28 August 2012

Tate Modern: The Tanks, Hirst and Munch

A belated post-Olympics visit to a relatively uncrowded Tate Modern with three things to see, in ascending order:

The Tanks

When Tate Modern was created by the transformation of the old Bankside Power Station, the underground oil storage tanks remained in place but no longer had a use. In Tate’s own words: “they have now being transformed into some of the most exciting new spaces for art in the world, The Tanks, the world’s first museum galleries permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art, performance, installation and film works”. Fifteen Weeks of Art in Action in The Tanks started on 18 July and is far better seen and experienced than described, but a listing of the events up to 18 October is available here.

The development of The Tanks has been the first phase of the Tate Modern Project which it is hoped to complete by 2016 at a capital cost of £215 million, three quarters of which has been raised.

Damien Hirst

The first floor gallery of Tate Modern is given over to a major survey, Damien Hirst, an artist whose work is so well-known as to need little description. There are, as to be expected, spot paintings, cabinets full of medicines and other medicalia, a maggot-fly life-cycle piece sustained by a rotting cow’s head which promises to leave an indelible souvenir on Tate’s floor, longitudinally-bisected animals, butterflies both alive and mounted, and, more revolting than anything else for a non-smoker, arrangements of cigarette ends. The pretentiousness of the titles of his works never ceases to impress: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the pickled shark) – oh yes, what about a pathologist? – and The Acquired Inability to Escape (cigarette ends), though Crematorium (more cigarette ends) is relatively obvious.

Two items in the hand-out given to visitors struck me:
"In I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds 2006, one of Hirst's largest butterfly paintings, kaleidoscopic mandala-like forms recall Buddhist and Hindu traditions. The title is taken from the Bhagavad Gita, a part of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata."
On 16 July 1945 the first test of a nuclear weapon was carried out in New Mexico. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the scientific effort at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, said that witnessing the explosion had reminded him of this same line which he quoted as: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. It would be interesting to know if Hirst was aware of this. Coincidentally, the test was codenamed Trinity and one of Hirst’s works in the exhibition is Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology 2000.

"The sculpture Loving in a World of Desire 1996 offers a counterpoint to the rotating spins. Here a giant beach ball hovers above a coloured box. Suspended on a jet of air, the sphere flutters over the structure in an interplay of precariousness and balance, and evokes the title’s themes of love and desire."
I’m not sure what exactly is meant by ‘suspended on’ or ‘an interplay of precariousness and balance’. But this is part of how they explain Bernoulli’s equation at Princeton:
A table tennis ball placed in a vertical air jet becomes suspended in the jet, and it is very stable to small perturbations in any direction. Push the ball down, and it springs back to its equilibrium position; push it sideways, and it rapidly returns to its original position in the center of the jet. In the vertical direction, the weight of the ball is balanced by a force due to pressure differences: the pressure over the rear half of the sphere is lower than over the front half because of losses that occur in the wake (large eddies form in the wake that dissipate a lot of flow energy). To understand the balance of forces in the horizontal direction, you need to know that the jet has its maximum velocity in the center, and the velocity of the jet decreases towards its edges. The ball position is stable because if the ball moves sideways, its outer side moves into a region of lower velocity and higher pressure, whereas its inner side moves closer to the center where the velocity is higher and the pressure is lower. The differences in pressure tend to move the ball back towards the center.
which sounds more analogous to the stability of a long-term relationship than to the precariousness of love and desire. Hirst, once a YBA, is still only 47 and his artistic reputation will almost certainly have its own ups and downs for decades to come. In the meantime the production of his expensive works provides gainful employment for hundreds of technicians in numerous UK workshops – a welcome trickledown to the UK economy from the global super-rich. Damien Hirst continues until 9 September.


And then on to the second floor and Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, which I enjoyed more than I expected. Munch (1863-1944) is very widely known for The Scream which he called Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream [or shriek] of Nature). Not always appreciated about this famous image is that Munch frequently produced several versions of the same work. In The Scream’s case, three are in Norwegian museums and it was the 1895 pastel which sold for a public auction record (for any work) of just under $120 million at Sotheby’s in New York in May. The Tate show doesn’t include any versions of The Scream (even the lithographs) but gives one room over to 'Reworkings' to make the point with several versions of The Sick Child and The Girls on the Bridge (above) and again later with Weeping Woman.

Munch, like Degas, took up still photography and he also later made amateur handheld films. In the case of Weeping Woman (left) 1907-09, as well as six paintings, drawings, a lithograph and a sculpture, he made a photograph in 1907 (Rosa Meissner at the hotel room in Warnemunde). Although Munch grew up in Oslo (Cristiana at the time), after his twenties he spent much of his time in Paris and Berlin, only returning to Norway permanently in 1908 after a nervous breakdown. In 1906 in Berlin he had collaborated with Max Reinhardt on artistic aspects of a production of Ibsen’s  Ghosts, followed in 1907 by set designs for Hedda Gabler. This is considered to have developed Munch’s interest in the use of small rooms as claustrophobic settings for works like Weeping Woman. To me his earlier Two Human Beings: The Lonely Ones 1905 (below) evokes Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea (1888), which Munch would almost certainly have seen.

Munch produced some unsparing self-portraits later in life – he was lucky enough to survive the 1919 influenza epidemic. Branded a decadent artist by the Nazis, his final years were spent in artistic isolation during the occupation of Norway.
Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu 1919 and Self-Portrait with Bottles ?1938
The arrangement of the paintings and photographs in the exhibition aims to support the idea that Munch is better regarded as a major painter of the early 20th century than as a late 19th century avante gardiste. If his significance as a painter is justified by the prices now paid for his work and his creation of one of the most widely recognised art works of all time, then he has to be regarded as a major painter in whichever period of modern art he is allocated to. Munch left most of his estate to the City of Oslo and it is now held by the Munch-museet which has lent many of the works in the exhibition.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye was organised by the Centre Pompidou and has previously appeared in Paris and then Frankfurt, and continues at Tate Modern until 14 October.


An even lower-brow comment than normal, and revealing an over-exposure to Scandinavian noir, but I can’t help seeing a resemblance between the female figure in Ashes 1925 (below) and the Danish actress best-known in the UK for playing the detective Sara Lund in the TV series Forbrydelsen (The Killing). I must get out more!

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