The Tanks at Tate Modern

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Sometimes the box is more interesting than its contents, isn’t it?  The same might be said of some gallery spaces.  I recall visiting the Guggenheim in Bilbao and feeling that very forceably: nothing inside the building was more interesting than surveying the exterior of the museum itself.

Might the same be true of the new space opened up at Tate Britain this week?  As a member of the Tate, I was sent a survey a couple of days ago asking questions about if and why I might visit the Tanks, and (broadly)what I thought art was for.  Usually I find it tricky completing such things, as they never offer as options the answers I want to give, and I spend ages havering between two equally not quite right responses.  But this instance was different.

Two questions stick in my mind.  If you do plan to visit the Tanks, what is your main reason for doing so?  ‘Solely curiosity’, the real reason was there, so I ticked it, able to ignore all the suggestions involving various levels of committed interest in performance art and installations.

The second was, give us three words to describe what you think of performance art.  Only three words? Each box allowed the insertion of a single word, which stopped me writing ‘potentially awful’ , so I settled for ‘risky, embarrassing and pretentious’.  OK, maybe I’m just overly influenced by memories of artists in the 60s and 70s taking their clothes off and standing around with banners, or sitting with tapes over their mouths slowly cutting their clothes off themselves.  Or maybe my fevered imagination is just getting the better of me?

But my curiosity was strong enough to want to see The Tanks, notwithstanding the risk of performance art.

The area was once used as the storage for the tanks of oil used to power the turbines when the building was a generating station, and in opening them up as huge new gallery spaces, many of the traces of its industrial and concrete origins have been retained; the floors, walls and most of the ceiling, supported by massive concrete pillars, retain stains, small flights of steps going nowhere and holes hinting at what must have been removed.

And it’s huge.

There were quite a few people taking advantage of the members’ preview day, and it was my impression that mostly they, like me, were primarily motivated by curiosity about seeing the space, wandering around staring at the far distant roof and running their hands over the concrete walls.

I tried the work on show, but couldn’t engage with very much of it.  There seemed to be an irresistible temptation for the the artists to chop the huge space into smaller and smaller units, where the ventilation and light was at a minimum.  Personally, I found these all too hot and too  unnecessarily dark.

One installation, set inside what looked and smelt like a disused oil tank pipe, lit with minimal red lights and with ample opportunity to examine the bolts and joints of the ironwork, was a sound piece, playing voices of grandmothers celebrating the benefits of age.  I fear that the hot, humid claustrophobia induced by the confined space prevented me from being convinced.

We’re all so uncertain these days on how to react to some of this stuff, that most people I saw were wandering around looking at the space rather than what was in it, even though they are sufficiently  interested in art to pay an annual membership fee.  I particularly enjoyed overhearing a conversation between a middle aged lady in sensible shoes, and a young man who was sweeping the floor in the furthermost large empty space.

‘Oh no.  I’m not the performance art.’ he said.  ‘Honestly.’

He was either telling the truth or it was a clever double bluff.  For the moment, I think I’ll choose to believe that it was indeed the most interesting of the installations of the day.

I have no idea why there was a crowd of people walking backwards and forwards the length of the Turbine Hall in formation.  Maybe it’s just because they could.

Leave a comment


  1. margaret

     /  July 18, 2012

    Like the pics with people in : looks like the start of a Dance rehearsal !

  2. The spaces are so huge, Rowena, made for industrialisation and machinery, after all. It looks quite alien and unfriendly. Seems to be crying out for vibrant, colourful works, and installations – lets hope it gets a curatorial shot in the arm before too long.

    • I will be returning to see what they do next, but I think the whole focus is on ‘installations’ and ‘performance art’, and so am anticipating a lot of darkness and projected videos. There are bright and airy spaces in the rest of the Tate which on this first experience of the Tanks will be my preferred destinations!


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