Beyond the limits of canvas at Tate Modem

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The Independent Online

The Queen will be opening the Tate Modem next week, the most up-to-date art gallery in Britain and probably the world. The Tate Modem is so called because it is the first online art gallery in the world. All its works of art are stored in a computer, and to access them a "visitor" has to get through on the internet via a modem.

"This is the most exciting new national art gallery for many a long year," says the Tate Modem's director, Frank Marsden. "For a start, you don't have to go to some ghastly big city such as London to get to it. For another thing, you don't have to go to Salford or Walsall or any of those ghastly places up north to get to it. For a third thing, you don't have to go anywhere to get to it - you just have to be at home. All you have to do is log on, click on the picture you want to see, and hey, presto!"

But is looking at a painting on a screen the same experience as looking at it on a canvas?

"Excuse me," says Frank Marsden, reprovingly. "I thought we'd heard the last of that tired old argument. If pictures don't look good on the screen, why does TV put out series after series on famous paintings? Would you rather get a glimpse of a Monet painting sideways-on over 10 pairs of shoulders, or would you rather have it all to yourself on a screen? In a gallery there is only one way of making a painting look smaller or larger, and that is walking nearer to it or farther from it. With the Tate Modem you can click to get nearer or further; you can zoom in on certain parts of the painting; you can turn it upside down or change the colour if you like."

Change the colour?

"Certainly. If you want to see what Van Gogh's sunflowers would look like in purple, you just change it on the screen. You can't do that in real life. Real life is so limiting. Oil paint and canvas are very unforgiving."

Yes, but...

"But nothing. It's like going to a football match. When you're used to seeing football on TV, with close-ups, instant replays of goals, slow-motion replays of controversial moments, and shots of Alex Ferguson getting so emotional that he stops chewing gum for a second, then it comes as a hell of a shock to go to a real match. You can't see much, you miss most of what you can see, and they never do any instant replays. Live football is a wretched substitute for TV football. I believe that art on a screen has come of age with the Tate Modem, and will soon leave poor old draughty, badly hung, badly lit real-life art far behind."

One of the great advantages of being on line to the Tate Modem is that you can now hang a monitor on the wall, or place it on a table, and call up any picture you like, so that you might have a Constable on display one day, and switch to a Magritte the next. But the most controversial feature of the new Tate Modem is the virtual art room, which brings us paintings that were never painted.

"I won't explain how the software works," says Marsden, "because you won't understand it any more than I do, but the idea is that if, for instance, you wanted to know how Van Gogh would have painted a seascape instead of the same dreary old sunflower fields, you can ask the Tate Modem computer to use its Van Gogh memory data to create a completely new Van Gogh painting. Bingo! A brand new classic! And one that exists only online and not as a canvas. No copyright problems there."

Does Marsden have copyright problems with real paintings, though? Has he been impeded by Bill Gates's urge to acquire reproduction rights to so many famous images?

Marsden smiles mischievously.

"Let's just say that what Bill Gates has can easily be hacked into by an art-lover. He'd be surprised how many of the paintings in our collection he would recognise."

Is Marsden not afraid of legal action by Gates?

"Microsoft has got enough on its plate with the US government trying to carve it up without worrying about little pipsqueaks like us."

The Tate Modem is housed in an industrial unit on the edge of Swindon. You cannot visit it physically, and even if you work there, you don't go there. When the Queen opens it next week, she will be doing it from Buckingham Palace. Truly, art has taken its first major step into the 21st century.