A few years ago, I went on a trip to Galapagos with a group of collectors amongst whom was Franck Petitgas, one of Tate Modern Trustees who, at the time, was working alongside Lord Browne of Madingley to raise impossible sums of money to finance the new wing. He offered the then CEO of Morgan Stanley to have his name on the wing in exchange for several million pounds and, as far as I remember, John Mack refused. The whole endeavor seemed more about the people raising the construction of identity of the wealthy individuals committed to raise money than about art. I remember wondering about the purpose of the expansion. What for? Do we need a larger Tate Modern? Do we need more buildings?
The wait, however, is over and the wing has just been unveiled for the press. It is contained inside a 212-foot-tall pyramidal tower adjacent to the main Tate Modern building accessible through the Tanks which link the Turbine Hall with the new Sculpture Room. Designed by Herzog & De Meuron, who developed the original Tate Modern 16 years ago, the Switch House is covered by a layer of perforated lattice of 336K bricks, a slate colored skin that echoes the brickwork of the Boiler House next door. That skin confirms Richard Serra’s assertion that nothing relevant has happened in architecture since the Bauhaus. It is a pyramidal ‘shelf’ with a terrace on top covered by a rather sophisticated brickwork that alludes far too closely to Renzo Piano’s ‘the piece’ by putting all its attention in its surface. From that point of view, it is a monument to superficiality presented as a brutalist exercise.
Herzog & De Meuron’s original design for the transformation of the Electricity plant into Tate Modern followed the developments of New York’s DIA Foundation where warehouses started to be transformed into museums. The kind of art favoured at the DIA in Chelsea was minimalism which was not hung on the walls but placed on the floor for people to walk around. If money during the Renaissance was needed to acquire expensive pigments (azurite or vermillion, for example), after the DIA and then Tate Modern, money was needed to buy floor space for artists such as Walter De Maria, Donald Judd and later Olafur Eliasson to create their ‘installations’. This was the point when art and real estate seemed to be hand in hand. So why did Tate Modern need more space that what it already had if we bear in mind that half the Turbine Hall is always empty?
Since the times of Richard Rodgers and Norman Foster (the 90s), Bankside has been the area where London expressed its claim to be the financial centre of the world. Rodger’s ‘London As It Should Be’ Project failed because it aimed at transforming the Thames into a bridge for workers to go fast from a train station soon to be moved from Waterloo to Saint Pancras. Herzog & De Meuron hit a nerve when transforming Tate Modern into the playground for those workers to hang out during the weekend and for tourists to bring money into London. Hence, Tate Modern’s close link to the city through sponsorship.
If the Turbine Hall used to be sponsored by Unilever, the new space at Tate Modern is sponsored by a myriad of corporations. While the British Government contributed 50 million pounds to the 260 needed, the rest was provided by UNIQLO, Hyundai, BMW and Bloomberg. The new wing has been designed to hold a collection that transforms the whole exercise into an allegory of London as the global financial hub. The first room is the one called ‘Active Sculpture’ and includes a sonic arrangement by Tarek Atoui, a configuration of construction cubes by Rasheed Araeen and a semi-enclosed booth by Charlotte Posenenske. The second level of Switch House has a four ton pink glass by Roni Horn, a silent bubble fountain by David Medalla and sawgs of aluminum bunting by Marisa Merz. From there on to level three with Helio Oticica and a Brazilian favela with sand included, tropical plants and the full tropicalia. On the fourth floor, the stuffed cadavers of Louise Bourgeois. Finally, one emerges on the top floor terrace to overlook the City of London which is its financial discrict where those who paid for this space keep making more profit for London to stay alive. The question is what is the point of art in such a corporate arrangement. Is there any possibility of freedom amongst this infrastructural exercise of post capitalistic alienation? The art selected for this new space is visual evidence of the financiers’ need to exorcise their own insecurities by making sure that (financial) globalization stays at the top of everybody’s (including ‘ top’ artists’) concerns.
This takes as to the ethical question of why do we do what we do and why do we build more space for a building that does not seem to need it. In other words, Tate modern has become an irrational totem for a group of men that are realizing that the world is changing and change might jeopardise what they believe in.