Saturday, April 16th 2016
We had no special plans for today and so we started off with a leisurely breakfast at Pret A Manger in the what is now called the Angel Centre (it used to be called the N1 Centre) and then wandered across the road to the bus stop. But whither from here?
‘How about the Tate Modern?’ said I. ‘We haven’t been there for a while.’
And so it was decided.
We changed buses at London Bridge and while we were there took quick look at Borough Market.
Borough Market is of course famous and has been famous for a very long time, at least since the 13th century to which its origins as an organized market have been traced. Fruit, vegetables and food products of every kind are to be found here and can be bought retail or wholesale.
The market is held under cover in special premises recently refurbished and altered to allow for the building of a new railway bridge for London Bridge Station.
(The above picture is a scan shot and the lady in the left foreground can also be seen near the middle of the picture!)
It’s a little difficult to say exactly where the market begins and ends as it spills out into streets and spaces around the main premises.
In Stoney Street is this curious construction, now a part of the market but obviously distinct from it in style. It is a metal framed structure painted metallic silver. It is Grade II listed.
As you might guess, it is not original to the market. It comes, in fact, from Covent Garden. Covent Garden’s third theatre, now known as the Royal Opera House, was built by Edward Middleton Barry and opened in 1858. (The previous two theatres had both been destroyed by fire, a common fate of theatres.) Beside his new theatre, Barry built an iron and glass structure called the Floral Hall, intended to serve as a concert hall annexe and winter garden. Let Historic England take up the story (see here):
While the main theatre remained little-altered after its construction, the roof of the Floral Hall had to be rebuilt after fire damage in 1956 which resulted in the loss of its lofty glass vaults and dome. In the early 1980s a huge extension programme was embarked upon at Covent Garden and as part of this the southern portico of the Floral Hall was taken down in the early 1990s and put into store. It was subsequently re-erected to form a frontage (opened 2004) to Borough Market in Southwark.
And so to the Tate Modern. The gallery occupies the former Bankside Power Station, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott and built between 1947 and 1963. The cathedral-like Turbine Hall allows the display of large sculptures and is impressive in its own right. As well as its own collection of artworks, the Tate has a rolling programme of temporary exhibitions, making it a place to visit again and again.
My tastes in art tend, I admit, to be somewhat conservative. I admire and enjoy the great paintings and sculptures of the past which, being largely figurative, seem easier to understand. Modern and contemporary art left me bemused and I tended to be dismissive of it. In more recent times, however, my feelings have changed. I have become more ready to take time over works that seem at first sight (and perhaps even at subsequent sights!) incomprehensible. I don’t claim to ‘understand’ every work I see (in any case, what is it we mean by ‘understanding’ a work of art?) but every so often a work ‘speaks’ to me in some strange way that makes that particular visit to the gallery memorable and worthwhile.
What follows is a selection of the works on show in various galleries, chosen because they attracted my attention and (let’s be honest) were amenable to being photographed.
This work by Magdalena Abakanowicz is so huge and complex that it needs to be seen from all possible angles. The top photo was taken with my iPhone 6, using the panorama setting, the others with my usual Panasonic Lumix DMC G6.
This is a work that I imagine would be described by the Saatchi Gallery as it describes Richard Wilson’s installation 20:50, that is, as ‘site specific’ with ‘variable dimensions’ (see here). The shape and layout of Embryology cannot be fixed and must surely be different wherever it is set up anew. This is somewhat unnerving to the art viewer used to paintings and sculptures of fixed shape and size that never change. How do we understand a mutable work of art? Surely, its meaning must be sought elsewhere than in its present, and temporary, shape. The Tate’s description of the work will be found here. The size of the work is all the more impressive when we consider the difficult conditions under which it was produced.
If you are old fashioned like me, you instinctively expect painters’ canvases to be ‘pictures’, that is, to show scenes or figures that can be recognized and named, such as ‘landscape’, ‘portrait’, ‘horses in a field’, etc. Painters still do paint like that but only some of the time. Many paintings are not ‘pictures’, not in the conventional sense, anyway. This can be puzzling: how do we know how to react to it if we don’t know what it represents? I don’t know the answer to that so I am going to side-step it and tell you what the label says:
This work displays Bowling’s interest in paint as ‘organic matter, pliable and beautiful’. The complex texture is the result of foam, shredded plastic packing material, Christmas glitter, costume jewellery, plastic toys and oyster shells being embedded into the surface. Bowling began as a figurative painter, studying alongside R B Kitaj – referenced in the work’s title – at the Royal College of Art. He has talked about his move to abstraction as a process of ‘unlearning’.
