Tate Modern is the latest in a series of contemporary art museums which are not primarily concerned with art. Rather, they are toys of architects and curatorsby Jed Perl / August 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Tate modern is a fraud. I know of no other way to describe the yawning chasm which separates this impersonal hulk of a building and its embarrassingly spotty collections from the grandiose claims of Nicholas Serota, the Tate director, who has said that Tate Modern-dedicated to art since 1900-will “change the experience of living in one of the great metropolises of the western world.” The only thing that Tate Modern is going to change are property values on the south bank of the Thames, where Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have transformed the vast old Bankside power station (designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1940s) into a gargantuan catch-all for work by artists ranging from Monet to Nauman.
People tell me that they love Tate Modern. When I ask for specifics, they don’t seem able to say why. The public has such a hunger for the best things in life-which include museum visits-that they would rather suspend judgment than go away disappointed. There are no more than 50 paintings or sculptures of consequence, dribbled through Tate Modern’s endless galleries, yet somehow this does not matter. Museums have become funhouses enclosed in a giant site-specific sculpture. This one is a brick structure with a single tower; this gives it a distinctive, marketable profile that the museum has stamped on a gift shop full of knick-knacks. And if the inside of Tate Modern is a rather dispiriting, black-and-grey minimalist art amusement park, tourists may just accept it as a particularly London kind of experience: the Bleak House of funhouses.
A funhouse needs a look, a theme. Tate Modern, with its mix of functionalist chic and retro-industrial grit, is meant as a kind of urban fantasy-something out of a German Expressionist film. But this time Herzog and de Meuron, who are widely admired for revitalising the powerfully rectilinear forms of classic International Style architecture, come across as modernist poseurs. The vast entrance that they have made out of the power station’s turbine hall may look great in photo spreads, but when I walked into the space, which has the numbingly overscaled and underdeveloped proportions of a fascist nightmare, I felt like a speck of dust. Finding your way into the museum’s galleries is no small task; the architects seem uninterested in guiding visitors upstairs, perhaps because they are so busy with their entrance-hall ego trip. And, once I…