The first stage of Tate Modern’s long-term expansion project opened to the public on Wednesday in the form of The Tanks: subterranean spaces, formerly vast oil containers for the Bankside power station, which have been reclaimed for the presentation of art.
These large concrete rooms retain their industrial identity; their rough walls showing signs of damp and marks where pipes and other fittings were once attached. They make unconventional galleries, but then their purpose is to show the least conventional parts of the Tate’s collection: performance art, installation, participatory pieces, moving image and electronic media works, and various other types of late- twentieth-century and contemporary art that need larger, more flexible spaces than the labyrinth of ‘white cube’-style spaces upstairs.
Eddie Peake, 'DEM', performed at Cell Project Space, London, 2012. © Eddie Peake. Photocredit: Damian Jaques.
Critics have already speculated that, decades from now, the day of The Tanks’ opening will be seen as a key point in the history of British art. The Tate and other public galleries have increasingly collected multimedia, installation and performance-orientated pieces without being able to present them in any significant number. This has meant that some key developments in art over the last 50 years have stayed largely cut off from the mainstream: to see live art, one has had to be ‘in the know’, ready to visit off-the-beaten-track venues on the recommendation of art-interested friends and contemporary art magazines. Now visitors can experience a large-scale light installation or an experimental art film alongside the achievements of Monet, Dalí and Pollock.
Sung Hwan Kim, The Tanks Commission, 2012 (installation view). © Sung Hwan Kim
There are four main spaces within The Tanks. One huge circular space is dedicated to a rotating programme of performance art and events; the weekend's events included a performance piece orchestrated by current RA Schools student Eddie Peake (who also stages an event at Chisenhale
this summer). A similarly sized space next door features a large-scale installation by South-Korean born artist Sung Hwan Kim (a commission by the Tate), and two smaller rectangular rooms present two works from the collection by London-born Lis Rhodes and American artist Suzanne Lacy.
The Tanks at Tate Modern. Photocredit: Tate Photography.
I was able to experience two works during my visit: Lacy’s collaborative performance piece The Crystal Quilt (1987) and the Sung Hwan Kim installation, which incorporates a new film Temper Clay (2012), older video pieces and some object-based art works such as his marker drawings on glass. Rhodes’ film-and-sound based projection Light Music (1975) was undergoing maintenance and the day’s performances in the live space, devised by Belgium dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, were to be shown intermittently during the afternoon.
Suzanne Lacy, 'The Crystal Quilt', 1987. © Work by Suzanne Lacy, with collaboration from Phyllis Jane Rose, Miriam Schapiro, Susan Stone, Nancy Dennis, and Sage Cowles. Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photocredit: Anne Marsden.
The Crystal Quilt was a performance by 430 women, all over the age of 60, in a shopping centre in Minneapolis. A time-lapse film shows the performance, in which Lacy choreographed the women coming together for conversations around tables; the artist’s intention was to challenge the lack of visibility of the older female community. Lacy gave her participants a voice by interviewing them about their lives, in particular prompting them to discuss subjects they wanted to talk about but rarely did. These interviews were amplified for visitors in an iron-clad cylindrical space and it was a moving experience to sit with other gallery-goers and simply listen to what the women had to say.
But while Lacy’s work was immediately accessible, Kim’s was not. After half an hour it was still hard to understand what narrative or themes linked the videos and other elements of the installation. One video involved an interview with an older Korean woman, with her answers shown in text on the screen; others featured poetic shots of the artist and individuals sitting, standing, reclining or earnestly undergoing simple tasks. Programme notes were available (for a donation of £3) that explained Kim’s outlook and intentions to a certain extent, but one could hardly call the text written by Kim lucid. His type of art is difficult, no doubt, and I will return and spend longer to try to decipher it - half an hour is not long enough.
But my experience poses a problem: how should the Tate, as they step bravely and nobly into new curatorial territory, seek to interpret such complex works for their mainstream audience?
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine