“Our strategy was to accept the physical power of Bankside’s massive mountain-like brick building and to even enhance it rather than breaking it or trying to diminish it.”
– Herzog & De Mueron (from the exhibition: Herzog & de Meuron – 11 Stations at Tate Modern)
The Tate Modern is everything a landmark is supposed to be: grand and imposing, while welcoming the attention of visitor and local alike. John Kelly’s lightly satirical work Mum and Dad at the Tate Modern points to the peculiarly British relationship the institution has with London and the broader arts community. Like the crown jewels housed in the Tower of London across the Thames, the massive brick monolith is a monument to Britain’s greatness and cultural fortitude. Yet, as a relatively new addition to the global art scene, the Tate Modern has developed a playfully irreverent attitude towards the Empire it represents and the arts trajectory it comments on.
Since it was added to the expansive Tate family of museums and galleries, the Tate Modern has become a fixture of both the contemporary avant-garde and the London scene. Its sprawling facade overlooking the Thames is complemented by a 325 ft tall tower and an expansive verdant approach.
Much of the property’s strength is attributed to the original Bankside Power Station complex, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and built in two phases between 1947 and 1963. This enormous Art Deco testament to design efficiency encased massive metal turbines and boilers that powered much of London until being decommissioned in 1981. Its spare facade is horizontally articulated into fields of brick and banks of iron cathedral windows, punctuated by the proportionally slender exhaust chimney. These elements are enriched by slender and carefully geometric brick dental string courses that vertically articulate each field into stepped planes of brick. The geometrically pure visual strategy and honest use of materials allude simultaneously to the heroic utopian visions of the Italian Futurists and the adventurous ambition of a child stacking wooden building blocks as high as can be reached. This dual nature is at the root of the warmly hopeful but imposing presence of the Tate Modern, successful in making a large building inviting and approachable.
Herzog & De Meuron skillfully embraced the building’s glory by stripping and reconfiguring its interior while only imposing slight modifications to the building’s exterior. The jewel of the museum is its Turbine Hall, a 35,000 square foot exhibition space and entry hall confgured as an indoor civic plaza that runs the full height and length of the building. Along the interior wall of the Hall, the architects created an almost diagrammatic south facade that showcases both the structure and program of the museum; long glass “bays” interrupt the steel and concrete to juxtapose the scale of the stacked galleries against the vast Turbine Hall.
On the exterior, the architects capped the chimney with a respectfully proportioned light box (beacon) and sat a “Light Beam” along the building’s expansive roof to provide natural light to the top-level galleries, which are wedged between the highest level of galleries lit by the cathedral windows and the original roofline.
Herzog & De Meuron’s strategy sublimely complements the architectural motivation of the original structure. The grand Turbine Hall demonstrates human engenuity and the uplifting potential of allotted civic space. Additionally, and perhaps just as importantly, this strategy keenly accommodates the Tate’s program. It’s Turbine Hall has become a world-renown space for experimental installation and conceptual art. And it’s varied galleries offer spatial and lighting advantages rarely found in other institutions housed within historic architecture.
Despite the Tate Modern’s youth, it’s permanent collection and temporary exhibitions have figured significantly into the trajectory of the global avant-garde. Additionally, the Tate Modern showcases an impressive collection of Modernist work from the twentieth century, especially work from the British scene, which figured prominently into many crucial movements and lines of experimentation. As a member of the large well-endowed Tate family, the Tate Modern features an array of excellent amenities and its collection is accompanied by an excellent web-based database.
British portraitist Meredith Frampton’s Marguerite Kelsey demonstrates both his classical technical prowess and his “deliberately modern” style (display caption). The warm color strategy works with Frampton’s disciplined hyper-realism to evoke the honesty of a photograph in depicting the model, Marguerite Kelsey. Her pensive gaze and her fashionable 1920’s attire capture a contemplative but progressive mood akin to the troubled optimism espoused by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic literary characters.
Leonora Carrington’s work conjures a savage but beautiful tempest of troubled animalistic energy. Born in Britain of Mexican lineage, Carrington was heavily influenced by European Surrealism and her affair with one of its luminaries, Max Ernst (Do You Know My Aunt Eliza description). In Surrealism, Carrington found an appropriate outlet for her creative anxiety, troubled by tumultuous relationships, bouts of mental instability, and Europe’s political turmoil. As a result, her work, much of which was accompanied by fiction prose and poetry, depicts sinister characters and creatures trapped in dark and seemingly dangerous situations.
Like many of her Surrealist contemporaries, Carrington created hybridized biomorphic creatures. Yet, many of her creatures were composed of recognizable figurative elements and religious references that more overtly nod at a dissatisfaction with the status quo. These troubled landscapes relate well to war-torn Europe in a manner similar to Picasso’s famed Guernica, while standing alone as evocative forays into fantasy. Although sinister, the creatures in the drawings shown below seem hopeful in their upward gaze and hurried energy, perhaps alluding to the great potential for understanding found within the Freudian subconscious or ‘dream state.’ According to the caption, these drawings may actually have been produced as therapeutic exercises while Carrignton underwent intensive psychological treatment.
