I recently decided to pay a visit to the Tate Modern. Having been assailed with recommendations of the gallery from all quarters, I was somewhat disconcerted to find myself standing outside a somewhat austere building that was certainly imposing in terms of scale, but not, in all honesty, not quite the architectural treasure I had been led to expect.
Nonetheless, stepping inside the vast turbine hall of the building did a great deal to correct this initial apprehension. In particular, the black girders that line the walls have the unsettling ability to make the building look like a post-industrial Acropolis. One of the features of this hall, is the illuminated viewing gallery, which runs along the entirety of the first storey. Within this, the Tate have provided armchairs and footstools, and one begins to realise that the purpose of the building is not to house artworks, it is to be an artwork in its own right, furnishing visitors with far more opportunities to gaze at it than it affords any of the exhibits.
Nonetheless, many of the exhibits are really very impressive, with the gallery
housing works by Pollock, Hepworth, Picasso, Dali (including the lobster phone) and Matisse. Perhaps more to the point, it also houses Marcel Duchamp’s
notorious urinal, a genuine urinal that Duchamp had simply signed and entered into an exhibition. This was a radical and subversive act on the part of Duchamp, but one which lost all potency as soon as it was repeated. Nonetheless, it is truly the spiritual antecedent of many of the other works in the building, many of which aspire to subvert the conservative notion of art rather than seeking to create it. The most obvious example would be Tracey Emin’s disarrayed bed, which became an artwork solely by virtue of being placed inside an art gallery. When such works set out to be deliberately transgressive, it seems to me to be somewhat unreasonable of the arts establishment to seek to dismiss the view that many people may not consider such works to be art at all. An arbitrary definition of art may prove better than not at all. However, if, as DuChamp insisted, this is the art where all one has todo is point one’s figure at an object and declare it to be art, then it is surely equally reasonable to assert that if anything may be regarded as art, then, by the same token, nothing is art.
An interesting contrast to this was afforded by the more traditional environs of Birmingham’s museum and art gallery, an elaborate example Victorian architecture, in stark contrast to the ‘soviet realism’ that pervades much of the city’s skyline. In comparison to the nearby Barber Institute, the exhibitions lack any unifying theme, ranging from excellent exhibitions on surrealism (the paintings by Conroy Maddox and John Melville being particularly noteworthy) and the pre-raphaelites (certainly rather better than the portraits within the Ashmolean, with many famous works by Burne Jones and Ford Maddox Brown, as well as comparatively obscure artists like Simeon Solomon) to lacklustre and rather pointless collections of contemporary ephemera, such as Rubik cubes and Versace dresses. The collection held by the Ashmolean is rather smaller, but does have the advantage of being displayed alongside assorted esoteric artefacts, such as a marble tablet depicting the enochian alphabet developed by John Dee.