Tate Modern: Contemporary Art Is Not Just For Intellectuals And Snobs
The Tate Modern museum in London, is not like any museum you've every seen. It's an ever-evolving space, adapting to new art forms as they come along.
LONDON - Am I in the wrong place? Or are they using the wrong name? Museum? Where does the city stop and the museum begin? Kids are skating down the entrance ramp while parents wave their entry tickets as if they just won free tickets to a Champions League game. And they all surge into the museum as if they were planning to occupy it.
A mere half hour after opening time, the vast museum premises are as abuzz as a crowded shopping mall. I elbow my way through to the elevator, then through narrow passageways where enough of the old architecture is left for you to see that you're in a former power station. Finally I get to the open plan office space that museum director Chris Dercon occupies a corner of. Yes, the week has started well, very well, he agrees.
"London is a fairly tough city, and life here is pretty stressful. There isn't a lot of free space. Where are people to go? They need their museum, and have discovered it for themselves. The Tate Modern has opened up art in a new way, made it accessible to many people, and it's become a place like no other where people encounter art and each other," he says.
For seven years, Belgian-born Dercon, 54, headed Munich's Haus der Kunst. Then in March 2011 Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate and a driving force behind the Tate Modern which opened in 2000, offered him the London job.
"In Germany, museums are seen as a kind of university: guided tours are expected, lectures, an education program. It's about education here too – but education as a social event. Maybe you want to be with somebody in a different environment, and this is an environment where you don't have to know everything, where you don't have to agree or disagree with anything. But it's by no means merely about entertainment. The Tate doesn't make complex art any simpler. It's just presented in such a way that makes it open to everyone. You never have the impression here that art isn't meant for the general public. That's what makes the museum successful."
A museum for everybody
Indeed, visitor lists show people ranging from intellectuals like American sociologist Richard Sennett and British historian Eric Hobsbawm to stars like Kate Moss, and hundreds of thousands of school children have been here. With its five million visitors per year, the Tate Modern is the most-visited contemporary art museum bar none – popular, Dercon stresses, in the sense of the Greek word "demos" (common people, populace).
It also has to be said that what Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron achieved when they converted the Bankside Power Station remains, 12 years after the museum launched, an outstanding feat of contemporary museum architecture.
Yet when the museum opened its doors, many didn't believe it had much of a future. Who could possibly want to go there? Everybody as it turns out, despite the fact that the Tate Modern doesn't stage blockbusters, and doesn't have huge quantities of spectacular masterpieces in the regular collections. It does present art work in interesting juxtapositions, but visitors tend to spend relatively short amounts of time in the exhibition space, drawn out time and again onto the stairs and ramps, into the huge hall that is still a "power station" – just a very different kind from when the place was nothing but turbines.
So is this a new museum model? Dercon leans back on his office chair. The real secret behind the Tate Modern, he says, is its flexibility, the fact that it has its finger on the pulse of new art and reacts to it quickly. And from the start, the museum has seen itself as expanding, and continues to do so, literally and in style. Herzog & de Meuron have a long way to go before they finish the project. They just finished converting the old cylindrical oil tanks designed to hold a million gallons of oil into circular exhibition spaces that, from July 18 to October 28, 2012, will feature an exhibition called The Tanks, Fifteen Weeks of Art in Action where 40 performance artists will also appear.
We go together to visit The Tanks, which look like stages for a play that hasn't been written yet – appropriately enough, since Dercon believes performance art is without a doubt the art of the moment. "When a museum expands it can't be because it doesn't have enough space – it has to be because there are new art forms. We had to do this because the art demands it and so does the public."
At the end of the day, people have had enough of the abstractions of the financial system, the rhetoric of politics, Dercon says; they want to see bodies, they want to be together with other bodies. The hour of "live art" has come, it's where the most exciting new art is going. "It's a form of biopolitics," he says.
Read the original article in German.
Photo - david__jones