The Tanks: Art in Action - Tate Modern, London
Underground classics shine in a bold and beautiful power trip
Tuesday 17 July 2012
What strange lower world is this that has opened up beneath Tate Modern? Through a sliding door at one side of the Turbine Hall one can now enter the spaces that were once used as oil tanks in the old power station. Here are more beautifully raw concrete rooms, excellently developed by Herzog & de Meuron into permanent spaces for live art. Make no mistake: this is a bold move from Tate, one which might just transform museum practice around the world, as the Turbine Hall did when Tate Modern first opened its doors in 2000.
For the past five years or so there has been a huge resurgence of interest in performance work. Tate has shown its commitment to bringing the ephemeral and the performative into museum history by showing two works from the collection – Lis Rhodes's Light Music (1975) an abstract, double-projected work in which black and white stripes are played on both a film and soundstrip so that light becomes read as sound; and Suzanne Lacy's The Crystal Quilt (1985-7), an elevating project that saw the artist bring together 430 women aged over 60 in Minneapolis to record their thoughts on aging in a kind of social sculpture in a shopping mall. In it, a woman wonders why young people never want to talk to her about changing values, only changing things.
Sung Hwan Kim's installation, however, the first Tanks commission, is this exhibition's star piece. Kim's poetic films, always accompanied by the layered, exquisitely soulful songs created for them by musician dogr, are plotted in the dark among fragile lights and sculptures. Both the films and the spaces are meandering, open-ended, and labyrinthine – we hear of a woman with snakes in her neck, a girl in love with an axe. They floatily consider love, companionship, parenthood, power, oppression, migration and political responsibility in fragments that pass like sunshine and showers. The space looks like the remnants of a lost civilisation as much as the site for a potential new one.
Indeed, there's a social aspect to the work that will be shown in the Tanks' forthcoming programme, with performances changing almost daily, which goes beyond interaction and participation for its own sake. The philosopher Hannah Arendt proposed a concept of vita activa as a way of thinking about how to live, noting that such contemplation has been transformed into something introspective, rather than something active and social as it had been in culture of Ancient Greece. The Tanks are, in their best moments, a step towards such active forms of thinking.
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