Reflections on the Tate Modern
I have just returned from a trip to Iceland and London, where I had the chance to visit the Tate Modern!
I found this to be the case with quite a few of the places that I went in London, but to me, the most interesting thing about the Tate Modern was the building. The British modern and contemporary art collection is housed in an old electricity factory on the south side of the Thames. Smoke stacks punctuate the height and volume of this brick box, highlighted by frosted glass cubes that reassure us it’s not a relic, accidentally skipped over on the demolition lists. This building is disarming — the exterior is quite unassuming other than the row of modern artist’ names in block print across the top of the building, visible from across the bridge. And then you enter. The insides are a dark, charcoal color that is surprisingly light, accentuated by the sloping bridges and ramps that lead one’s feet and gaze inward and upward. In the stacks upon stacks of galleries lining the interior, this behemoth contains some of the most significant, historic art in the world.
Yet, my favorite works were in the spaces that most emphasized the building’s architectural legacy. At the very bottom floor of the museum, three tanks are preserved from industrial days. When I was there last month, each tank housed a work by an artist who was exploring the preservation of personal identity.
In the area just beside the tanks was Monument by Susan Hiller, a work consisting of many pieces. On the wall was a mosaic of printed reproductions of 19th century gravestones. Before the wall was a wooden bench, much like something one would see beside a path in a cemetery, and on the bench was an old-school recording device with a pair of headphones. The viewer is invited to put on the headphones to listen to the message that they artist herself has recorded — both a rumination on human life’s fragility, our desires to preserve and perpetuate ourselves, and a reading of the names of the men, women, and children whose tombstones are depicted on the wall behind. These individuals were all heroes in some way, their tombstones declaring that they saved a drowning child, pushed a woman out of the way of a horse, or the like. Yet, the artist notes, all that is left of them is a tombstone that most wouldn’t even notice in it’s natural setting.
In this position, you become part of the artwork, facing the viewers before you, perhaps thinking about your own little moments of heroism as you listen to the artist recite of the names of the dead behind you. It’s an awkward feeling, to be pulled into and become part of an artwork. As a crowd gathers, it feels as if the audience before you are judging your heroism and worthiness alongside that of the people whose names are depicted behind you on the wall. What does all this say about our daily actions and our work in this world? Why do we even strive to be remembered? And yet, so we go on…
In the next room, one of the circular tanks housed three screens displaying a work by Zineb Sedira called Mother Tongue. This work was particularly poignant to me as someone whose parents’ primary language is different from my own. Each of these three screens showed a pair in conversation, each speaking in their primary language. First, the artist’s mother and the artist conversed in Arabic and French, respectively. Then, the artist and her daughter spoke about school and childhood in French and English, respectively. Finally, the artist’s daughter and mother faced each other awkwardly in the last screen, unable to communicating much, despite their efforts. Headphones before each of these screens allowed the viewer to listen in to these conversations, peaking into these’s individuals’ familial history and troubled bonds. The grandmother-granddaughter conversation feels the most transgressive, as if we are keeping them from escaping this awkward situation, while they stand a foot or so away from each other at the very edges of the screen, looking clearly uncomfortable. At certain moments they peer out at whoever is behind the camera, ostensibly asking when this will be over — when they will be allowed to step off-screen, out of the spotlight. This work represents a broken loop — the linguistic disconnect is embodied in the physical space. The three screens are placed right next to each other, flat, across a few feet of a wall that actually joins together behind the viewer in this cylindrical tank of a room.
The last work that I will call out is both a visual and aural experience. When you walk through the doors of this last room, you’re met by the sight of a circle of speakers set on stands about 6 feet tall, cast in soft lights in the middle of the room. Each speakers emits the recording of an individual singer, but in unison they fill the space with a sublime, angelic sound. From the room’s entrance, these human-sized speakers look like they could be a ring of angels, standing guard around their audience, who sit attentively on ottomans in the center of the circle. This work is by Janet Cardiff — it is her Forty Part Motet, featuring the Salisbury Cathedral Choir performing a sixteenth-century choral piece. The recording isn’t cut, retaining the breaks between sections, which allows the viewer to rise from their seat in the center and walk toward the speakers to listen in on snippets of conversations amid the background noise at each stand. The work as a whole engenders a sense of awe, while closer, individual examination grounds the viewer back in the chitchat of daily life.
As I left the Tate Modern, I realized an interesting correlation with the other modern art museum I visited on this trip — the Iceland Museum of Modern Art. Also a restored warehouse, the difference was that the Icelandic museum was a bright white beacon of light on the Reykjavik harbor, pushed against the sidewalk on one side and the ocean on the other. We had visited during the first half of our trip, on a grey Reykjavik day, roaming the winding concrete staircases and halls that brought this monolithic building to a human size. But, like the Tate, this building also harbored both the past and the future. Both buildings have has shaped their environment and the people who have passed through as much as people have molded and re-purposed them. To some, this is the ultimate use of architecture — to be constantly in flux, in search, and metamorphosing into its most useful purpose.