Robert Hughes, The New Shock of the New:
People need beauty. … And so, we seek out zones of silence and contemplation, arenas for free thought and regimented feeling. Museums have supplanted the church as places, both of social congress and of civic pride. They are the new cathedrals. And despite the dubious quality of some of the stuff that actually goes in them, or even outside them, there’s a growing hunger for the direct experience of art on a museum wall.
Robert Hughes’s eloquent classification of galleries as cathedrals (from his 2004 documentary) is especially apt for Tate Modern. This post-industrial monument, the most popular modern art gallery anywhere, is situated plumb south of St Paul’s: twin bastions of belief squaring off across the Thames. You don’t have to be a religious person to love St Paul’s; but I don’t know how Christians who have lost their faith feel about it, or any other cathedral. Does it become a poignant symbol of loss, a reminder of disappointment?
Tate Modern has just announced that Hyundai has taken over (from Unilever) the sponsorship for its major space for new work, the Turbine Hall. The inaugural work for the Hall, Louise Bourgeois’s majestic Maman, was bound to be a tough act to follow, but since those spiders we’ve been treated to Anish Kapoor’s gargantuan ear trumpet, Dorothy Salcedo’s vandalism of the floor (which injured at least one unsuspecting elderly lady) and Carsten Holler’s slides, the hit of half-term: ingratiating, family-friendly, corporate-friendly installations that make good copy for broadsheet and tabloid alike. It has been hard to escape a growing sense that the Hall has become a sort of Battersea Funfair for the Boden set, a place where entertainment masquerades as cultural engagement.
Away from the vast Hall, the nannyish curation of the regular galleries seems intended to prevent the art from speaking for itself: one feels manipulated by an entity determined to impose itself between the art and the viewer. An unsympathetic observer might see Tate Modern as a temple underwritten by the bling of ‘BritArt’, an edifice dedicated to the Traceys and Damiens beloved of feature writers and plutocrats alike. Outside its walls one sees the monolithic, zone-changing retail development that follows artistic success like a blight: the contemporary equivalent of trinket-shit peddlers blistering the walls of medieval cathedrals. Bankside is Southbank east. (Psychogeographers will doubtless point to the golden age of Bankside, when The Globe, The Rose and The Swan premiered Shakespeare and his contemporaries, whilst punters not interested in the fate of Desdemona or the Duchess of Malfi could watch the bear-baiting. Modern Bankside doesn’t offer any bear pits, but there’s a Pizza Express and at least one Starbucks.)
But the building remains sublime, even if its function as a gallery is compromised by the fact that (like the Guggenheim galleries in New York and Bilbao) its architecture overpowers the greater proportion of its content. And it would be bilious to deny that the Turbine Hall occasionally hosts something really good. As Robert Hughes concluded in The New Shock of the New: ‘We’re seeking value, looking for meaning, a place outside ourselves that tells us there more to life than our everyday concerns and needs. You could see this in the crowds gathering for Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Hundreds of monofilament lamps that suppressed all colours except yellow, shedding a gold light through gloomy air thickened by fog machines underneath a mirrored ceiling. People lay on the floor, staring up at themselves reflected in that ceiling, lit by the pale yellow light of their new sun god’.
‘The success of the Weather Project with its two million visitors shows that the hunger for new art is as strong as ever. The idea that aesthetic experience provides a transcendent understanding is at the very heart of art. It fulfils a deep human need. And despite the decadence, the confusion and the brouhaha, the desire to experience it, live with it and learn from it remains immortal’.
The Thames, looking east from Hungerford Bridge, 2010. Photo © David Secombe.
From 23 May Tate to Tate, a new boat service on the river Thames, will be available for gallery lovers. The service, which runs every forty minutes during gallery opening hours between Tate Modern and Tate Britain, will be launched on 22 May by The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. The boat also stops at the London Eye.
The Tate to Tate boat service, operated by Thames Clippers, is a state-of-the art 220 seat catamaran with specially commissioned exterior and interior designs by leading artist Damien Hirst. The boat is sponsored by St James Homes, a property developer.
David Secombe writes:
Now that Damien Hirst is the richest artist in the world (proof if any were needed of the global success of that strange London-based phenomenon known as ‘BritArt’), it seems entirely fitting that ‘the fastest’ commercial vessel on the Thames, ferrying passengers to and from the world’s most popular – some might say populist – art gallery, bears one of his patented designs. The Tate boat is decorated with Hirst’s bright, multi-coloured dots, and travels between those twin bastions of culture, Tate Modern and Tate Britain – the former fashioned from a derelict power station, the latter built on the site of a penitentiary.
For good or ill, Hirst seems to be the artist who best embodies his time; one can’t imagine a Bacon Barge or a Rothko Raft, whereas our Damien’s spotty pleasure cruiser – made possible by a property consortium – seems completely, depressingly, apt.
(The London Column has not yet felt the siren call of the current Hirst exhibition at the Tate, but you can read a response to the Sotheby’s extravaganza of 2008 on Baroque in Hackney. For another view of Hirst and his influences, see: http://www.stuckism.com/Hirst/StoleArt.html.)