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Switched On: Tate Modern Unveils Its Towering Extension, Aiming to Expand Its Mission and Rewrite Art History

Exterior of the Tate Modern, showing the newly opening expansion. ©IWAN BAAN

Exterior of the Tate Modern, showing the newly opening expansion.

©IWAN BAAN

Tate Modern on Tuesday unveiled to the press its hotly anticipated £260 million ($375 million) expansion, the most significant new cultural building in Britain since the landmark opening in 2000 of its home in a power station–turned–art powerhouse on the banks of the river Thames.

Resembling a twisted pyramid cloaked in latticed brickwork, Tate Modern’s handsome new addition complements the iconic original structure and offers a welcome change from the glassy sameness of much recent architecture. Crucially, it provides 60 percent more space to accommodate the throngs of visitors to this secular cathedral of modern art.

“Today we open not just an extension but genuinely a new Tate Modern with…a new view of the world as it has been over the past 120 years,” Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota, told a briefing of international journalists.

Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, who converted the defunct power station, have also designed the angular new building, which rises up ten stories from the site of the former Switch House and has a spectacular 360-degree viewing platform at the top.

Interior of the Tate Modern. ©IWAN BAAN

Interior of the Tate Modern.

©IWAN BAAN

Inside the new Switch House, all is industrial chic. The perforated brick facade and slit windows bring an airy feel to the clean concrete lines of the interior, which has been divided into spacious oak-floored concourses on one hand and discreet nooks on the other. A sweeping concrete staircase spirals up from the former oil storage tanks, the first museum spaces dedicated to live art.

On the fourth floor a narrow bridge across the vast Turbine Hall links galleries in the new building to the existing one (renamed the Boiler House after its original function). A 23-foot sculpture of a leafless tree by the Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei stretches upward from another bridge three floors below. A new entrance from the south will allow a constant flow of people through the complex.

“There’s a porosity just by the way the bricks are and the fact you can walk though…It’s almost more female if you like,” the artist Cornelia Parker said of the extension. “The original Tate Modern struts its stuff, whereas the new one is a bit more mercurial…The bricks are jutting out at angles, almost like brick brutalism. It’s really good.”

Tate Modern has been a game changer for Britain’s art scene. It “changed once and for all the perception of London as a force and a power for contemporary art and culture” from having been a backwater, Lisson Gallery owner Nicholas Logsdail told me. Reportedly the world’s most popular art museum, with free entrance to the collections, Tate Modern has been forced to expand by its runaway popularity—its five million annual visitors far outstripping initial forecasts of two million.

Just as the leaders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art set out to extend the museum’s contemporary reach and contextualize the modern within its encyclopedic collection with the Met Breuer earlier this year, Tate’s have agenda-setting ambitions. The expanded behemoth is intended to radically redefine the role of the museum as a public forum and laboratory for ideas.

“This is a building that’s not just about art, it’s about the city, it’s about London, it’s about what a great art institution can do for a community,” Serota said.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Embryology, 1978–80, burlap, cotton gauze, hemp rope, nylon, and sisal, dimensions variable, installation view. ©MAGDALENA ABAKANOWICZ/COLLECTION TATE MODERN, PRESENTED ANONYMOUSLY 2009

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Embryology, 1978–80, burlap, cotton gauze, hemp rope, nylon, and sisal, dimensions variable, installation view.

©MAGDALENA ABAKANOWICZ/COLLECTION TATE MODERN, PRESENTED ANONYMOUSLY 2009

To this end, just three of the ten new stories will be dedicated to exhibiting art—although they are the biggest, situated toward the bottom of the pyramid. The rest will mainly be made up of social and educational spaces. One entire floor has been given over to an “open experiment” called Tate Exchange as a platform for artists, the public, and some 50 partner organizations—from community radio stations to charities—to debate, create, and explore art’s role today.

Some are skeptical about this direction the museum is taking. “My feeling when I go into Tate Modern is ‘where is the art?’” the dealer Angela Flowers said ahead of the opening. “The more space given to actual works of art the better. I think things like forums, education could possibly be better off somewhere else, not in the beautiful gallery spaces,”

Ibrahim El-Salahi, Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams 1, 1961–65, enamel paint and oil paint on cotton, 8' 6" x 8' 6". COLLECTION TATE MODERN, PURCHASED USING FUNDS PROVIDED BY THE AFRICAN ACQUISITIONS COMMITTEE AND MIDDLE EAST NORTH AFRICA ACQUISITIONS COMMITTEE, 2012

Ibrahim El-Salahi, Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams 1, 1961–65, enamel paint and oil paint on cotton, 8′ 6″ x 8′ 6″.

COLLECTION TATE MODERN, PURCHASED USING FUNDS PROVIDED BY THE AFRICAN ACQUISITIONS COMMITTEE AND MIDDLE EAST NORTH AFRICA ACQUISITIONS COMMITTEE, 2012

The new building realigns the story of modernism away from the traditional centers of New York and Europe into a global tale—an expedient strategy adopted by Tate since it has lagged its peers in building its modern collection and prime material from those areas is now prohibitively expensive. Three quarters of the exhibited artworks have been acquired since 2000, mostly from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

“Since we opened Tate Modern the world has changed and the story of art has changed. The established view of art history is no longer all-encompassing,” said Frances Morris, Tate Modern’s newly appointed director. “Truly great art was then and is now made all over the world.”

