The Tate Modern (London)

Sunday, December 2, 2012
London's Tate Modern art gallery must qualify as the most popular art gallery in the world with visitor numbers currently estimated at 4.7 million per annum. It is housed in the striking and massive building which used to be the Bankside Power Station, and its conversion to art gallery use has been stunningly successful. The location could hardly be bettered, on the opposite bank of the Thames away from St Pauls Cathedral, and approached by the elegant millennium footbridge over the river.
When the power station was decommissioned, there was a real risk that it would be demolished and the prime site used for profitable commercial purposes. A campaign was started to promote the re-use of the building, to save it for posterity as a significant London landmark. Eventually the pressure succeeded in its purpose, and in 1994 it was announced that the Tate Gallery would take over the building for a second major gallery. The Tate already had a modern collection, housed in a classical-style building in Pimlico.
The old building became the Tate Britain, housing British art exclusively, and the newly converted Bankside building was opened in January 2000, housing works of international modern and contemporary art.
The conversion featured an enormous interior space using the whole height of the building, the Turbine Hall. That space is used for exhibitions by individual artists in rotation, including some extremely effective site-specific works of art. Some of the best received by the public, and the most effective have been Louise Bourgoise's sinister giant spider, entitled simply 'Maman', and the work entitled 'Weather Project' by Olafur Eliasso, which involved a massive sun-like circle at the far end of the gallery filling the whole hall with warm yellow light, which seemed to bathe the visitors in its powerful glow. Many reported feelings of euphoria as a result, and the exhibition was flooded with visitors. Luckily the hall is too big to have ever felt crowded, however popular the exhibition.

Another notable turbine hall installation was the 'Sunflower seed' sculpture by the Chinese artist and political dissident, Ai Weiwei. That consisted of a pool like hole in the floor filled with millions and millions of tiny porcelain beads, each painted black and white to resemble a sunflower seed. At first sight the exhibition was puzzling but when the realization dawned on visitors that each one of the millions of seeds had been hand-crafted and painted, the strange impact of the installation was felt. A film accompanied the show, describing the manufacturing process and how it had revived the fortunes of an obscure Chinese village. Unfortunately, the public were not allowed to walk in the seeds as originally intended, for health and safety reasons so that limited one's experience.
The permanent exhibition was not arranged chronologically but thematically in the early years, and more recently by way of artistic schools and methods. There is a large surrealist collection, and an impressive Rothko room filled with the painter's brooding creations in red and black.
Entrance to the gallery's permanent collection, and to the Turbine Hall exhibitions, amazingly, are still free of charge, while there is an entrance charge for other temporary exhibitions at the gallery. The building itself, particularly the Turbine Hall, makes an impression which is likely to linger, and it is a privilege to experience some of the best modern art in the world at such a stunning gallery, without paying a penny.


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