The Magnificent New Tate Modern Opens with 50% Female Solos and More Non-Western Artists

Izabella Scott
Jun 16, 2016 9:59PM

It’s unprecedented for a museum that has yet to turn 20 years old to double its floor plan. But that’s exactly what London’s Tate Modern, founded in 2000 in a former power station, has done. Opening to the public on June 17th (after 3000 school children took a first look on June 16th), the much-anticipated new Tate wing—a twisting 10-story pyramid called the Switch House, which rises up above three excavated oil tanks intended for live performance and film—brings 60 percent more gallery space.

Viewed from the south side of Britain’s River Thames, the Switch House is visually arresting, towering above the long brick mass of the Tate Modern’s original space, which houses the 155-meter-long Turbine Hall and the Boiler House. It’s dressed to match its predecessor with a decorative checkerwork of bricks, described by its architects, Herzog & de Meuron, as “knitwear.” At night, light peeks out through the perforations in the brick design, and by day it streams through the lattice into the building’s polished concrete interiors.

The £260 million ziggurat is a free-access public space realized in a time of austerity—a momentous feat, and one that goes against the current political climate. Not only are there substantial areas dedicated to education, such as the spacious Tate Exchange on Level 5, but there are a multitude of places to simply dawdle. Its many pathways and viaducts encourage visitors to wander up the curving staircases, peruse the vaulted hallways, or enjoy the unexpected views over London’s jagged terrain.

Perhaps most significant of all is the rehang of Tate Modern’s galleries. This has been conceived as an act of curatorial revisionism that is crucial to any politically relevant and global-facing institution. It’s clear that Tate has thought critically and philosophically about the position it espouses through its displays.

Tate Modern director Francis Morris acknowledges that when Tate Modern first opened its doors in 2000, the scope of its collection was considerably limited, with holdings dominated by work from male and Western artists. Women artists constituted just 17 percent of the collection. Over the past 15 years, the museum has been aggressively expanding and diversifying its acquisitions. In 2009, for example, the first-ever Curator of Photography was appointed, and the museum’s holdings have widened to include alternative strands of photography, including works by Lewis Baltz and Lorna Simpson.

The aim of the current rehang, Morris says, is to show “more photography, performance, and film… and more work by women.” There are seven new exhibitions across the Switch House and the Boiler House, each drawing on the museum’s vast storehouse of art and organized according to a different rubric. “Living Cities” in the new Switch House, for example, displays artworks that grapple with and respond to the urban environment and issues of migration, protest, and power. “Between Object and Architecture,” which fills another long, lofty gallery in the Switch House, presents sculpture that has departed from the plinth.

Morris is keen to emphasize that 50 percent of the solo shows on display are by women, and this increased diversity is immediately noticeable in “Between Object and Architecture.” There are plenty of familiar works by male artists, such as those of Donald Judd and Carl Andre—whose presence in the inaugural display, in combination with the absence of work by Ana Mendieta, drew protests on June 13th. More compelling, though, are the works of women sculptors. Marisa Merz’s Untitled (Living Sculpture) (1966), a set of crushed oven chimneys, hangs from the ceiling. Mertz first installed the work in her own kitchen, its long aluminum tentacles draped over sites of domestic service in a refusal, and renegotiation, of housework. Merz was the only female artist affiliated with Arte Povera, and she brings an important, alternative voice to the movement.

Nearby is Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair’s Infinite Structure (1963), a stack of perforated, interlocking bricks. Choucair is considered Lebanon’s first abstract artist, and was little-known in the U.K. before her 2013 exhibition at Tate. Rachel Whiteread’s resin casts of wood (1994) that glow amber and brown under the strip lighting also populate the room, as does Roni Horn’s translucent pink cube, Pink Tons (2009), which seems to glisten between states, at once melting and congealing.

Artists outside of the dominant Euro-American canon are also better represented across the galleries. “We are very consciously telling a different story,” says Tanya Benson, Curator of International Art at Tate Modern. “We want to show that the history of Modernism is a much bigger and more complex thing than we had previously accounted for.” This shift is palpable. As if to mirror the building’s intricate architecture—the unexpected views up stairwells, the peepholes between floors, the assortment of rectangular windows that frame the city beyond—the new exhibitions offer multiple visual pathways through the history of art.

The work of Brazilian Neo-Concrete artist Hélio Oiticica, for example, is threaded into several of the exhibition narratives—included in “A view from São Paulo” in the Boiler House, which maps an evolving network of artists in 1950s Brazil, and later in a Switch House exhibition that takes as its subject “Performer and Participant.” Here, Oiticica’s influential installation piece Tropicália (1966)—composed of two tilting huts redolent of favela architecture, alongside two caged parrots—takes center stage. The work marks an important moment in the history of Brazilian art, instigating the Tropicalismo movement that brought popular culture and the avant-garde into closer proximity.

Most impressive of all are The Tanks, which provide a spectacular subterranean space for encountering art. In Herzog & de Meuron’s original conversion of Bankside Power Station, their masterstroke was to retain, and even exaggerate, the original industrial architecture—the vast, cavernous Turbine Hall, stripped of its machinery; the smokestack left to stand like a totem to its past life. This time around, it’s the oil drums that remain alive to the past, their concrete chambers stamped with the evidence of old stairwells, trapdoors, and pipework. There is something of a leftover energy in these echoing, empty cylinders, the feeling of inhabiting a space designed for something other than human—as if to teeter on the edge of an industrial sublime.  

These are spaces for happenings, music, and film, and the opening displays in each tank point toward the manifold ways in which they might be deployed. The larger South Tank, which is brightly lit and contains multiple arenas for live performance, currently houses a set of strange musical instruments that have been laid out on the gallery floor. At certain hours they are played by a group of musicians, and a cacophony of hypnotic sound fills the chamber. This is Lebanese artist Tarek Atoui’s The Reverse Collection (2016), which takes as its subject a group of puzzling musical objects the artist discovered in the basement of an ethnological museum in Berlin.

The adjacent tank is of an entirely different order. It’s a dark chamber populated by glowing screens that seem to hover in mid-air like portals to other worlds. This installation by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is set in Nabua, a town on the Thai-Laos border. One projection cinematically spans an entire wall, while others fizz light from the corners, as if to mark the depths of the space. We are left to piece together a narrative, part documentary and part fantasy, mixing history, legend, and folklore.

Tate’s director Nicholas Serota has noted that the Switch House’s twisting structure was, in part, the result of received law. London has a number of preserved sightlines, in particular those of its historic landmark St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Switch House had to bend to regulations. But the building is magnificent, seemingly in motion and twisting into the light.

As Tate’s architecture and outlook coalesce, the overriding message is one of agility and criticality: the determination to carve new sightlines into the past, and at the same time, to extend into the future. The new galleries demonstrate a decisive turn towards digital, aural, and live mediums as Tate opens its spaces to the most current genres of art. It would be foolish to try and anticipate what kinds of art will be made in the decades to come, but this new building and the philosophy it represents leaves a new Tate that is open to whatever that might be.

Izabella Scott

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Cover image: Interior view of The Switch House, Tate Modern. © Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Tate Modern.