Here I am again, with another “volume” of my art related travels in the UK. This edition, the third in the series, is dedicated to another museum of art in London, but one which is home to more unconventional forms of art and sculpture. I am referring to the Mecca of modern art in London. So, after soaking in the glory of the National Art Gallery, I headed for the iconic Tate Modern,
When Tate first opened its doors to the public in 1897 it had just one site, displaying a small collection of British artworks. In December 1992 the Tate Trustees announced their intention to create a separate gallery for international modern and contemporary art in London.
The former Bankside Power Station was selected as the new gallery site in 1994. It consisted of a stunning turbine hall, 35 meters high and 152 meters long, with the boiler house alongside it and a single central chimney. The following year, Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron were appointed to convert the building into a gallery. That their proposal retained much of the original character of the building was a key factor in this decision.
In 1996 the design plans were unveiled and the huge machinery was removed and the building was stripped back to its original steel structure and brickwork. The turbine hall became a dramatic entrance and display area and the boiler house became the galleries. In 2009 Tate embarked on a major project to develop Tate Modern. Working again with Herzog & de Meuron, the transformed Tate Modern makes use of the power station’s spectacular redundant oil tanks, increasing gallery space and providing much improved visitor facilities.
The Tate Modern has seven floors. The first four are the free galleries. Art works are arranged by theme. Within each gallery floor there are multiple rooms containing the works of individual artists. The structure of the building is art in itself and can be viewed best from the bridges between the two gallery spaces. I started my tour from the first floor and work my way up. Then I crossed over to the other side of the museum and work my way down.
The first display I saw was quite unique. Argentinean artist Werthein set up a trainer brand, Brinco (‘jump’ in Spanish) in 2005 and distributed them free of charge to people attempting to cross the border illegally in Tijuana, Mexico. The trainer’s design includes eagle motifs inspired by American and Mexican national symbols, and an image of Saint Toribio Romo, the patron saint of Mexican migrants. The shoes also feature a torch, a compass and pockets to hide money and medicine. Printed on a removable insole is a map of the border area around Tijuana. The display includes responses to the project, such as media reports, online reactions and threatening messages received by the artist.
The next display was titled 36 Possibilities Realized Simultaneously by Paul Neagu. It consists of thirty-six individual drawings on canvas in a range of media including oil paint, pencil, ink and gesso. The drawings reflect a variety of styles. Possibilities Realized Simultaneously is a ‘collaborative work’ made by the Generative Art Group which Neagu founded in 1971. The group had five members: Neagu himself and four fictitious characters. Each character worked in his own distinctive style, allowing Neagu to explore different aspects of his artistic practice.
Romanian-born Neagu started to make ‘tactile’ and ‘palpable’ objects which are articulated constructions whose hinged or moving parts were originally intended to be physically manipulated by the spectator. They often incorporate boxes or compartments containing various tactile substances, such as fabrics or leather. The Great Tactile Table is one of these figurative tactile objects. These works comprise figures in the form of numerous individual boxes into which spectators could dip their fingers and feel various substances and textures. The compartmentalized structure refers to the cellular composition of the human body. It is also a metaphor for larger systems, such as society, which consist of individual yet interrelated parts.
Other exhibits in the ‘palpable objects’ series include the Ceramic Skull in which rectangular shapes are stacked in tiers to form the shape of a human skull. This head, formed of cellular elements addresses the nature of the human body and experience. It is an apparent whole, yet divisible into a number of discrete parts, sensations and experiences. The second one is Full Hand, a sculpture of a hand made up of ten horizontal rows of carved wood connected with spikes that run vertically through the construction. The cellular structure of the hands relates to Neagu’s interest in the human body as a microcosmic model for larger systems.
One more interesting artwork of Neagu’s is Jump. The leaping man shown here recalls Neagu’s video Hyphen Ramp which shows the artist repeatedly jumping against the gallery wall. The phrase ‘impulses and vectors’ appears to the right of this figure. ‘Impulses’, for Neagu, refer to the body’s actions and movements. ‘Vectors’ are more regular systems or structures, such as the grid-like divisions filling the shape of the leaping man. The artist has described his performance work as an attempt to reach a state of ‘fusion between impulses and vectors.’
The next installation I liked, simply called Untitled 2001 is the brainchild of Polish artist Edward Krasiński consists of twelve mirrors of equal size suspended from the ceiling, and Krasinski’s signature blue Scotch tape. A continuous strip of tape is stuck horizontally onto the walls of the room at a height of 130cm from the floor. The verso of each mirror, which is black, also has a strip of blue scotch tape stuck to it. The mirrors, all facing in the same direction, reflect the surrounding architecture, the black backs of the other mirrors with their blue strips, and the continuous blue strip on the wall. This creates the illusion of a space that both recedes and advances depending on the viewpoint of the visitor.
