From boiler room to powerhouse

How do you enshrine modern art in a museum without drawing its teeth?
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The Independent Culture
The Tate Gallery is not a museum, but it has acted like one for much of this century. This is not a bad thing, simply a fact. As contemporary art becomes historical, it is assessed by obfuscating academics and cocooned by jealous conservationists. Whole collections are, like exotic butterflies, pinned down and labelled by archivists. A part of the collective memory, the teeth of what was once savage art are drawn; its fires reduced to embers.

These processes are both literal - Yves Klein's pigments losing their sheen - and conceptual - who is shocked by Whistler in 1995? Again, there is nothing wrong with this. Only a few artists can possibly hope to retain the power to stop us in our seen-it-all tracks a century or two on. While it is possible to bring fresh life to old paintings, not just by cleaning them, but by placing them in new or unexpected contexts, this is often no more than a case of rearranging the deckchairs.

Which is partly why the Tate - anxious to be much more than a precious, if popular, museum - today opens a gallery dedicated to all forms of contemporary art. "Art Now" will feature the work of artists, young, middle- aged and even venerable, who are engaged in bringing something new to the art world. So, if Picasso were still alive and experimenting today, the curators of "Art Now", Frances Morris and Sean Rainbird, would find the old devil hard to keep at bay. Most artists find their voice early on and carry on singing variations of familiar airs for the rest of their lives. Not every artist can be, or wants to be, a Turner (still the lode star of the Tate) or a Picasso.

Just as well, for Morris and Rainbird plan five exhibitions of new art a year, bringing to the Tate, and thus the public realm, new stars who will, in turn, bring the best of work normally shown in small, private galleries and art events (like the Venice Biennale or Documenta) into the public eye.

This is surely a good thing. Of the hundreds of thousands of people who squeeze into the Tate Gallery each year, relatively few will have the opportunity or the inclination to see new works of art in exclusive, remote or foreign locations. Yet the number of people who enjoy contemporary art, for whatever reason, has grown significantly.

The Tate has, for better or worse, become part of the entertainment and leisure business. The more people who pass beneath its Corinthian portals, the greater the need to be seen to be successful. The more that success can be measured by numbers, the more likely that politicians will continue to channel money into institutions like the Tate. Like a shark (but, not one in formaldehyde), the Tate must continue to move forward to survive.

Again, this is a good thing. While critics can carp at contemporary art exhibitions, the Tate promises to show a broad cross-section of new work to a wide audience, giving people the chance to see, for example, Matthew Barney's enigmatic OTTOshaft, which ignites "Art Now" today. And, by being shown in a major public gallery, artists like Barney are given a public platform where they will have every opportunity of a fair hearing and a chance to escape the claustrophobic world of the "alternative" gallery and smart-art crowd.

"Art Now" is also an indication of what the Tate will be come when it splits itself in two at the turn of the century. The new Tate Gallery of Modern Art - to be housed in the redundant Bankside Power Station opposite St Paul's Cathedral - will give the Tate's director, Nicholas Serota, his curators and their successors the space to collect, document, show and celebrate contemporary art, throwing its vast doors open to what will undoubtedly be a very big public.

Back to 1995. The new "Art Now" room is not quite as big as the 500ft turbine hall at Bankside. It is a simple white box humming to the tune of the Tate's boilerhouse somewhere below (a knowing reference to Bankside? Erm, no; just loud boilers). What was a conservation workshop off the gallery's imperial Roman sculpture hall, has become an embryonic powerhouse for contemporary art shown on a regular basis and free of charge to uproars of schoolchildren and Tube-loads of other gallery-goers, who will go away inspired, baffled, uplifted, downcast, delighted and infuriated in varying measures.

Sean Rainbird and Frances Morris promise that "Art Now" will show paintings as well as installations and other "conceptual" happenings. This is an important signal to the world beyond the Tate, as it will serve to diffuse criticism from those for whom installations and conceptual art have become a form of contemporary artistic tyranny.

So what can you see today in this limbering-up exercise for Bankside? An installation combining video, performance and sculpture by Matthew Barney, a young New York artist (born in San Francisco, 1967; "best young artist" prize, Venice Biennale, 1993) with a love of athletics and a fascination with the limits of human performance. If this sounds like a dreary dose of double-biology after games, don't worry; Barney's OTTOshaft cycle is as entertaining as it is weird.

This work was bought last year by the Tate through the Patrons of New Art after it had been shown at Documenta, Kassel in 1992. Originally, it was installed in a grimy, underground car park; this location increased its power to engage and distract. It has become a different work in the bright, white "Art Now" gallery. Future shows - Marc Quinn, Genevieve Cadieux, Miroslaw Balka - will be custom-made, as far as that is possible, for the new gallery; indeed, all these artists have worked with Rainbow and Morris to produce Tate-specific exhibitions.

In other words, "Art Now" is a pro-active gallery within a gallery. Now, the Tate can now sweep us from Blake to Barney under one roof in one rainy afternoon. The Tate has been showing and buying the work of new artists in a piecemeal way for many years; "Art Now" puts consistency into the inconsistent, curatorial skills into the curious and, most of all, takes what has been the precious preserve of the pedigree few into the mongrel rough and tumble of the public domain.

n Matthew Barney's 'OTTOshaft' runs to 18 June at Art Now, Tate Gallery. London SW1. The artist will be talking about his work at the Clore Gallery auditorium, Tate Gallery, 1pm today; 'Cremaster 4', a new film by Matthew Barney will be screened at the Metro Cinema, Rupert Street, London W1, 9-14 May. Tickets and details: 0171-734 1506 / 0171-494 2887