I spent a few hours at the Tate Modern the other day.
My knowledge of art is, at best, completely non-existent. I know what I like and, in general, I’m willing to give the rest the benefit of the doubt, assuming it’s got some sense of purpose or emotion behind it even if I’m blind to it. Anyway, I saw some things that impressed me, others I was fairly indifferent to and some which I’m sure could impress other people even if they meant nothing to me. And then I wrote some poetry, angling as I am for the title of most pretentious bearded man in the Greater London area – a coveted award I’m glad to say I’ll almost certainly never attain unless scratching my balls and watching the X-Files becomes a qualification.
Anyway, I’ll be posting a few pieces over the next few days which were – though it pains me to use the terminology – ‘site specific’ as well as trying to dredge up some of the images that I was staring at in between scribbling.
Overall though my impression was a slightly depressing one. It’s not the first time I’ve been there, it’s conveniently placed between several pubs and out of the rain which are both important qualities in a place as far as I’m concerned. It’s probably the first time I’ve bothered to think about the Tate Modern as anything more than another tourist attraction though. Easily forgotten against the backdrop of London as a city I live in, as opposed to one I ever bother to experience.
‘Depressing’ might be the wrong word for it really, disappointing perhaps? Dissatisfying. Something beginning with ‘d’ at any rate. It wasn’t because of the art, or the tourist hordes, or the earnest gallery goers, or the less earnest ones who felt that being seen there was as much the point as anything. It was a vague sense of unease at the place itself, something I can’t blame any human influence for. Inside there are hundreds of pieces, probably, all desperately attempting to translate some experience, observation, message or emotion through any number of mediums and all, ultimately, doomed to failure. I saw work which was drawn from war, suffering, passion, commitment, some was good, some did nothing for me but everything was overwhelmed by the white walls and measured cleanliness of the place itself. Just stepping through the entrance to the turbine hall was enough to cut off life as it’s lived from art as it’s experienced. One immediate, forceful, inescapable, the other neatly codified, observable and tame. Which is sad, really. Life goes into art, purpose goes into art and it’s not a tame or gentle thing – it’s a vicious force, in some cases at least, it’s a scream to try and force some awareness, or understanding of something that needs understanding. Or it’s a push, a shove to make the viewer try to think about or experience something which the artist thinks has value, or necessity. Put that against white walls though, put it above the gift shop and next to the cafe, lined up against another six works and on a circuit leading from the horrors of war to the perfection of sculpture and… you get nothing. You get a place which is an avoidance of life, a negation of the realities of it, a safe space to sit and watch what you know are powerful things – because it says so on little square plaques – without having to relate them to the world in which you’re actually living.
Fair enough, I suppose. You can’t stick a load of paintings by the bus stop, they’d get nicked, or rained on, but then they’d also have some real force behind them too. At the bus stop you’re living your life, at the Tate Modern you’re touring a dozen other people’s. Probably not a particularly profound observation as far as art goes, but there you go, as I said – I’m an ignorant bastard about these things.
One thing that did stick out, one feature which did impress me as being a direct message to the experience of being in the place rather than one transported into it for the sake of convenience, was a piece of living art. A woman in one of the rooms who, whenever the room seemed full enough, turned away from facing the wall and started to chant/sing. ‘This is propaganda and you know it’. There’s a message I can get behind, because it is. The Tate Modern, maybe other galleries too, is a grand work of propaganda for the human species. It’s a forum where all the bad and the good, all the inescapable, overwhelming aspects of our experience are cleaned up, given nice lighting and set aside from us so we can look at it with disconnected serenity. And even better, we can tell ourselves, even if we know it’s not quite true, that when we stared at the work we saw the emotions and thoughts that made it staring back at us, we understood something. But I can’t say I did to be honest, much as I could sense there was something there to be understood, I was still standing outside of real life and it’s only there where you can find clarity worth having.