I loved Irina Nakhova’s spatial experiments created within her apartment in 1980s Moscow which have been displayed at Tate under the title Room No. 2. For this, Nakhova removed the furniture from the 4 x 4 m² living room of her apartment, covered the surfaces with white paper and layered them with grey and black shapes. Exhibited here, Room No. 2 was the second of four ‘total installations’ that she made in the apartment.
Nakhova’s 1989 painting Simultaneous Contrast experiments with the shift between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. Borrowing details from a 1930s Soviet album of photographs, Nakhova produced abstract forms from material linked with the Soviet system.
One of the works showcased in the next room was by the French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle. Titled Shooting painting, it involved the artist or the audience shooting at the canvas. The base of the painting is a wooden board covered in a layer of grey plaster reinforced with wire mesh. It was then layered with textured white plaster, concealing small bags of liquid paint. When the bags of paint were hit by bullets, the paint cascaded down the plaster surface.
I fell in love with a large scale collage called La Moscos created by the artist Mark Bradford. It includes materials found by the artist on the streets around his studio in Los Angeles, USA. Visually suggestive of aerial maps of sprawling, urban areas, the collage is constructed entirely from paper fragments which, the artist believes, ‘act as memory of things pasted and things past. You can peel away the layers of papers and it’s like reading the streets through the signs’. The work takes its title from a derogatory slang term for migrant day laborers in the San Francisco Bay Area, reflecting the artist’s long-standing interest in the sub-cultures of the inner city.
Another canvas that I identified with was Charles Atlas Landscape. This is the work of American artist Edward Ruscha. In this painting, Ruscha plays with the shape of the canvas. Painted representations of metal bars appear to ‘push’ the sides of the canvas stretcher, apparently making them curve outwards. Ruscha has suggested that this painting is also a ‘portrait of a He-Man exploring the fury of muscle power’. Charles Atlas was an Italian-American bodybuilder. His exercise program spawned an advertising campaign featuring his name and likeness.
One subject painted frequently by Ruscha throughout his career is the American Flag. With his earlier flags, from the 1980s, he chose the subject because of their status as common objects and instantly recognizable symbols. He returned to the subject several years later with the painting tilted Our Flag 2017, where the flag is torn and damaged, showing the passage of time. This may also be interpreted as a comment on the divisive nature of recent political events. Of this work Ruscha has said ‘any flag that flies for 250 years is bound to get a little ragged and tattered, especially if we help it along.’
I am always drawn towards big canvases and compositions, especially ones that make good use of space. One such artwork at Tate that appealed to me was Ink Splash II 2012 by El Anatsui. The artist was born in Ghana but lives and works in Nigeria. Ink Splash II 2012 is a large wall piece in which Anatsui has connected several interwoven strips of flattened aluminum bottle tops using copper wire. This horizontal composition has a metallic shimmer dominated by a silver tonal palette in which blue and yellow splashes evoke gestural brushstrokes – presumably the ‘ink splashes’ of the title. The large blue areas lead the gaze from the upper left corner to the bottom right, pushing out smaller yellow splashes, which are spread out and almost blurred across the silvery surface. As if it were real paint escaping from a canvas, a blue patch of woven metal spills from the bottom of the work onto the gallery floor.
The materials Anatsui uses – copper wire and bottle tops – are part of that encounter and a reminder that the artist’s work involves change and regeneration. Moving away from common definitions of so-called recycled art or junk art, yet using objects found locally, Anatsui has found an aesthetic that attempts to speak directly to the experiences of individuals and communities immersed in that encounter.
When you think of the word collage, you would probably think of a collection of pictures that are put together to make a single picture. In the world of fine art, it refers to a work made with various small objects sometimes with paint, sometimes without. The word can also be used to mean a collection of different things. It is generally a piece of art made by sticking various materials such as photographs and pieces of paper or fabric on to a backing.
The reason why I’m talking about collages is because the ones I came across at Tate were not only unique but also surpassed all boundaries defining the word collage. Mask XI 2005, Mask XIII 2006 and Mask XIV 2006 by the British artist John Stezaker are a deceptive threesome of collages in which he has covered an old publicity portrait of a film star with a postcard. The postcard becomes a mask over the face, but rather than just concealing, it opens a window into another space. This pair of images activates our innate tendency to interpret faces in patterns and imagery. The scene in the postcard could be seen to reflect the interior state of the figure. Alternatively, by replacing eyes with blankness or holes, it might be showing us death beneath the features of a living being.
