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THE TATE MODERN

 

 

 

It was said of the Dome, "Great building - pity about the contents." This could be a first reaction for Christians commenting on the Tate Modern - and many might take pity on the Millennium Bridge which has failed to link London's spiritual centre with Bankside, which, historically outside the jurisdiction of the City, has always been home to the dubious.

One Christian friend who visited it diplomatically stated that he had not yet come to terms with modern art, while another openly declared some of the contents to be pornographic. The shock of the modern is not new, and the task of galleries is not the Victorian idea of a safe deposit to conserve the cultural heritage by good example. However should not a public institution open to all ages bear some responsibility for what it exhibits and hence the message it conveys?

Nigel Halliday reviewed the Tate Modern for the Christian magazine Third Way (June 2000). "It has a grandeur of scale never before enjoyed by a British gallery" and has "a major innovation which is at least as significant as its architecture: it has arranged its collection without any regard for chronology or..... art movements..... Instead the curator has grouped the works round a number of themes, such as still life, real life, art history, meaning and society..... to get away from the old historical presentation" methods. "The Tate Modern offers us a personal, private experience, leaving us to find our own meanings" rather than acting as a repository of values and understanding.

This is a decidedly Post-Modern, though not necessarily unchristian approach, ironic in that the Tate's most clearly Post-Modern statement is the Turner wing added to its original building.

The exhibition was also reviewed by Karen Harley for the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, who concluded "The underlying method in this gallery's hang manages to keep you entertained and well informed. Film, music, sculptures - a delicious feast for the senses."

What of the building itself, converted from a power station by Herzog and de Meuron? While Battersea power station further along the Thames lies half converted and half derelict the Bankside conversion went ahead and produced one of London's most popular galleries, attracting over a million visitors in its first few weeks, though physically cut off from its visual link with St.Paul's Cathedral. Its architectural success depends on several factors, among them its ease of entry and indoor public square. Entering from the side down the excavated ramp into the former turbine hall provides the Wow! factor. It is a vast space, at first sight empty except for people, walking up and down or resting at the side. Ahead is a populated bridge which is at grade level from the riverside entrance and will eventually form a cross route when the next phase opens; but which is already a well used viewing platform for the sculptures at the far end. Down to the left is a view along the bookshop - bigger than many art book shops but devoted wholly to modern art. Above are light box balconies from which to view people below while relaxing outside the individual galleries.

While externally the building is little changed apart from the long light box running the length of its roof, the interior alongside the turbine hall was completely rebuilt to provide the galleries. These are reached by escalators, another opportunity to view people, (but a problem when one breaks down) and are stacked on several floors above and below the exhibitions you pay for. This is not just a device to encourage more people into them, but ensures the building is peopled to the top rather than thinning out as you ascend. To help you find your way round the gallery entrances are colour coded as on the guide leaflet.

Overall this is a building to enjoy without necessarily viewing the art, which is actually quite difficult with the high pedestrian flows. Nevertheless I would still object to the placing of the few pornographic exhibits as it is not easy to deliberately avoid them on a first visit. However they do raise the question of what constitutes pornography and what its effects are. Overwhelmingly the displays are good; Mondrians at first hand are seen to have texture and not to be the rectangles of pure colour they appear in reproductions, and even the pile of bricks has meaning - your own of course!

If the aim of modern art was to take it out of the salon and make it relevant to ordinary people, then the Tate Modern has succeeded in this; it is more a bustling market place than traditional gallery, and naturally has its own cafe and snack bar. This former industrial building is its own best "as found."

 

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