone who dares expect an educational experience or enlightenment beyond using the viewing platform to look directly into people’s luxury apartments below, smiling politely whilst they pick their nose.
It is not a proper museum so much as a pretentious desert – a place where the collections often don’t come with a word of explanation and it falls to the viewer to decide why they’re gazing at a collage of bat droppings in the shape of Harvard Business School.
The vast Turbine Hall is the biggest waste of space this side of Jupiter – a remnant of the former might of Bankside Power Station. Designed in 1947 by Giles Gilbert Scott, also the architect of the K-series red telephone box (another lonely night on Wikipedia), this portentous brick chamber once shook with the kind of industrial clamour that confirmed the world would end with a bang not a whimper.
Now, it is for the most part completely empty but for the enormous crowds that glacially slide up and down its floors in a state of contented bewilderment. The major shock installations that once consumed the room ten plus years ago, including Ai Wei Wei’s 100 million sunflower seeds (which had to be fenced off once they were recognised to be toxic to human lungs), seem today wholly absent. Now, it is a cathedral to nothing in particular; six floors high and flanked by several identical gift shops. It is a space large enough to host St Basil’s, or indeed every rough sleeper in London. The potential is limitless so accordingly it has been managed with the artistic vision of an inner-city car park.
But perhaps empty space is a better showcase of talent than the contents of the nearby ‘Pump Rooms’ – three enormous subterranean concrete domes that have been reserved for “live art”, a slightly unsettling premise that brought to mind colourful, venomous snakes winding up people’s selfie sticks but which in fact was strikingly dull. One room was cut up by projections of fuzzy, distorted alpine landscapes accompanied by no explanation beyond the usual template:
Alfraida Fuchimi Alaska has synergised ergonomic humanist kaleidoscopes with flashes of verisimilitude to create an alternate dimension of ‘home’, woven in bat droppings.
The room was dotted with bewildered Latvian teenagers and the odd Texan chewing thoughtfully on the corner of his guide book. Upstairs, I found a model of an Algerian city made of couscous. I think the art world would be a better place if these rooms were still full of oil.
But whilst the contents, or lack thereof, of the Tate Modern embody a hazy, faux-intellectual vacuousness, the place is typical of a wider trend, in which post-millennium institutions that ostensibly seek to inform increasingly collapse under the weight of their own pomposity.
Kensington’s Design Museum is another fine example of a defunct 20th Century institution optimistically outfitted at a cost of £80 million into a leading showcase of..um…design? Needless to say, these good folk have succeeded in their ludicrous objective of exhibiting contemporary design ‘in every form’ rather in the way that Burkina Faso has established itself as the clear victor in The Space Race.
The museum has only one permanent collection to do justice to all of design, ever. It consists of a collection of objects you can also see for free by strolling into your kitchen. Furthermore, I got the impression that not a lot of thought had been put into the flow of the exhibition when I saw an Oyster Card hung next to an AK-47. Adjacent placards boasted of a revolution in commuter ticketing systems and a deadly weapon that had killed millions with only eight moving parts.
Why do such places exist? Why must all graveyards of former industry and civic integrity be pimped out as dynamic spaces of the future where only one percent of floor space can actually be used for fear of over cluttering the ‘design scape’?
These redevelopments are, indisputably, architectural marvels but they also play into a 21st century museum fad whereby all education must be presented according to the lowest common denominator – where every interpretation is down to your own interpretation. Where art and the spaces in which it is housed are put together by people so afraid of being narrow or prescriptive that they render it meaningless.
I come to museums to be educated and informed by experts who understand art, not to be told it’s all up to me. If I wanted to be told I am right, I would just consult my ego.