Monday, 11 February 2013

What's going on at Tate Modern?

Frankly, Tate Modern is a bit of a mess. Arriving on a cold, wet Sunday afternoon, you battle the icy winds across the Millennium bridge, with a view of a long line of people pressed up against the glass, high up in the old power station. You get to the end of the bridge only to be turned back, to a down ramp facing away from the main attraction - unless of course you see the river and the view of St Paul's as the thing you would most want to look at. Inside the Tate, the escalators glide past behind plate glass, completely inaccessible, and you walk through to a railing overlooking the lowest level. Down there, children are playing around four or five scruffy yellow nylon tents, surely too half-baked to be an art installation, but you never know with art galleries. A black tarpaulin and some scaffolding seem to indicate work in progress: maybe there's a sign somewhere explaining it.

So down we go to the lowest level to get to the bottom of the escalator, in order to go up. Don't architects think about that sort of thing, or is it actually deliberate, a way to make sure nobody goes straight up without first... well what plausible reason is there for making sure to visit that level first? Don't the people who run the Tate realise that Londoners are going to come for fifteen minutes to see an old favourite, or for an hour to meet someone and see what's new on the fourth floor. They're not going to go down, buy tickets for all the current expensive pay-to-visit shows and make a day of it, making sure they see everything there is to see. No, what you want is to go straight up.

But to return to the theme of mess: up at the top, groups of sullen teenagers are sitting on the floor slumped up against the glass balcony, the toilets stink, and the cafe is a no-go area of kids' games and no free seats. There's all those big empty spaces with absolutely not a single work of art in sight. Surely the galleries will buck that trend, at least. I'm not so sure though. As far as I could make out from an admittedly casual walk round, the entire gallery is hung on a thematic basis with titles like Structure and Clarity, Setting the Scene, and something about Energy, none of which helps much unless you want to read an essay first, and even then the selection includes a lot that is second rate and some connections that are amazingly superficial. That approach must be great fun for the curators, a vast pick and mix selection process and a chance to show off some theories. If you just want to look at lots of pictures and make your own connections, though, the whole thing is really rather infuriating.

It's refreshing, then, to come across an entire room devoted to Cy Twombly, an artist who's never particularly interested me, and to be slowly convinced of the value of his work by the simple process of seeing a decent sized collection of paintings and sculptures all together, without anything else to distract attention.

Otherwise a frustrating experience - go to the old Tate if looking at art is what you want to do.