Another unconventional set of collages exhibited at Tate appealed to me not just for their uniqueness but also because they were by an artist from my homeland, India. Mild Terrors II 1991-6 by CK Rajan is one of a group of ten collage works in Tate’s collection from his larger series Mild Terrors II. The works in Mild Terrors II were made in the artist’s native India using images cut out from newspapers and glossy magazines. In these collages Rajan has transposed images of body parts and consumer goods onto local Indian landscapes and urban scenes depicting both historic buildings and newer housing developments.
Rajan used both color and black and white newspaper images for these collages. He would generally start with a background image pasted onto white A4-sized paper and then add fragmentary images of body parts, often female, to the background scene. The disembodiment heightens the sense of the impact this rapid change might have on the ordinary Indian. Rajan’s works relate more to the surrealist collages of European artists like Max Ernst or the pop art experiments of artists such as Richard Hamilton and Martha Rosler.
When I saw the work of another Indian artist on display at Tate, my happiness knew no bounds. This was Mrinalini Mukherjee, an Indian sculptor and the artworks exhibited were Ritu Raja 1977 and Jauba 2000.
She transformed a common everyday material, natural rope, into incredulous sculptures. Her early works such as the wall-mounted Ritu Raja 1977 were made from rope woven from hemp in two shades, the natural colors of the material accentuating the sensual forms. The title in Bengali refers to a ‘king of seasons’, usually the fertile spring.
She created Jauba (Hibiscus) 2000 by knotting yarn made from dyed hemp fiber over a vertical metal armature, with the bulk of its woven detail on the front. The yarn has been dyed red, green and black and is woven into pleated organic forms which drape the frame like a robe. ‘Jauba’ means hibiscus in the artist’s native language Bengali. Visually, the sculpture resembles a botanical, floral form, roughly symmetrical, which droops slightly towards the floor due to the weight of the material.
Untitled 1964….That was the title of an artwork by the Japanese avant-garde artist Yuko Nasaka, who is known for her involvement with the Gutai Art Association. If you are not aware of this association, it was formed in 1954 in Osaka by Yoshihara Jiro, Kanayma Akira, Murakami Saburo, Shiraga Kazuo and Shozo Shimamoto. The word has been translated into English as ‘embodiment’ or ‘concrete’.
Like other members of the group, Nasaka placed a great emphasis on the process of making an artwork. For this work, she placed each plaster panel onto a mechanical turntable inspired by a potter’s wheel. As it rotated, she carved patterns into the material using a palette knife. The recurring image of the circle suggests a timeless sense of harmony, while the dark-blue silver lacquer that she applied afterwards conveys a more industrial quality.
Ever seen a model of the International Space Station made from hundreds of metal coat hangers? Ten Minute Transmission 2003 is just that. This installation by James Rosenquist and the duo Allora & Calzadilla serves as the elaborate antenna for a radio that attempts to make contact with the real ISS as it passes overhead. The artists want to draw attention to what international means: Despite its name, the ISS is controlled by a handful of powerful nations in the global north; this poses a big political question about who gets to be represented in the extraterrestrial realm.
The thing that I loved the most about the Tate Modern is the size. I never felt I couldn’t see the art because of space constraints or the crowd. Each gallery was spacious enough to ensure that the art was easily visible to all viewers and no one’s view was blocked by another viewer. As I mentioned earlier, the availability of large spaces inside the museum made it convenient for larger scale works of art to be exhibited.
The Turbine Hall at Tate happens to house one such monumental sculpture called Fons Americanus. It is a 13-meter tall working fountain inspired by the Victoria Memorial opposite Buckingham Palace and has been commissioned by the African-American artist Kara Walker as part of the annual Hyundai Commission at Tate.
Rather than a celebration of the British Empire, Walker’s fountain explores the interconnected histories of Africa, America and Europe. She uses water as a key theme, referring to the transatlantic slave trade and the ambitions, fates and tragedies of people from these three continents. Fantasy, fact and fiction meet at an epic scale.
This commission has been made using an environmentally-conscious production process and has been built from recyclable or reusable cork, wood and metal. The surface covering is made from a non-toxic acrylic and cement composite that can be used for sculpting or casting. It avoids the use of large quantities of non-recyclable materials and harmful substances often found in the production of exhibitions and installations.
Although I’m not a great fan of modern art as most of the time I don’t get the message modern artists wish to convey through their work, but I can appreciate it for the sheer resolve, so even though I couldn’t relate with many of the pieces exhibited at Tate, I’m full of admiration for the effort put in by the artists in question.
The ones that I did relate to, I have shared with you all, but I believe art is totally subjective. What clicks with me may not click with you and vice versa. So in order to form your own opinion about modern art, a visit to Tate Modern is a must.
Tate turned out to be a real eye opener for me and gave me a peek into a world full of infinite possibilities when it comes to creating great pieces of art. I hope you all will be as inspired as me after this little glimpse of Tate that I have shared with you all.
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