London goes pop
The top ten tourist attractions for the whole of the United Kingdom are all in London — and they’re all museums and galleries. From my home in Brixton the buildings on that list seem to form a line snaking northwards in my mind’s eye — I somewhat mistakenly lump them together as part of a district I can’t afford to go to; filled with things I can’t afford to buy, or do. Lots of people I’ve met living in South London feel the same saying they don’t go north of the river unless they have to —it’s a hinterland — despite it being easily accessible by several modes of transport. Those born and bred here, on going to Oxford Street or to one of the major galleries, say they’re off ‘to London’ or ‘into town’ the way I’d talk about getting the bus to the little high street back home.
This had me thinking about the idea of a ‘London proper’. Moving to a world renowned tourist destination has you searching for authenticity — the bits undiscovered by the rich or the tourists, but it’s a tough nut to crack. I always thought I’d be more likely to find this elusive ‘authentic London’ in amongst the reggae mix tapes at Battersea car boot than at the Tate modern rubbing shoulders with a crowd of Spaniards in puffer jackets. I’m also scared of art, it scares me because I’m afraid to pin a meaning to something in case it turns out I’m wrong.
But when I realised I could get the overground to the Tate Modern in less than 15 minutes I was far more up for the idea of trying to pin a meaning in the ‘World Goes Pop’ exhibition.
I found myself parked in front of an old television set in the gallery. Peter Roehr’s advertisement clips repeat on a maddening but hypnotic loop. A short burst of brass instruments and a black and white cityscape come to life in front of you for a few short seconds before the scene replays again, and again. “The original function of the objects should be totally forgotten” he is quoted by way of explanation. What was once a cheery advert for one product or another is stopped in its tracks completely bereft of its original purpose.
Walk through to another section and a video clip shows compiled clips of the ‘La Menesunda’ exhibit in 1960’s Buenos Aires. Visitors would queue up around the block to experience this literal ‘mash up’ of the senses. The prestigious Torcuato di Tella Institute housed the original exhibition in 1965 — it was a somewhat unlikely space for rooms featuring a couple in bed or permeated with the smell of street food.
Tate modern has always felt like a fitting space in which to view modern art. Formerly the Bankside power station, its foreboding silhouette and sparse interior means it retains a sense of mechanical purpose. Its industrial red brick chimney juts out into the London skyline by 99 metres — built between 1947 and 1963 and done so to be deliberately shorter than the Dome of St Paul’s. Working in the 1960’s the Pop artists on show in Tate modern seemed to focus on a recreation and mockery of religious iconography rather than a reverence to them. At around the time though here was architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott forced to address public concern that the power station would not ‘dwarf’ the cathedral.
On transforming the building for use as a gallery in 1995, architect Jacques Herzog says: “It was a machine — it was not meant to be for people, it was un-public”. He also says something completely at odds with what Peter Roehr was trying to do with his advertisements: “the new shouldn’t be alien to the old and the old shouldn’t be alien to the new”. Herzog was creating a living functioning monument to the arts out of what was primarily a pragmatic site of industry. The façade was retained but the interior completely gutted. In a way the image of Scott’s architecture had been plundered. But the Pop artists also argued that a copy had as much value as the original — Tate modern remains an edifice on the landscape despite no longer functioning as a ‘Cathedral of Power’.
Despite the textbook 1960s’ colour palate and comic book signifiers the exhibition is somehow eerily uncanny. The focus is on the trickle down of the popular style adapted for different cultures and contexts yet formulated by the Americans. Still though as you search for your authentic London, viewing the exhibition in a former power station or ‘Cathedral of Power’, it’s the overarching comment on the effect of capitalism that ring most true.
The time and context in which any piece of art is made are obviously of implicit importance. Viewing the art works at ‘World Goes Pop’ you’re unable to escape the visual elements associated with sexual liberation; lime greens, oranges and PVC. The building housing such a riot of colour and texture though it is in comparison the Joy Division video to the exhibition’s Bowie. I know I’m unable to make the ascent to the Tate Modern without “Atrocity Exhibition” repeating in my head.
At the same time when Giles Gilbert Scott was getting badgered about his rudely large chimneys making St Paul's feel inferior — the international Pop artists were actually causing more of a stir with their decidedly non-phallic references to genitalia. There are noticeably more female artists represented in the exhibition than you might have anticipated. It is both jarring and joyous to see female bodies dismantled and reconstituted as pin-ball machines and unspecific contraptions rather than mere beautified objects to gaze upon. In ‘The Pretty Month of May’, artist Evelyne Axell places an image of herself- naked- in the perspex triptych remodel of a famous photograph of student protests. The other females in the photo she repaints as naked too. Within the industrial setting of the Tate, surely a male dominated space in its former incarnation, the female artists look to have reclaimed themselves as politically active and complex structures — reduced down to their parts, but on their own terms.
