A funny thing happened…

…on the way to the Tate.
A planned day of work unexpectedly turned into a day of time with old friends, but rapidly descended into the rabid pit of art world inspired lunacy.
A recent trip to a London gallery to deliver some work for exhibition was preceded, quite unexpectedly, by a phone call from Mexican artist Luis Ituarte and his film maker partner Dr Gerda Govine-Ituarte, who I’d struck up a friendship with a month earlier in Florence. They were on their way home via London and were planning on visiting the Tate Modern. Would we like to meet up? In all the time this alleged powerhouse of high culture has been open my partner and I had never actually had time to check it out – so indeed this seemed quite fortuitous. Another chance to catch one of my favourite paintings in the country – Franz Kline’s ‘Meryon’ in its new gallery setting.
The following day we set off early – everything was moving along fine. We enjoyed an untroubled drive up the motorway (which has never happened before), dropped off the work at the gallery, took a lazy amble up the road to the nearest tube, and waited for our train into town.
Before we can get on the train we’re interrupted by another phone call – this time it’s Joe Mangrum, another artist we met at Florence; he’s on his way to home to San Francisco via London where he’ll be this afternoon. Did we fancy meeting up? At the Tate Modern perhaps? What started out as a good day just kept getting better!
So after a pleasant tube ride (again never a common experience), some great tube station modern architecture and a short walk we get to Tate Modern. Expectantly we descend the entrance ramp and behold the current media hyped spectacle, Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Weather Project’.
Which is fine. In a big yellow sun in a hotel basement garage kind of fashion. I think we’re convinced of its implicit greatness through its explicit BIGNESS (there’s a job here for a mathematician to establish the exact quantitative relationship between artistic seriousness and BIGNESS – a zippy little equation shouldn’t take too long to whip up). Needless to say there’s no shortage of punters oohing and aahing (the atmospheric wonder of breathing difficulties in cold ice for asthmatics), rattling on about the sense of ‘the spiritual’ in this work, the ‘monumental scale’ of the work. These very same punters would likely walk right past the Gothic leviathan that is Cologne Cathedral because it was a ‘church’. Despite the fact it took six centuries to complete and has the kind of presence that can only be related to, in an aesthetically atheistic fashion, as some great, Armageddon inspired, smoke blackened, extra-terrestrial landing – unless of course it was on a modern art tourist map – perhaps the Germans should rebrand it…
Anyway, at the Tate we met our friends. Amongst the happy-clappy art-world, new-age hippies running up to this Glastonbury festival installation, raising their arms and chanting art bollocks mantras to an artifice of sun in a very dull day coloured brick warehouse.
We couldn’t cope with the dark anymore and didn’t want to waste what short amount of time we had left turning blue from a combination of UV deprivation and carbon dioxide inhalation. We thought the best way to attack a one afternoon visit to the Tate was in relating it to Dante’s Divine Comedy (even the title seems appropriate in retrospect) so we started at the top, with the noble plan of descending the seven levels of hell, sorry – artsville.
Like lemmings in a cultural IKEA garage we were shepherded by the Saturday afternoon art-shopping crowd around the current curatorial favourite of randomly associated collections of cultural artefact. Bill Viola attempted to confuse and confound with pseudo religious video doom (in a lightless room of course). But his attempts at messing my head up counted as naught in comparison to the frottage and beating dished out by other viewers – I think I actually stood on two student fans of Mr. Viola (serves ’em bloody well right for attempting a transcendental experience on the floor of a dark room) and I also unwittingly hoofed a discarded drinks carton into somebody in a fashion that would’ve inspired Pele.
I’d recommend art critics view this work in the same kind of lunatic conditions that we, the general public punters, have to. They might hold back some of their literary hyperbole when they have to fight for the right to view in an atmosphere of body odour, loud whispering and bodies on the floor whingeing at being stood on or fallen over.
Elsewhere in the asylum the usual chin strokers were fondling their goatees at the usual suspects. Stressy attendants were hassling a snappy happy photographer whose flash light was obviously threatening to permanently erode a Rodin bronze. The ‘beautiful people’ were sucking in their cheeks for the benefit of the other ‘beautiful people’ who were pretending not to notice by wearing black sunglasses – this in an art gallery did obviously not strike them as odd behaviour. Perhaps they were being ‘ironic’ and not ‘moronic’ as I initially interpreted it. And of course there were the culture tourist victim kids in tow, ever going on in an ever honest kid fashion about ‘that’s not art Dad – that’s crap’. And Dad’s tried to explain the intricacies of twentieth century art theory versus ‘crap’ to kids who’d rather be bored at home in front of one television showing Big Brother than bored here in front of a bank of boxes endlessly, relentlessly showing repeats of Bruce Naumann TV.
THANK GOD for Franz Kline’s ‘Meryon’. It was the cheesecake and double cream desert to the soylent green dog’s dinner of much that we saw that day. It enlivened me like a double espresso, morning nicotine fix and sent me on my way – to a moment I shall hold as an epiphany in my obviously ever sad, art-world life.
