At the opening of the new extension to Tate Modern there was a small notice next to one of the exhibits. ‘Due to expected visitor numbers’, it read, ‘the macaws have temporarily been returned to their owners.’ Given the quality of the other works on show, it is unlikely that this caused much disappointment to visitors. However, the piece, Tropicalia of 1967 by the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, was not just interesting in itself but somehow typical of the displays. One of the reasons was that it was a historical work by a major artist from outside Europe and the States that had probably been languishing in the basement since I last saw it at Tate Liverpool. Another was because it used a range of unfamiliar materials and involved a partnership with another artist – in this case a Brazilian poet. More importantly, it encouraged the public to approach it in an interactive, open-ended way like the child I watched wandering at will between the sandy paths, the pot plants and beach huts.
All of these characteristics were true of the rubber floor- map of Beirut by Marwan Rechmaoui. Most of them also applied to Julie Mehretu’s images of protests in Tahir Square and New York and Nil Yalter’s photographs of the dispossessed in Istanbul and Paris. Nearby Boris Mikhailov’s display of photographs seemed random until one noticed that their common inclusion of the colour red underlined the harsh realities of life in the former Soviet Union. And if anyone had missed the point about the Tate’s commitment to globalisation, they only had to look at Kader Attia’s work on the opposite wall. For here the Algerian artist was showing a piece about the debt which Le Corbusier owed to north African architecture and how this had filtered down to the French housing projects that now housed immigrant families.
As for collaborative works, perhaps the most striking was a piece by Suzanne Lacy from 1987, which recorded a meeting of 430 American older women. From the previous decade was work by Margaret Harrison made with the strikers at the Metal Box Company and folk images by Anna Lucas that she had created with Romanian women. Mona Hatoum had included a similar textile piece made with Palestinian women in her temporary exhibition. The bridge between the old and new spaces underlined such comparisons. Hence just a few steps from Hatoum’s uncomfortable portrayal of domestic objects was an equally disquieting work by Louise Bourgeois in the new space reserved for single person shows.
More whimsical partnerships involved Charles Atlas’s exploration with Merce Cunningham and John Cage of their respective joint injuries. They cropped up again in the small pole that André Cadere took to leaning against the wall at other artists’ openings. In contrast to this rather arbitrary Duchamp-like work, the Brazilian woman artist, Jac Leirner, had made a piece that comprised eight ready-made spirit levels which, she claimed, ‘contained the knowledge and skill of their users’.
After all these goodies, I found the installations in the newly-restored oil tanks of the former power station slightly disappointing. In contrast my son spent an entire two hours watching a film by a South Asian film-maker about young men racing to take part in a utopian project that had been devised by the artist. It occurred to me that the curators might have included it as a sly metaphor for the new space. Yet, there was no such ambivalence about my response to the stunning views that are available from the rooftop. Robert Hughes once suggested that one of the inspirations for the change in sensibility that marked the beginning of the twentieth century was the experience of seeing the world for the first time from above. This seems to be borne out by contemporary accounts of visiting the Eiffel Tower or, in the case of Georgia O’Keeffe, of her later ascent in an aeroplane. If he is right – and in the unlikely event that it is still true – we can expect another great generation of artists. If not, we can still look forward to the return of the macaws.
Gerald Deslandes, OCA Tutor.