So famous pieces by Picasso, Lichtenstein, and Joseph Beuys in the existing Boiler House building are now placed in dialogue with lesser-known artists, injecting fresh perspectives into familiar narratives. Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet find themselves in the company of Sudan’s Ibrahim el-Salahi and Cuba’s Wilfredo Lam; Monet is paired with Rothko, who looked at the French Impressionist’s use of color; a flag bearing traces of blood and soil by Mexico’s Teresa Margolles stands near Richard Hamilton’s 1981–83 painting The Citizen and Theaster Gates’s Civil Tapestry 4, made of fire hoses.

Refreshingly, the artworks throughout the old and new building are challenging, no easy one-liners here. The intelligent curation makes for an exhilarating viewing experience.

Ricardo Basbaum, Capsules (NBP x me-you), 2000, four steel capsules, fabric, polystyrene foam, vinyl wall texts, booklets, and audio, overall dimensions variable. COLLECTION TATE MODERN, PRESENTED BY THE LATIN AMERICAN ACQUISITIONS COMMITTEE, 2004

Ricardo Basbaum, Capsules (NBP x me-you), 2000, four steel capsules, fabric, polystyrene foam, vinyl wall texts, booklets, and audio, overall dimensions variable.

COLLECTION TATE MODERN, PRESENTED BY THE LATIN AMERICAN ACQUISITIONS COMMITTEE, 2004

While the rehang of Boiler House galleries encompasses four different approaches to modern art from 1900 to the present, the four displays in the Switch House have been dedicated to conceptual art since the 1960s, much of which invites viewer interaction. Here you find Carl Andre’s once-controversial bricks echoed by the Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair’s modernist columns of stone blocks, resin blocks by Rachel Whiteread, and a gigantic pink glass cube by Roni Horn. Visitors can lie inside Brazilian Ricardo Basbaum’s disquieting steel cages, wander through Benin artist Meschac Gaba’s African Museum of Contemporary Art, and admire live macaws up close in Helio Oiticica’s installation mimicking a Rio favela, Tropicália Penetrables PN 2 and PN 3 (1966–7).

Women artists are also being given more prominence in an effort to recalibrate the canon. Of the 300 artists from 57 countries on show, over a third are women. Louise Bourgeois has three rooms in the impressive opening display, offering a link back to her menacing, protective spider that inaugurated the Turbine Hall back in 2000. And it’s no coincidence that Georgia O’Keeffe and Mona Hatoum both have major retrospectives at the museum this year.

Morris, the first woman to lead Tate Modern, spoke of the “huge deficit” that had existed in Tate’s collection in terms of female artists. “When we opened 17 percent only of the art on display was by women. Now 50 percent of the solo rooms at the new Tate Modern are great works…by women,” she told the press briefing.

Jane Alexander, African Adventure, 1999–2002, mixed media, dimensions variable. ©JANE ALEXANDER

Jane Alexander, African Adventure, 1999–2002, mixed media, dimensions variable.

©JANE ALEXANDER

One of these rooms is peopled with hybrid animal-human sculptures by the South African artist Jane Alexander, evoking themes of colonial legacy, labor, and trade; another room is heaped with Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz’s cocoon-like sculptures made of sewn burlap in a 1978–80 work titled Embryology.

To mark the extension opening, performances are being staged across the museum spaces for three weeks, lending the place a carnival atmosphere. In the Turbine Hall visitors might find themselves corralled by police officers on horseback for Tania Bruguera’s 2008 piece Tatlin’s Whisper #5; elsewhere gallery attendants might at any moment burst into song as part of Tino Sehgal’s This is Propaganda (2002)—as I experienced while enjoying the pairing of a curving Anish Kapoor installation with a fan-shaped Ellsworth Kelly piece.

In the Tanks, visitors can walk around, touch, and enter three variations on minimal cubes by Robert Morris, Rasheed Araeen, and Charlotte Posenenske, freed from the conventional constraints of museum barriers. Simultaneously, Romanian artists Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuş have arranged for dancers to act out “equivalents” of famous paintings and sculptures from the Tate collection, while the Lebanese-born artist Tarek Atoui presents daily performances by musicians playing ten instruments of his own design.

Tania Bruguera, Tatlin’s Whisper #5, 2008, two uniformed mounted policemen, crowd control police technique, two horses (one white, one black or dark brown), and audience, performance view. COLLECTION TATE MODERN, PURCHASED WITH FUNDS PROVIDED BY ALIN RYAN VON BUCH, 2009

Tania Bruguera, Tatlin’s Whisper #5, 2008, two uniformed mounted policemen, crowd control police technique, two horses (one white, one black or dark brown), and audience, performance view.

COLLECTION TATE MODERN, PURCHASED WITH FUNDS PROVIDED BY ALIN RYAN VON BUCH, 2009

It has been a long journey for the Tate to this point. Tate Gallery opened in 1897 to house the nation’s collection of British art. Today the Tate group comprises Tate Britain, home to the prized Turner collection, Tate Liverpool, Tate St Ives in Cornwall, and Tate Modern.

The Turbine Hall commissions in particular have been a massive hit, allowing artists to let their imaginations run riot over its 35,000 square feet. Thousands sunbathed before Olafur Eliasson’s colossal indoor sun and flew down Carsten Höller’s shiny tubular slides; some even fell into Doris Salcedo’s crack in the floor.

Detractors complain that Tate Modern has become a conceptual theme park, with emphasis on spectacle over meaningful engagement, sidelining traditional art forms like painting and sculpture.

But if Tate’s focus on audiences and accessibility has alienated some, it has undeniably democratized art in Britain. “They’ve educated the general public over the last 20 years and given them permission to have an opinion about art,” Parker said. In a clear statement of its priorities, Tate Modern will open first to school groups on June 16 and then to the public on June 17.

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