Art

LIFE PATTERNS Tate Gallery, London
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The Independent Culture
The Tate Gallery, we know, is the outspoken champion of contemporary British art. Over the past seven years, under the dynamic directorship of Nick Serota, it has painstakingly introduced a reluctant British public to the extremes of the "cutting edge". In particular, every year it hosts the unerringly controversial Turner Prize. But in 30 years, what will all the vitriol and hyperbole amount to? Judging by the new display of acquisitions made under Serota's directorship, precious little.

Within the context of the current international Zeitgeist, the right names are here. When the history of British art in the 1990s is written, Damian Hirst and Rachel Whiteread will have a chapter each. Undoubtedly, the other artists here - Lisa Milroy, Grenville Davey, Ian McKeever, Nicholas May, Cathy de Monchaux, Marcus Taylor and Julian Opie - will all command more than a footnote. But it is vital that our National Gallery of Modern Art should possess significant examples of the artists' work. It does not.

You would expect to be outraged, shocked or at least excited. Prepare instead for disappointment. In too few instances are we confronted with the essence of the artists' work. The Milroy, a 1988 painting of light bulbs, seems dated, as does Opie's 1987 ventilator grille. Both, in effect, are now classics. But it is in the works of Hirst and Whiteread that the shortcomings become most apparent.

Damian Hirst's Forms without Life, made in 1991, is a glass cabinet filled with sea shells. It is a witty and incisive comment on the way we use museums. However, to the uninitiated, it is little else. It has nothing of the presence of Away from the Flock, his celebrated lamb in formaldehyde. And, even among Hirst's early cabinet works, this must surely be the least engaging. Similarly with Whiteread: rather than Ghost, the room-cast, or another such archetypal work, the Tate presents us with a peripheral piece - an early latex mattress. So, if not preserved for posterity in our National Museum, where are the pieces that say it all? They are across London in NW8.

Place any of the Tate's recent purchases alongside a work by the same artist from the Saatchi Collection and it's immediately apparent who has the better pieces. It's not that the Tate's curators lack knowledge, or that Saatchi always gets there first. The problem seems almost wholly financial. The Tate's effective buying power has been frozen at around pounds 2m for the past 12 years. Yet if it is to champion bold artistic voices and if it is ever to broaden its scope, it needs the funds to do so.

The Government should express its faith in the judgement of the experts with an immediate increase in budget. Though, with yet another apparent cultural illiterate newly appointed to oversee the country's heritage, such action seems as likely as Hirst's pickled lamb rejoining its flock.

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