The Tanks at Tate Modern
The Tanks are a major new addition to Tate Modern, and despite the entrance lying within the main building’s Turbine Hall, the new space can almost be considered a different gallery in its own right. While the various Tate venues have displayed audio, visual and performance art before, this has been in each building’s pre-existing gallery spaces, which have had to be retrofitted briefly for this purpose.
With The Tanks, the Tate has created a new gallery environment designed purely for film, video, aural and performance art, works that are often more divisive and controversial than ‘traditional’ art such as painting and sculpture. To attract audiences to a form of modern art that they might not normally experience and to make The Tanks welcoming in a different way to the rest of the former power station, the gallery has employed three methods.
First, the space beneath Tate Modern is a beautiful post-industrial environment that is worth a visit for anyone with an interest in modern architecture and interior design. While the outside of Tate Modern and the main Turbine Hall are spectacular reminders of the building’s original use and have a magnificent sculptural quality to them as architectural environments, the space reclaimed for The Tanks is more intimate, letting visitors experience the history of the building in a far more tactile and close-up way.
The ceiling of the walkway going down to The Tanks is supported by stark diagonal beams and the newly exposed concrete walls show traces of previous industrial use, including chalk marks left by the builders. One of the individual gallery spaces further in includes a giant metal oil tank used as a small exhibition space that can be entered, with the name of the manufacturer embossed into the wall. In both this room and the surrounding areas, the feeling of being in a space not normally accessible to the general public gives visitors a sense of wonder and history usually only experienced during London’s annual Open House weekends.
The second quality worth noting is that the art displayed in The Tanks changes weekly. The initial 15-week programme, running until 28 October 2012, is called ‘Art in Action’ and the contents are shown on The Tate’s website. So if you find the video art on display not to your liking on a first visit, you can come back soon after knowing that there’ll be a different set of pieces featured on the gallery walls.
Finally, because the curators are aware that video and performance art may still be less familiar and more challenging art forms to many visitors, they have devoted a large area to visitor feedback, with website and social media interactions projected on a wall that people can also attach comment cards to.
Throughout the initial season there are three installations showing, with other temporary works installed for shorter periods, such as a day, a weekend or a week. The ‘permanent’ screenings include The Crystal Quilt by Suzanne Lacy, Light Music by Lis Rhodes and the first Tanks commission by Sung Hwan Kim. These show the variety of approaches to video art, as well as the different ways the curators are projecting each work.
The Crystal Quilt (1987) is a terrific time-lapse video of tables set up in a large interior space – possibly a shopping mall – shot from above. One hundred and forty square tables are placed in a geometric shape on a black and red carpet laid on a concrete floor. Visitors sit around the tables and come and go as the light from windows off-screen travels across the space, giving the video the feel of some kind of computer-game puzzle, with the sped-up activity too quick and far from the camera to be fully understood. The film is intriguing and captivating, with its repetitive movement open to a variety of interpretations – as is the way with all good art. Nearby in the space are video monitors showing the preparation for the filming of the piece, making the visit to this gallery similar to the watching of both a DVD’s main feature and its behind-the-scenes extras.
Light Music (1975) is an even more abstract work, with the artist using celluloid synaesthesia, which is to say using technology to interpret abstract shapes on the exposed and projected film to make music. The flickering shapes and discordant noises mix with the traditional sound of a shutter-based film projector, and make the visitor contemplate the mechanics of cinema projection as much as the use of painted celluloid, in a somewhat less hectic way than other celluloid artists such as Stan Brakhage. This film and a similar complementary piece were presented in a larger, starker room with little explanation.
Sung Hwan Kim’s new work, presumably because it was commissioned for the space, fits the architecture best of all, with projections tailored exactly to the walls and spaced out through one of the galleries in a way that resembles exhibitions of monumental history paintings. This makes the third of the longer-term installations a comment on the traditional curating of gallery spaces, and poses the question of whether painterly film projections can be viewed in a similar way to oil on canvas or photography.
If there is one concern about The Tanks, it’s that the dark, subterranean environments used for video art can be a touch claustrophobic, more so than other museums. Part of Kim’s installation takes place in the smaller, darker room mentioned above, a space I felt uncomfortable in, even with the next room viewable through glass. Perhaps there was something disturbing about being able to see through to a larger, lighter space that you could not easily reach.
A one-day exhibit on the other side of The Tanks – The Complete Cone Films (1973-1974) by Anthony McCall – showed only three times on the day I visited, and drew long queues that snaked around the atrium at the centre of the new galleries. Given the unpredictable popularity of some of the exhibits, it’s definitely advisable to research what is showing and when before visiting the space.
Overall, for both art lovers and cineastes, The Tanks is a terrific addition to Tate Modern, and an unmissable new contemporary art attraction in London.