Post-modernism and sexual revolution was exploding at the same time that Scott was installing modernist structures like Bankside and Battersea power stations and the iconic red telephone box. Today the telephone box studs most street corners but is more likely to be awash with flyers for sexy escorts than a place for vital communication, each one a mini Tate modern exhibition of its own. The Battersea development now too serves as a monument of post-modernism.
The Battersea Power station is described as being a ‘much loved feature of the London skyline’ thanks to its famous twin chimneys, perhaps part of this is due to its appearance on the Pink Floyd Animals album cover, but there is also something undeniably appealing in Scott’s modernist art deco design. It was awarded grade two listed status in 1980 and former plans for the site included a Disney style theme park — plans for which stalled in 1989. I envisage the American post-modernists having a field day seeing a former site of industry reduced to a garish play ground of over priced candy floss and simulations of Space.
Over the past few years the iconic white chimneys have been painstakingly demolished and then restored of course they no longer serve as chimneys. In their new incarnation the chimneys will serve as mere viewing platforms. On the approach to the power station seeing ant like figures work tirelessly on chimneys that will see no smoke it strikes me that perhaps the chimneys serve up a more vivid large scale depiction of post-modernity in the City than ‘World Goes Pop’ could muster: “the original function of the objects should be totally forgotten”.
From a British person’s perspective the exhibition is most interesting in seeing the style of Warhol and Lichtenstein appropriated by different lesser known cultures giving fresh perspective and importance to the scene beyond solely the popular anti-capitalist narrative. The only British artist featured was Joe Tilson whose features pieces focused on tabloid press. The front pages were replicated in large scale using carpentry, fabric and screen printing.
Tilson seems to have a pre-occupation with building materials. He later made attempts to comment against consumer society in his body of work of the 1970’s — ‘Alchera’ by using stone, straw and rope in an effort to transcend time and culture. Just when you thought a male artist had stood out for you though- it was his wife Joslyn Morton who stitched the pieces together.
Within the gallery at the Tate the world of Pop art is brought to life with large sculptures juxtaposing inflatables and fabrics against metal and machinery. Objects are anthropomorphised as in Kiki Kogelnik’s “Bombs in Love” and Nicola L.’s “Little TV Woman” — here the object is used as a means of expressing human behaviour towards one another.
We impress relevance on certain buildings being more or less authentic and give grade listed status to certain buildings based on a general consensus of worth. The architecture of the city is beginning to prove the battleground for many social and political arguments to play out. Just as the public valued the symbolic reverence of the Bankside chimney to the Dome of St Paul’s — now more than ever it seems the public are showing their disdain at the re marketing and re labeling of their landmarks.
In a case worthy of a Disney animation tearjerker in the 1930s the independent Spiegelhalter jewellers in Spitalfields refused to be moved by the developers of Wickman’s department store for any price and so the store was build around them. It was dubbed: “One of the best visual jokes in London, a perennial triumph for the little man, the bloke who won’t conform.” by architecture critic Ian Nain. The jewellers have since stopped trading but today there is a campaign to save what is now just a frontage, its champions are effectively trying to save a patch of nothing because of what it stands for, that’s more Tate Modern than the phone box.
The perceived symbolism of our architecture even extends to its chosen name. American developers in Elephant and Castle ‘Tribeca Square’ were met with protest in 2014 as the name actually means ‘Triangle Below Canal Street’, an area in Manhattan. The Southwark council were successful in their rejection, ironically though the Canadians don’t seem to have as much of an issue with this, there are plans for a 41-storey tower block in Vancouver named “Tate on Howe” in tribute to our own Tate.
As a city so fiercely protective of our skyline and our symbols yet also proud to be a melting pot of all cultures it’s interesting that the Tate Modern — a shapeshifting symbol of post-modernism itself- hosted ‘World Goes Pop’. It’s interesting in as much as I can’t imagine a similar exhibition staged in New York. It may well have done but for some reason I imagine the birthplace of Pop art would react to international Pop art in the way we might react to a Japanese Beatles tribute act.
In many ways it’s our architecture that tells the story of our attitudes to change and we can see evidence of fierce loyalty and appreciation of the buildings around us.
A city with as much history as London has become its own testament to post-modernism, mass consumerism is woven into the streets within the very brick and mortar. The old industries of the turn of the century are forgotten and we are forced to re-appropriate their spaces. We are moving back into Scott’s ‘Cathedrals of Power’ now defunct of their original use — mixing their mechanic façade with our soft fleshy forms — inhabiting them as our domestic and personal spaces — the Pop-artists would approve.