And no birds sing

– the new Tate Modern extension


The new extension to Tate Modern has a splendid, even magnificent, exterior. It is highly original and the shapes surprising and exciting. The warm colour of the brickwork makes an uplifting contrast to the dull, vast expanse of bricks of the original building next door.  The photographs I had seen prior to my visit had been deceptive in one way. They did not show the proximity of the blocks of flats next to the new extension and therefore the impossibility of seeing it from any distance. The only view of it one has from a distance is a sighting from the Millennium Bridge and that consists of the box like shape of the top portion just peeping over the top of the Boiler House. But on getting closer and turning the corner of the original building one is confronted with the soaring walls and dizzying perspectives of the new extension. Even at close quarters it is a tremendous experience. So one approaches the building with some excitement and anticipation of what it holds inside.

We entered the new building from inside the Turbine Hall. The hall itself was empty and, with its vast scale, oppressive and joyless. The basement of the new Switch House continues this atmosphere only in an inverted manner. Instead of a huge space one finds oneself in a dark and worrisome cellar. Concrete pillars with concrete beams hold a low ceiling over a mystifying area. Colourless, joyless. Where do we go? My companion at this stage said, ‘Where is the art?’. There was none in evidence here. Indeed the space seemed like something Stalin might have approved for housing the KGB headquarters. Suddenly one comes across a thing of beauty. A staircase spiralling up in superb lines. It seems out of place, as if the prisoners – artists, musicians, designers and dissenters – had taken over and had their way for a brief moment of joy in creation. Hope rose and a smile spread.
Consulting our map we decided to go to the top of the building and work our way down to the ground floor, exploring as we went. We discovered that only the lower half of the tower is actually exhibition space. The upper floors, in descending order are: the viewing platform, the restaurant (expensive), the members’ room, staff only, events and Tate exchange (not sure what that is).

The view from the top is excellent and we stayed some time walking round searching out landmarks and memories. I forgot where we were at one point, enjoying the waves of nostalgia flowing over me. Apart from the view they had done nothing with this space, which may have been a good thing. We could have lingered but we had to get on and start our adventure.

I find it difficult to describe individual displays and will just mention some in passing. This is because the experience was so overwhelmingly dull that nothing much sticks in the mind. There are things leaning against walls, things one could trip over on the floor, stuffed body socks hanging from the ceilings and, in one case a sort of cage which, we read, was to contain macaw parrots. The macaws had been withdrawn for some reason or other. So the cage was left empty, people possibly thinking the withdrawal was some part of the artwork’s concept. It didn’t seem to matter much either way – except to the macaws perhaps.

The trouble with conceptual art is that once you get the concept – that’s it! You’ve done it. What are you supposed to do then? Come back for another go? Keep meditating on the concept? Because if you do come back to the work you have nothing more to do, nothing much to look at. I kept looking at some of Louise Bourgeois’ works and seeing if there was anything more I could gain from a prolonged study of the physical object. I found there was nothing at all. A thing with two balls and other stuff in a cage revealed nothing more by studying it in depth. As I said, once you have got it, you have got it. Like solving a crossword clue.  And as King Lear said, ‘Nothing will come of nothing’.

And so it goes on to the lower depths, both of the building and the spirit. We moved among other visitors many of whom had an intense look on their faces, as if trying desperately to jack themselves up into some emotional response to the implacable objects in front of them. And failing. My own nervous system was untouched. Nothing stirred. My mirror neurons remained still. My limbic system remained quiescent. Nothing amused me; nothing made me fearful or overwhelmed me with emotion nor gave me any sense of anything outside myself. Certainly not a hint of the sublime. These displays turn in on themselves and in turn make us turn in on ourselves. They are the profound expression of a serious psychological depression in the case of many of the artists, the curators involved and in society at large. Where one might look up one is always asked to look down, to bow one’s head and to look at – what? – nothing much. Colourless, joyless, lifeless. Subtlety replaced by a brutal lack of imagination and sensitivity. A dearth of feeling. Large parts of the public contemporary art community are in the grip of a depression and, as in the case of many depressives, are not aware of the fact. Indeed, the response to any suggestion that this is so, only tempts them into denial, and to accuse one of ‘not getting it’. And as Bob Dylan almost said, ‘they care not to come up any higher, but rather get you down into the hole that they’re in’.

It seems to me that these ‘flagship’ new buildings popping up all over the world as temples of art have put the cart before the horse. Or have put the cart before the art. They generally have no idea of what to do with the often beautiful spaces that they have created. They are temples from which the gods have fled. They seem to have no true philosophy, no universal vision and no passion that would be recognised as such. They seem merely to follow a vague fashion which they themselves in their misery have half-heartedly created.

A depressed collection of stuff which left me depressed. Echoes of Keats floated back. ‘And this is why I sojourn here, Alone and palely loitering, Though the sedge has wither’d from the lake, And no birds sing’.

And no macaws squawk.