I have just spent two hours and fifty minutes walking in and around Tate Modern on London’s Bankside. I didn’t plan that specific duration but there was a temporal dimension to my visit since its primary purpose was killing time. And because technically I wasn’t actually visiting Tate Modern, just occupying its space (more on that later) and facilities, the experience was a different one. The whole approach was different.
I am never not impressed with the brute ugliness of Giles Gilbert Scott’s building, although this is a good deal harder to appreciate than it was before the Borough area of Southwark was ‘regenerated’ and colonised by foodies and brand agencies. Cultural cleansing has expunged all but the very last traces of Borough’s darker DNA.
In the very early 1980s I rented a small studio opposite Borough Market, just a few rotten cabbage strewn streets away from where Tate Modern now stands. Then you had to pick your way along truly sinister blackened streets lined with empty warehouses and redundant wharves to reach the Thames waterfront. Rusting winches swung cinematically in the wind on silent Sunday mornings (I often slept on the floor in my room at 1 Cathedral Street on Saturday nights and when I remake this walk in my head it is always on a bitter, leaden Sunday morning). The grime of centuries filled every pore of decaying brick and collected like tiny black snow drifts in the darkest recesses – a fossil record of London Filth.
When you did reach the waterfront you were corralled along narrow walkways, bordered by the grey-brown Thames. You would pass the Anchor pub – a nest of snugs and passages that in mid winter were often Marie Celeste-like in their absence of both drinkers and bar staff – and finally hit upon the little straddle of Jacobean houses at Bankside.
And then you were right under it, Gilbert Scott’s vertiginous monster. Brian Sewell once called Bankside Power Station Britain’s best example of fascist architecture. And on a monochrome winter morning in London you got the full fascistic effect – Albert Speer channeled through the aberration of British modern abstract classicism.
Today I approached Tate Modern across a small desert of gravel fringed with little architect’s drawing silver birches, the perfect foliage bearer for the white-out aesthetic of the contemporary art space. The Millennium Bridge that connects the north and south banks of the Thames lands just behind and funnels a stream of random humanity into a joyless example late 20th Century hard landscaping.
Any pre-80s residual fear factor is dissipated by the hubbub of tourists, ice cream sellers, three-card-trick pliers, gallery goers and skinny jeaned chin strokers. Not that anyone seems to be taking very much notice of the brick colossus in front of them. That’s because when people rhapsodize over Tate Modern – and I mean the building, not the collection (which barely anyone at all mentions) – they are invariably talking about the interior space. It is the absence of anything at the very heart of this most venerated example of secular British architecture that people are really in thrall to; the hollowed out, now hallowed, space of the Turbine Hall.
“One of the most iconic urban spaces in the world,” the Tate website declares. And it does makes you draw breath when you walk into that cathedral-like space for the first time. How often does anyone encounter space in the raw like this? 120,000 cubic metres of central London real estate left shamelessly empty for months at a time. More than that, in its grey, weirdly granular light the thrilling void of the Turbine Hall succeeds as a liminal space. The ghost of heavy industry is inevitably invoked but so is the question ‘what next?’
Industrial metaphors abound when Tate Modern is discussed (unavoidably it is a “power house of contemporary art”). But the re-purposing of industrial buildings was already an art world cliché by the time Nicolas Serota was eyeing up Bankside Power Station as a potential second London base for the Tate. Whether power station, warehouse (Arnolfini, Tate Liverpool), train station (Musée d’Orsay) or flour mill (Baltic) gallerists love an industrial space. And when authentically industrial buildings are thin on the ground, former commercial sites – milk deport (The Dairy), 70s offices (White Cube Bernondsey) are commandeered.
Perhaps there’s the hope that an art gallery’s former industrial incarnation will confer some sense of purpose on its now ostensibly useless contents. I like to imagine a parallel with my early decision at art school to acquire, and wear at all times (including with gritty determination vists to the local Somerfield), a boiler suit. The boiler suit was the uniform of choice of the determinedly serious painter or sculptor: first task, get it filthy dirty (the thing came out of its polythene bag Ariel white making its wearer feel less industrial and more effete than ever). To deconstruct, I can now only think that this was more to do with cultivating an industrial aesthetic than about identifying with one’s fellow workers – who anyway would have fallen about laughing. It was a prop. One on which the art world still leans lazily.
So, while some would have liked a freshly minted iconic urban space – in the way that Bilbao got its Guggenheim, Paris its Pompidou Centre – London got in your face industrial space.
By one important measure – making the most of what it doesn’t have – Tate Modern is an unqualified success. And what a lot of people agree that Tate Modern doesn’t have is an especially distinguished permanent collection – supposedly the reason for the ‘thematic’ hanging (why Monet and Matisse must jostle with Barnett Newman and Anish Kapoor on some fairly elastic art historical pretext). Although this is plainly what it is – a way of diverting attention away from some notable gaps in the Tate collection (for which my namesake, J.B. Manson, the Tate’s famously modern art-hating director of 1930-38, must bear considerable responsibility) – walking through the galleries today you have to be impressed by how Tate Modern brilliantly anticipated the non-linear way the entire world would soon be curated by the Internet. Tate Modern is emphatically an art gallery for our times and it excels at a kind of casual connectivity.
Ralph Ruggoff, director of the Hayward Gallery, recently likened Tate Modern to the Bluewater shopping centre. Ruggoff was ostensibly commenting on issues of scale but I wonder if Tate Modern’s user experience was more front of mind. Brand conscious and instinctively mercantile – currently you enter via the gift shop (before being greeted by Tate membership agents and then passing through every level of cafe, bar and restaurant) – Tate Modern is the mirror of the contemporary retail experience: It encourages browsing – in this case of art; boutique shops and coffee stations pop up like store concessions as you follow your IKEA-like trajectory through the gallery; escalators disgorge visitors at Poetry and Dreams and Energy and Process as they might to Home Furnishings or Housewares. In this way Tate Modern has created a cultural cross-over zone, a reassuring familiarity that removes old obstacles to gallery going (never underestimate the art show’s potential as a theatre of embarrassments).
Waiting for my daughter and her friend at the main entrance to Tate Modern, I watched the art world segue almost perfectly with the normal world (near enough five million people flow in and out of this building over the year). Then on the mezzanine platform in the turbine hall, looking down on the human trajectories, orbits and eddies forming and unforming on the grey expanse of Turbine Hall floor it seemed to me that it is as a human intersection that Tate Modern is most arresting: the art gallery re-imagined as a social medium.