I did take the name of the work and the artist – but my ensuing euphoria at having been kicked in the mental bollocks by new art has since hoovered the names away. And it doesn’t really matter – it could quite literally have been by anybody.
We entered a room; a relatively quiet room considering the mayhem of the preceding exhibits, and came to a Tate note on the wall. Usual sort of nonsense – metaphysical horse-shite puddle-deep title, artist’s name, year of creation, collector, corporate sponsor etcetera. And the work itself.
A door. Perhaps twelve feet tall or more, with huge great steel hinges AND NO HANDLE. God – the significance of this work seemed otherworldly to me after the experiences upstairs. I may even have stroked my chin in some representational orgy of mental onanism. Hellfire, I was mildly impressed. Thank god something contemporary in this museum hell-hole had moved me (if only two inches to the left). I was even enthusing with Gerda over the quality of this piece.
Now I’ve never professed to be the world’s foremost font of art theory and history knowledge, but from the age of eleven my parents bought me art biographies because I wanted them. I’ve read on art, art history, and art theory since because I was obsessed with the subject. I’ve always practised the visual arts, from the age of eleven I’ve been painting with oils. And I’ve kept a fairly solid record of the work I’ve created over the last dozen or so years. I’ve had discussions and arguments with curators and gallery managers who’ve been only too willing to display their limited knowledge rather than admit to it. I’m not unaware of the contemporary developments in fine art – officially sanctioned, state supported or otherwise. But this got me.
I turned to the left to leave the room and enter the next gallery and saw in the next room the exact same door.
Same hinges, same height, same aesthetic (i.e. none) and importantly same lack of door handle. I returned, in a puzzled kind of fashion, to the original ‘art’ door with its ‘art’ plaque of authenticity. Slow dawning realisation – in a rosy cheeked fashion if you get my picture (Gerda comes to the same conclusion simultaneously and laughs hysterically at my dumbfounded state). The plaque in fact had referred to the artwork to its right, not this door to its left. The door was plainly and simply a bloody door.
I, with the accidental assistance of the Tate’s curators, had mistaken it for a piece of art. The title was so vague that it wouldn’t deny the relevance of it. The supporting exhibits so ‘sublime’ that they didn’t deny the truth of it. And my tacit acceptance of the museum’s authority through mere presence wouldn’t deny the validity of it.
I’d been had. But not by some sly, shooting from the hip, tabloid TV anti-art hack or a wit ridden YBA, but by myself. Brilliant!
So what chance do the general public stand when they come here with some vague notion of attaining cultural enlightenment?
Next I had visions of security guards lurking in a darkened room somewhere, taking the piss as they sit watching that corner of that room, taking odds on which Tate Modern punter is next going to stand in front of that door, read that plaque and stroke their bloody chins in art world wonder.
I’m not sure which divine levels led to which divine moments of enlightenment – but the toilets definitely led to another of their own. I can’t have been the first person to think it – but well, that environment kind of focuses the attention into art world solipsism. I’m in the loo of British Modern Art plc pissing on a replica Duchamp. I mentioned this heresy to my fellow denizens of the pissoir but it was just so much grain tossed onto the barren sod of the day’s ongoing high art sitcom.
The Tate Modern BIG art experience could only be topped with a visit to the Restaurant (non-smoking – consequently containing a great number of fretful nicotine starved artists). It looked fantastically black and shiny and modern. Stuffed with scores of the great unseated, attempting to hunter-gather an insufficient quantity of seating. Insufficient perhaps, but beautifully arranged. A kind of Corbusieresque ‘machine for waiting’.
What else awaited us following our Tate Modern branded coffee cups with Tate Modern branded sugar and Tate Modern branded milk substitute?
What could top refreshments in MacTate?
The gift shoppe. And here was the point I feel of the whole experience. Escalators whisk the expectant punters up and down the Divine Comedy like some great badly lit department store until at last, by purpose or accident, they find themselves at Tate bookshop central.
I can cope with the monographs, I can cope with the theory, I can even cope with the world’s most expensive living painter (Richter), being promoted in what was probably the world’s most expensive living art book. But the final straw was the Tate Modern branded associated tourist nick-knackery. Give away, disposable, mass-produced supposed ‘multiples’. ‘Multiples’? Must be art then – best keep ’em safe. They might be valuable one day, even if they do look like ping pong balls with ‘Tate Modern’ printed on them – best stick them behind that limited edition Elvis commemorative dinner plate.
I know I’m always being accused of being a miserable, cynical old bastard. But do they have to make it so easy? Perhaps it’s never been about art alone and perhaps I’ve got rose tinted spectacles (though welding goggles would probably be more appropriate) when it comes to my memories of the old Tate. But since the worst of the various sins of post-modernist over-intellectualism have allied consumerism as a both the subject of art and art theory – the marketing department, not the art, seems to have taken over the museum.
I’ll go back to the old Tate next time (sorry – Tate Britain) – hopefully it’ll be stuffed with old farts like me and there’ll be room to see some Art between the punters.


With friends at Tate Modern.


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