Before Surrealism, Ernst Barlach was another European whose work reflected the troubled political and social climate of the first half of the twentieth century. Although created as a nationalistic celebration of the unstoppable German army at the outset of the First World War, The Avenger was later condemned as degenerate and confiscated by the Nazis (display caption). The aggressive posture and pained expression of the Avenger illuminate the dual nature of war, as both an exercise of nationalistic power and an unimaginable tragedy of destruction. The deep patina and weight of bronze perfectly convey these messages while making the piece an interesting study in geometry and motion. That is the element that most attracted me to this piece; the sharp lines and folds of the Avenger’s tunic relate well to the somber but powerful Art Deco visual language, one notably used to address nationalistic and wartime artistic initiatives.
Yet another piece in the Tate’s collection that addresses strife is Jose Carlos Martinat Mendoza’s recent work Brutalism: Stereo Reality Environment 3. Like The Avenger, it integrates both socio-political commentary and visual vocabularies traditionally associated with wartime architecture/art; from the display caption:
Although an absolute denouncer of the Brutalist aesthetic, I find the stylistic vocabulary it employs a very appropriate response to the 20th century and an interesting experiment in monolithic geometry. Brutalism is an architect’s wet dream, and an occupant’s nightmare; a good analogy for nominally-idealistic oppressive regimes forced upon an unwilling populace.
As an active installation, Mendoza’s piece engages Brutalism in a peculiar way. The piece identifies the style’s strength (and that of the institutions it housed) while continuously emitting documentation of its treacherous associations. The piece leaves a paper trail as if it was an insect constantly shedding its uglier skins in an attempt to find purity, to no avail.
Ai Wei Wei is undoubtably a celebrity of the contemporary avant-garde. His method, aesthetic, and subversive agenda resonate with both high- and low-brow crowds. His pieces commonly engage the greater public’s interest in the complexities of modern Chinese society and the plight of the underprivileged. But it was his 2011 arrest and the resulting global outcry that solidified his cult following. China’s infamous censorship machine had faced off with Wei Wei’s subversive work and overt socio-political criticism before, but many in the international community considered him immune from prosecution due to his global renown. His arrest and subsequent imprisonment sparked a firestorm of criticism from within and beyond the international arts community, and within China it became a lightning rod for civil unrest.
In 2010, Ai Wei Wei was invited to create an installation for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall as a part of the Unilever Series. He installed 100 million porcelain sunflower seed replicas across its vast floor and invited visitors to walk and sit upon the spread. These handmade seeds comment directly on the “Made In China” phenomenon. Porcelain has for centuries been one of China’s most prized exports, and its history is intertwined with the colonial and economic forces that shaped the country and its relationship with the rest of the world. Each porcelain seed was made and painted by artisans according to traditional methods. The vast quantity and its arrangement upon the floor might also reference the reach of Chinese exports and the quality level commonly attributed to them today; the sprawling and economically depressed Chinese majority; AND/OR the altered relationship today’s global consumer has with ‘imported fine goods.’
> more info and video documentation from the Tate Unilever Series Webpage
My favorite discovery at the Tate Modern was a small book of drawings by Soviet artist/architect Yakov (Iakov) Chernikhov. Chernikhov was a celebrated artist and educator in early Soviet Russia, who’s work was loosely associated with Russian Constructivism and was inspired by Italian Futurism (checkout the Iakov Chernikhov International Foundation webpage). He is best know for his many books on the design pedagogy he espoused and catalogues of his ‘Architectural Fantasies,’ illustrations of fantastical futuristic towers and monuments. These glorious compositions drew upon his keen understanding of geometry and scale, but rose above the practical concerns of construction to embody a distinct style of hopeful architecture.
Chernikhov’s first major book Fundamentals of Modern Architecture (1930) addressed both his rejection of the classical styles of the past and his careful consideration of Modernist interests in form and function. He notes an aversion to the ascetic white-box style developing in some pockets of Modernist architecture:
These elegant and intricate ‘fantasies’ demonstrate both Chernikhov’s incredible drawing prowess and his imaginative depth. The beautiful compositions exhibit the scale of buildings but could also be playful assemblages of simple volumes akin to children’s building blocks. They seem to foreshadow the power of Brutalism while retaining an accessible volumetric variability that integrates the human scale into the composition.
In the 1930’s, Chernikhov reacted to the great political fluctuations of the early Soviet Union and the institutionalization of Constructivism as the dominant mode by developing new stylistic experiments that might better reflect the new Socialist age:
Near the end of his life, Chernikhov delved deeper into his interest in typography. He studied the various historical Russian letter styles and developed a system of modular geometric templates for letter design that were compiled and posthumously published.
The Tate Modern is a can’t miss for the European visitor. Like the Centre Pompidou, it boasts an incredible facility and a significant collection. Herzog & De Meuron has been commissioned to build a brand new tower that promises to both complement and disrupt the sprawling Bankside facility.