What is this piece by Phyllida Barlow: is it a sculpture, an installation, a model, or what? Perhaps all of these or perhaps something unique for which all existing terms are but approximations. It’s derived from a house, yes, but has been turned topsy-turvy, as if the parts of a conventional house have been dismantled and then put back together any old how, like a piece of flat-pack furniture assembled by an idiot. Here is what the Tate has to say about it.
This piece and the one below are both by Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), made of metal and wood, respectively. While sharing an obvious family likeness, they are quite different in conception and therefore in what they say to us.
What I find intriguing about these works is that when I look at them, I feel that I almost recognize what they are but that the identity remains dancing tantalizingly just beyond my mental grasp. The top one says ‘machine’ to me and the bottom one says ‘furniture’, but neither is a machine or a piece of furniture. Or are they? The artist liked to compose her works with objects found in the streets while walking around New York City. Here is what the Tate has to say about An American Tribute to the British People and Black Wall.
This work by Susumu Koshimizo reminds me of the section of the DIY store where they display the ready-cut lengths of timber for shelving and so on. But no DIY store has shelves cut to designs like these. Each one is different but cut as accurately as if done by a machine. Is this just a whimsical exercise in cutting planks into different shapes? It seems not and that there is serious purpose driving the work. See here for the Tate’s succinct explanation.
At first sight, Giuseppe Penone’s Breath 5 could be mistaken for an amphora. Is that accidental or intended? I imagine that it is accidental because it is claimed to represent the imagined shape of a breath of air exhaled from the artist’s mouth. The impression is supposed to be that of the artist’s jeans-clad leg. You can read the label for yourself here.
Unusually, this piece by Constantin Brancusi harks back to rural tradition and folklore. The label explains as follows: ‘While working in Paris Brancusi retained a strong association with the traditions of his native country, Romania: Maiastra exemplifies this inspiration. The polished form evokes a golden bird with miraculous powers, which featured in Romanian folk tales. The carved bird-like forms of the stone base relate to more rustic folk decoration. Emphasising an idealised connection with nature, Brancusi originally set the whole sculpture on a high wooden column in the garden of its first owner, the photographer Edward Steichen.’
I liked this sculpture of a running figure because it reminded me of all those pictures expressing speed in early 20th-century advertisements for cars and petrol. That’s what we have here: a figure deformed by the speed of its movement, though there is a little more to it than that, according to the label text.
You might at first mistake this poster-like painting by Barbara Kruger for a advertisement for slimming pills or perhaps old fashioned roll film. That is deliberate, of course. Once a commercial graphic designer for glossy magazines, Kruger uses the techniques of advertising directed at consumers to question the assumptions of consumerism, turning the guns back on themselves, as it were. More here.
Coming upon this work by Cildo Meireles in a darkened gallery, is like stumbling at night upon an alien spaceship. I think it is the only artwork in the collection that makes a noise and a continuous noise, at that. It is called Babel in an obvious reference to the Biblical story of mankind punished for its arrogance by being cursed with different languages and thus becoming mutually incomprehensible.
The tower consists of radios, each tuned to a different station, each pouring out its never-ending stream of speech. It is not only the different of languages that make for incomprehension but also the multitude of voices demanding our attention so that we cannot pick out and understand even one among the crowd. Here is what the Tate has to say on this interesting work.
Before leaving the Tate Modern, we usually pay a visit to the viewing balcony that overlooks the Thames and gives you a view that reminds me of the old hand-drawn maps of London. The balcony is not large and you sometimes have to wait a while to get to the front in order to see (and photograph) the view but it is worth the wait. (Click to see a larger version of the picture.)
Before turning for home, we strolled to nearby Globe Walk and enjoyed a late Turkish-style lunch in Tas Pide. We felt we had earned it after our interesting but somewhat challenging visit to the Tate Modern!