1. Wear Comfortable Shoes
And a pedometer. Because, I warn you now, there’s a lot of walking to be done!
The extension, known as the Switch House (the original building is known as the Boiler House), is ten floors. Ten whole floors. And with art from the ground floor up, and with a viewing gallery right on the top floor, you are likely to want to scale right from the bottom to the top. At least once.
There are lifts (obvs) but there is some weird sort of limited access with them with some only stopping at specific floors (done to prevent ridiculously slow lifts, I expect) and those lifts are likely to be packed – especially for the first few months. And unlike the Boiler House, there are no escalators. So get those trainers on, pack a bottle of water and some chocolate raisins to sustain you, and prepare to burn off some calories.
2. The Tate Modern Hasn’t Trebled in Size
Ok, so I was scaremongering a bit. A bit. You probably won’t want to see every floor of the new Switch House because, well, less than half of it has any art in it.
There are eleven floors in the new extension (ten plus the ground floor) but only four of these floors are set aside for galleries – big galleries though they are. The other seven are there to support admin – and to make money.
The Tate’s poshest restaurant has been moved to the extension where diners can be treated to expensive food whilst admiring, what is, an impressive view. Another floor has been set aside for staff offices. Then there’s the Members Area – again the desired exclusivity and great views will be tempting in getting the gallery to get more members in…
And so on. You get the picture.
3. But The Views Are Great
However, the tenth floor, well, yes we can all go up there as that is as a wonderful viewing gallery with views across London – west to Waterloo Bridge, North across St Pauls, and East to the Shard and beyond.
And there is access outside too where you can go out the doors and see the views with the wind whipping through your hair. However, if like me you are vertigo-inclined, you might end up just popping up there, thinking ‘woah, that’s a bit high,’ grip on to the railing by the top of the stairs for support, and hurry back down again.
4. Give It Time
So now, the art…
I say this now, with love – Give. It. Time.
And I mean this in two ways – it will take time to go round these new galleries. (Though it’s only a few floors, they are big galleries and they are packed with works). And it may well take you time to love the works on display.
Contemporary art is a challenge for many people – I get that. It’s understandable to enter a large gallery full to the brim of large straw structures encased in metal and think, I don’t get this.
Then there are galleries with literal money trees and giant lego sets…. Larger galleries with sandpits or photos of women making quilts. And that all leads to an even larger room where a pile of paper with giant rings on it sits alongside a huge pink cube, which is near to two women holding up some bunting.
It’s challenging stuff. And it’s tempting to walk straight through.
The Tate has made a great effort to support each artwork with context and just enough detail to explain the origins and intention yet leave plenty of space for you to draw your own conclusions.
There’s also a lot of film on display.
Few visitors like to get carried away in film in an art gallery – they see the projection and move along. But there is some good stuff here so sit down on the (cushioned) benches and watch footage from Ai Weiwei and Sheela Gowda talking about the challenges of creating art in Beijing and Bangalore, respectively.
There’s also some interesting (and rather harrowing) footage from Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 where Marina invited visitors to do what they wanted to her body as she stood, passive, in a gallery. And there are also some of the famous clips of Jackson Pollock working on his ‘drip paintings,’ a film and a method that has inspired many artists since.
So, immersing yourself in these galleries takes time. It could take you a couple of hours just to engage with all of the art in the Switch House alone – and it may take several visits (or at least a lot of thinking time afterwards) to decide what you think.
The Switch House is trying to tempt people out of their comfort zone. The question is, how many visitors actually want to do that?
5. The Big Guns Remain in the Boiler House
…which leads me on to this – the layout of the artwork across the whole Tate Modern.
You see, I was going to write about how I’m as happy as the next guy on this expansion of what is already the most popular contemporary art gallery in the world. And then I thought, hmmm, to be honest, I’m not sure how happy the ‘next guy’ is going to be about what’s on display in the Switch House, because – and this is my main gripe – the curation of works could well mean that the Switch House becomes a bit of a tumbleweed area.
No amount of rehanging or expensive extensions will halt the allure of the big names and so it’s a surprise – and a concern – that all the box office draws remain in the Boiler House.
Picasso, Dali, Mondrian, Matisse, Hepworth, Bonnard, Leger, Giacometti, Warhol, Rothko, Duchamp… All these works – the ones visitors flock to see – are all in the Boiler House.
Was it an opportunity missed to not mix the big guns up with new names? Surely there is a benefit to orbiting lesser-known names, more challenging artworks, close to the familiar and the popular so that you can tempt audiences? What seems to have happened here is that, despite all the rehanging, the big names are more separated than ever from the new collection.
And this worries me.
After the buzz has faded, how many visitors will want to cross the bridge and visit works from artists they’ve probably never heard of? How can the likes of Rebecca Horn, Ana Lupas, Suzanne Lacy and Boris Mikhailov compete for attention against the big guns?
If, like me, you’re often at art galleries, you will be familiar with the ‘zombie visitor’ – visitors who sort of wander through the larger galleries, not engaging with any of the art. Maybe they will even walk straight through without looking at anything. And then they’ll stop (and probably take a picture) of the instantly familiar and famous works.
I’m not criticising this audience – quite the opposite. I want to engage them more. I want them to be excited or even just curious about other types of art. But if we’re going to put the more obscure works such as ‘the pile of bricks’ ‘the pink cube’ and ‘the giant wooden lattice thing’ in separate galleries, then we risk turning those galleries into rather vacant lots.
Could this happen here?
6. Will the Space Set Aside for Performance Art Work?
And so on to the next challenge … Performance art. Ah, tricky one, this.
