The New Tate Has One Great Exhibit
You realise just how many members the Tate has when most of them are standing in front of you in a queue. Last night I went along to the Southbank’s newest building, the Switch House, for a nose around. The Tate really has a thing for bricks; millions of them form the great twisted flat pyramid that now extends from the back of the turbine hall to form part of a £260m revamp of the world-famous art museum and yes, that notorious pile of bricks is on display inside.
There’s not a painting to be found within but a lot of conceptual art, and the proud boast is that 50% is by woman artists. On the evidence of what’s currently inside and the reaction to it, women can create boring art as easily as men. In the future I’m sure there will be exciting work on display, particularly in the ground floor’s concrete tank rooms, but for now here is a pile of tin ducting (we all thought it had been left by the workmen but no, it’s Art). Here are some sagging plastic tubes. One set of tubes had soapy water leaking out of them, prompting a friend to remind herself to get her sink fixed.
There’s not a single piece in the building that excites, although I quite liked a recreation of Ghardaia, a town in Algeria, made from 300 kg of couscous, and I kept wondering if there was something I missed because papers had reported on things I couldn’t see) but not a single splash of colour anywhere. Did somebody ban the rainbow? We queue to peer into three long wooden boxes – with nothing in them. We pass another ten-foot high box with a cloth over it and wonder; is the exhibit closed for now or is this it? A few bits of wood leaning against a wall were vaguely familiar – were they here last time or have the builders left them? The Tate’s conceptual art is high-minded, cold, arrogantly without explanation or meaning. Worst of all it’s boring; no-one is stopping to look because there’s really nothing to see.
That’s not quite true, though, for the lumpen Switch House has been built butted up against some blocks of new luxury flats, and everyone wants to have a look inside those. One magazine has already said that all you come away with at the new Tate is interior decorating ideas from the flats next door. The public is gathered around the windows looking out – something’s gone very wrong is everyone’s facing the wrong way, surely? On we go to the tenth floor and there, on the viewing platform, is the great exhibit – London itself. This is what everyone has come to see, not a pile of bricks with a rope around it.
The building has lots of common space because one of the main reasons people gave for visiting Tate Modern was to encounter other people. “We wanted to create the kind of public spaces you find in nature, where you sit under a tree or on a rock,” says one of the architects. No trees here, though, just bare unforgiving concrete and some curious decisions. Why make the members bar so aesthetically dull? And knowing that many will not want to wait for the lifts (we gave up) why make the staircases so mean and narrow? Don’t galleries usually have grand staircases?
I’m no enemy of conceptual art. We all agreed that ‘Sensation’ was one of the defining art experiences of our lives – but that had nothing to do with the Tate. It was at the Saatchi Gallery, and was enthralling. And I’ve seen interesting pieces at the Tate before, like the Weather Project and Christian Marclay’s astounding ‘The Clock’. But when the only remotely interesting art on display is London itself you have to wonder if why the old regime at the Tate is still hanging on when it should be handing its spaces over to artists with genuine inspiration.