Dawn of a New Museum Era
Phoebe Lindsley examines the Tate Modern's newest addition - The Tanks at Tate
by Phoebe Lindsley
Friday 12th October 2012, 10:01 BST
At the beginning of May, Chris Dercon - Tate Modern Director - spoke at the Union, offering his vision of the art gallery's future. He spoke of the development of his own museum and the opening under his tenure of the Tanks at Tate Modern. This new exhibition space caters to the specific needs of performance, video, and sound art; a space for any art that you might label alternative, avant-garde or unconventional.
The Tanks were opened to the public on the 18th July and are the first in a line of ambitious new extensions at Tate Modern. So called because they were originally oil tanks in Bankside Power Station, one takes a sharp right turn from the Turbine Hall and you're before The Tanks. The space has a comfortable trendy-urban-warehouse-pop-up-boutique aesthetic without looking tired. Choosing to project titling and info onto the concrete surfaces is appropriate to the space, certainly better than print.
Yes, these are dark galleries. You'll inevitably stumble through it, tripping over snaking wires, maneuvering around piles of people watching on the floor. There are no obvious labels - why of course, it would be too dark to read them - leaving you with just the work of art to look at; otherwise you must huddle about the explanatory signs of the entrance, distant from the work itself. The entire Tanks area stands in marked dark contrast to the white galleries above it - with the neutral Turbine Hall mediating the space between them.
Tanks fill a space in the museum left by the closure of the Unilever series. This hugely successful changing display of videos, slides, sculptures and sunflower seeds inside the enormous vacuum of the Turbine Hall was one of the most memorable and exciting instances of a Tate Modern visit. The series culminated with a performance piece by Tino Sehgal consisting of 'live encounters' between people walking up, down and through the space - just the kind of Art in Action Tanks aims to display on a permanent basis.
The fact that many of the pieces within Tanks, namely those belonging to the permanent collection, were created during the 70s and 80s should remind us that performance art, video art and sound art are hardly new phenomena. The expansion and diversification of the types of media used to create works of art is decidedly 20th century. Why did we have to wait until the second decade of the 21st century for a national, mainstream museum to open a space built for this kind of art? Were they waiting for the British public to finally accept art made without paint or canvas? Or it could suggest that really Tate Modern is not really doing anything groundbreaking. It's late. It's past it. It's already passé and the Tanks are over before they have even begun? Perhaps they shouldn't be making any distinction at all, mixing all different media together and allowing the public to order it all in their own minds.
The Tanks raise many questions about the display of art, the relation of the work of art to the space it is viewed in and the subsequent experience of the audience. The decision to mark out these galleries specifically for performance, video and sound art and to make them so different to the rest of the museum draws attention to the experience of seeing art in a way that is too often forgotten. The tanks do well to draw your attention to it. A gallery manipulates and directs the viewer's eye as much as the supermarket does : leaving expensive items at eye level, making cheaper ones harder to find.
Many of the pieces that the tanks aim to show in changing displays are meant to be ephemeral, temporary or spontaneous. If the art is in the action you cannot put it into a gallery to be reenacted again and again. A lot of performance art gains its novelty, excitement, danger and value from the unexpected places they are performed in. Perhaps having a dedicated space to show them in sanitises art like this and makes it a lot less natural and a lot more forced. In a purpose built space some works of art flounder.
Tanks at Tate Modern do have heaps of good things going, despite these criticisms. The variety that Tanks provides - getting you outside the bloody white cube - is refreshing. It is a good thing to have as many different ways of seeing art as possible. Best of all it is not too big, too taxing or too confrontational. It is a fun, bitesize introduction into the long established world of 'alternative' art. It has certainly been missing from school trips on a wet Wednesday afternoon for far too long
The Tanks are open daily, at the Tate Modern , London