The ground floor has been deliberately set aside for performance art. I can see the crowds flocking to see Marina Abramovic here but when you see Pablo Bronstein’s current commission in the Tate Britain, which has had a mixed response from both audiences or critics, could this give Tate Modern more challenges? One bad commission and, well, this could be a pretty empty room for a few months.
Or, conversely, will this encourage performance art to flourish and attract more visitors?
It’s a tricky one. I like the risk. I also happen to like performance art. The question is, who else will? These are big spaces.
7. Look Up!
There is art all around you in the revamped Tate Modern, whether it is hung on the walls or performed in the galleries. But there is also art above your head so, please, don’t forget to look up, as well as down and across.
Not that it’s hard to overlook something as bold as Marisa Merz’s Living Sculpture – a suspended work comprised of large strips of aluminium stapled together. It’s one of the biggest pieces of work in the Switch House’s galleries.
But it turns out it is easy to overlook a delicate Alexander Calder mobile dangling above a Gerhard Richter. Part of the refresh in the Boiler House, I cannot tell you how many visitors passed through the gallery without once looking up. Some of them even read the wall text on the mobile and still didn’t look up. Admittedly it is hung very high, on very short wires. Shame. How much joy could have been brought by giving this Calder mobile more space, hanging it lower on longer wires so that more visitors could appreciate it?
So the lesson here, peeps, is look up!
8. The Building is as Worthy of Attention as the Art
The Switch House extension was designed by Herzog & de Meuron, who designed the original Tate Modern back in 2000. And it’s beautifully done – inside and out.
The externals blend wonderfully into the existing urban architecture – its brickwork acting as a form of skin covering its steel construction. Yet the pyramid-esque design of the extension catches the eye. That’s a hard double act to pull off – to blend in yet still stand out – and it has been achieved brilliantly here.
And inside, with the exposed brick work and pillars… It reminds me quite a bit of Westminster tube station which has tried a similar effect with exposing the construction framework – showcasing it as a feature rather than hiding it away. And it works.
9. The Art Will Be Shared Nationally
The ARTIST ROOMS initiative has been one of the great successes and it continues here with the dedicated ARTIST ROOMS gallery transferred from the Boiler House and given more space. And it has got off to an illustrious start with the glorious Louise Bourgeois.
The spiders are back – of course – and they are as scary and as comforting as ever. The maternalism mixed with the fear. They are beautiful. And they are frightening. But there are also a few of her hanging fabric bodies – Legs, 2001 – which provoke all sorts of feelings about mortality, as well as some of her work from the 1990s that saw Louise examine her relationship with her mother through her childhood clothes.
These ARTIST ROOMS collections include such names as Damien Hirst, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol. And Louise, of course. And they tour the country, enabling this art to reach and inspire new audiences and new artists.
10. There Are Live Animals
Live macaws are used in one of the installations in the new Switch House.
As you can imagine, the Tate has been swift in ensuring there are clearly visible signs nearby explaining that the birds’ welfare is their top priority, that they are being monitored by appropriate animal welfare officers, that audience numbers are limited to a handful each time, that appropriate approval has been obtained from animal welfare charities etc. etc. etc.
But here’s the thing. I hate the use of animals in art. It makes me very uncomfortable. No bird belongs in a cage, and I don’t care how many animal welfare charities you get to say otherwise. There are still such charities out there who think zoos are, by and large, ok so, you know, I take their approval with a bucket of salt. So if, like me, caged animals aren’t your thing, bear in mind you might want to give Helio Oiticaca’s work a miss.
11. But There Are Plenty of Female Artists!
Tate Modern has been leading the way for a few years now in platforming female artists with some terrific solo shows on the likes of Sonia Delaunay, Marlene Dumas, and Agnes Martin. And that continues with Mona Hatoum currently exhibiting in one of the big galleries and a new retrospective on George O’Keeffe opening next month.
And this is now bolstered with works from these artists making it into the permanent display where they have also been joined by artists including Yayoi Kusama, who has an installation in the Switch House, as does Marina Abramovic (her chilling footage of Rhythm 0). And there are whole rooms set aside for Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Suzanne Lacy and Ana Lupas.
And they’re joined in the Switch House by Rebecca Horn, whose work has been transferred from the Boiler House, where it has been given more space. Rebecca’s exploration of touch, sensitivity and the relative impact on these of prosthetics is fascinating and I’ve always wanted her work to get a wider audience. Fingers crossed
And the women are also in the Boiler House too – we haven’t been segregated out!
The Tate’s impressive haul of work from the Guerrilla Girls has been pulled from the archives, dusted off, and is now on the walls, along with works from Bridget Riley, Rachel Whiteread, and Sarah Lucas, among others.
(Unfortunately with the Agnes Martin, I actually noted what looked like a biro mark or a felt tip pen mark on the painting so had to report it. The painting then got surrounded by guards so who knows if that is still on show or has been take off to be cleaned!)
The sum of all this is, simply, whatever happens, the Tate Modern has furthered its well-deserved reputation as the most forward-thinking and pioneering contemporary art gallery in the world. Where it goes, the rest follow.
Fifteen years ago, the entire project was seen as a gamble. And now, even this £260mn extension is a gamble. It’s all a big risk. But still, the Tate challenges itself to diversify its collection, platform more unfamiliar names, and to showcase art that baffles many but inspires many more.
Art is nothing without risk. I will be visiting many times. Many, many times. And I’m hopeful that all the new projects and artworks that the Tate Modern platforms as a result of this explanation continue to provoke, engage and further our love and discussion about art.
All photos by me.