Cultured Traveler: The Tate Modern and the Battle for London’s Soul

Confronted with the unusual size and shape of Turbine Hall — it is taller than it is wide — I suddenly became aware of the possibilities of space. Space in all directions. People, unsure of how to react to such aesthetic sublimity, simply lay on the floor. I was witnessing firsthand how the monumental scale of Turbine Hall disrupted the quiet triangulation between the viewer’s body, the artwork and the gallery. It soon became clear that the normal rules of decorum for how one should act in a museum should not, could not, apply here.

Achim Borchardt-Hume, the director of exhibitions at the Tate Modern, describes Turbine Hall as a cross between “a covered street and a public park.” The “public” part of this equation is vital, for the museum is largely financed by the government and — crucially — does not charge admission. “It’s everyone’s collection,” Mr. Borchardt-Hume said.

Such openness also invites the whole range of behavior one might expect to see in a public park. This became particularly true during Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 Turbine Hall installation, “The Weather Project, in which a giant artificial sun glowed ethereally through a billowing mist.

I had a strange emotional reaction to the exhibition: I began to weep. I remember being embarrassed about it, but looking over and seeing the person beside me weeping as well. Maybe it was just allergies. To describe the work is wholly inadequate as the materials themselves were unimpressive, some lights, some mirrors, some mist.

Yet to experience the transformation of that space alongside another human, to witness our shared wonder, was profound. Here was our entire experience rendered inside a box. A moment frozen in time and yet a moment that was deeply ephemeral. Visitors knew they could not take the experience with them and so they stayed, they picnicked beneath a fake sun, they fell asleep, they dreamed, they wrote, cried, laughed, sang, danced. In short, they were present. Together.

In retrospect, perhaps the reason we all felt so alive in there was because the iPhone had not yet been invented. The Turbine Hall experience has developed and morphed over the years alongside our increasingly reiterative culture where, for many young people, an experience can no longer be processed — it must be captured, commented on and retweeted by a virtual chorus to gain any sort of existential traction. Solitude no longer exists.

At first glance, the agora of Turbine Hall cuts against the grain of such digital collectivism. It is inherently local, temporary and not easily reduced to an Instagram post or 140 characters. The Turbine Hall commission is not an object — it is a feeling, an experience, an encounter. You have to be there. And yet such ephemeral, circumscribed cultural events represent, in some ways, the epitome of our FOMO (fear of missing out) times: “Did you see the new Turbine Hall? #lifechanging” A show across an ocean that resists all descriptors becomes the ultimate get.

Philippe Parreno’s “Anywhen” exhibition, which closed in April, was such a show. #youhadtobethere. Yet here I go: “Anywhen” was composed of eight mobile screens, a large-scale projector, an amalgamation of video footage of ventriloquism, cuttlefish and cityscapes, a manic marquee sign, a graceful beacon lamp that slid the length of the space, a motley assortment of inflatable fish and a plethora of tiny speakers, all in constant flux, all working in concert to conjure a series of moods and theatrical experiences that changed throughout the day. No two moments were the same. And here was the kicker: This universe was controlled by a jar of yeast, the diegetic sounds of the building and an algorithm. Sound complicated? Good. It was.

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