Faithful readers, you know how I appreciate a good staircase. Here is another one to add to the list: the gorgeous, swirling, creamy staircase at the brand new, just opened, Switch House wing of the Tate Modern. 8 years in the making, this extension gives the Tate the opportunity to showcase less traditional forms of art, as in not just things that hang on walls. Pieces that are massive or interactive or include living things like horses and parrots and people. Art that is much much further outside the proverbial box than what is now being called the Boiler House, the old power station we have known and loved. I have been looking forward to this for a long time. My children and I have studied the models across from the cloakroom, watched the earthmovers and the cranes and the ever-expanding building site and then suddenly, the skeleton of a building being filled in and filled out. The anticipation was delicious. Made all the more because by the time the doors were flung open on the dot of 4 pm, on 14 June, for those of us standing in a long queue, clutching Member’s Invites, it had been raining, monsooning, for hours. The soaking I got in the morning hadn’t dried by the repeat at lunchtime. Everything was wet. And my hair was beyond repair. Nothing to do but wrap myself into another world and allow the senses that respond to light and beauty and imagination and shock and all the things that make my pulse race, actually anything but the sensation of wet feet and clammy clothes. Because the Tate has always had a cocoon like quality for me, and this new space delivered beautifully.
I first visited the Tate in 1989, before its current groovy location on bankside, when I was spending a term at LSE. I still remember the sensation of seeing Matisse’s Snail for the first time. As though all beauty and colour and joy had been contained in one enormous canvas, just for me. I became obsessed with it. Returned to it time and time and time again. Hung a poster of it in my university room. Even once reconstruced a small version to send as a card to a friend. I felt I had been given the keys to the most wonderful, exciting, inspiring, challenging castle….a castle I moved into and never moved out. Art, good art, so often takes on a life of its own. What starts as a particular vision by a single artist becomes, over time, part of a collective memory. Collective, but yet personal. Sometimes the official interpretation of a piece holds its meaning, but more often it morphs into something much, much different, as time and history and experience influence how we respond. This is all very very good stuff. For me, the Matisse was the start of what has become a passionate love of art. Of art that I react to, that makes me feel and think and absorbs itself into my own personality. I heard an interview with the British pop star Corinne Bailey Rae, who said that once a song is shared with the public it isn’t hers anymore, because it becomes part of other people’s experience and interpretation. That is the beauty of art, that reaction can be on such a personal, visceral level, regardless of the original. It is why places like the Tate are so popular. Why people can spend what seems like ages in front of a piece, just looking. And why kids love it. In 2009, Tate’s Turbine Hall held Miroslaw Balk’s How It Is, a enormous container whose interior falls were covered in soft black flock which, once entered, left the visitor in total darkness. The experience was supposed to give one the sense of utter despair, to remind us of terrible terrible times in history, our own emptiness etc, etc. But that is just what the write up said. It was a huge black box. And it was half-term, always a testing time for parents and children, and those trainers with flashing lights were all the rage. We visited the installation many times. And each time it was filled, FILLED with shrieking children, dashing heedlessly, happily round and round, little lights flashing, delighted that they had been released into such a crazy kind of space. Like the most awesome game of It of all time. And when they wanted to come out, they lay down and rolled down the ramp. How great is that. Exhausted parents slumped against the Hall walls, watching from a distance, relieved and grateful. Nevermind existential fear and doubt, this was the happiest place in London. The opportunity for cliche irresistible: hope out of darkness manifest. That is art.
Mark Rothko is an artist whose work is forever being reinterpreted; I won’t toss my own ideas into that ring. But the Rothko Seagram Murals room has such a sense of sacred space I can actually feel my heart slow and then expand as soon as I walk in. A few times I have been fortunate enough to have it to myself. It is like being kissed passionately by someone you love, that feeling that nothing else matters, that everything is going to be fine, that peace is indeed possible. That is art.
But these are all things you already know. What of the new space? It is fantastic. So fresh it still smells of paint. And the art…whew…I’m not sure I have the vocabulary. I walked into the first room and was so blown away I just blurted out “wow, this is some crazy stuff.” The guard standing nearby answered, without hesitation, “I think it is all beautiful.” Well said sir, well said. There is much to admire in the Switch House, but perhaps my favourite was on the 3rd level. The Artist Rooms, a space set aside for solo exhibitions of artists already in the collection. First up is Louise Bourgeois. I love her work. I adore her much larger than life spiders. Yes, yes, I know they are often called Maman (French for mother) and carry with them all that difficult mother stuff. But not for me. I think they are fantastic and not the least bit threatening. I particuarly like the way their shadow beomes part of the image. But then I don’t have mother “issues,” my own is pretty bloody marvelous. And I am not afraid of spiders. Quite the contrary actually. They are protected creatures in my house. It is utterly forbidden to kill them. I watched with great pleasure as my husband carefully coaxed one out the bathroom window recently. It think they are magical, powerful, stunning things and what I wouldn’t do for a line of Louise B’s spiders and their shadows along my wall…
And standing between the old and the new wings, high on the bridge, is Tree 2010 by Ai Weiwei. His triumphant show at the RA made devotees of us all. And there it stands proudly, a country in all its many parts. Factured but whole. Just like us. A metaphor for life. And living. And the reason we need art.