Visiting the Tate Modern

The Tate Modern is an arresting building, a sympathetic blend of old and new. Its tall chimney stack is a legacy of its previous life as a power station, marking its south bank location like a pin stuck into a map, but even without the chimney, the building would draw the eye. The new wing has a crease in the brickwork, an unexpected dent which disrupts its shape, underlining its function as the home of modern art in London.

Inside, the Tate Modern is cavernous. There’s an abundance of smooth grey cement. Thick iron girders, painted black, are knobbly with hemispherical nuts, like braille. The space feels self-consciously neutral. Some might describe it as cold.

I spend an hour or so wandering through the free exhibition spaces. I see Monet’s Waterlilies, Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone, a Picasso and… a lot of other work by artists whose names I don’t remember. On one wall, torn white fabric hangs from wooden batons, recalling a wrecked bi-plane. In another room, giant fronds of stitched tan leather hang like blades of kelp in swathes. I don’t read the descriptive label, preferring to admire the texture of the leather, to marvel at the scale of the exhibit. I watch a digital piece “performed” by a deaf child with a sweet face and a shock of black hair. He mimes the horrors he has seen in the Syrian conflict, his  impassioned articulations requiring no translation.

Later, I think about the people I’d seen walking around with phones in their hands. In a dimly lit hall surrounded by enormous abstract paintings, I watched two men attending to their phones, their eyes bathed in screen light, their thumbs dancing. There was a pleasing symmetry in the way they were standing, heads bent, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. After a while, one of the men handed his phone to the other and posed in front of a painting with an expression of deliberate interest while his friend took a picture. I imagine his Instagram caption: “Checking out the art at hashtag Tate Modern!!”

Unwittingly, the two men have become elements of a temporary installation I viewed at the Tate, making a statement about life and art, but there is no judgement here. Who is to say how we should interact with art?

Who is to say how we should interact with art?

When I think about the digital exhibit with the deaf child, I know that the reason it moved me is because I watched it in a darkened space and the child, through his unswerving eye contact with the camera, seemed to be addressing me personally. The darkness, the eye contact, the time devoted to watching the piece all factored into the way it made me feel.

In a vast space packed with exhibits and visitors it can be difficult to achieve that depth of connection with the works on display, and whilst there is obvious value in having so much to see in one place, there’s a temptation to try and see everything. I wonder if that’s what turns gallery visitors into snap-happy tourists, more concerned with creating an “Instaworthy” moment than with achieving genuine engagement with the exhibits.

My visit to the Tate Modern makes me reflect on how I like to interact with art.

For me, spending time with art is like spending time with a book. When I read, I want an immersive experience. Not all books capture my interest any more than all art speaks to me, but when I find myself drawn into a book or fascinated by a piece of art, I want to take my time. I want to fall under the writer’s or the artist’s spell. I want to be taken on a journey, have my perceptions challenged or perhaps I simply want to be absorbed and entertained.

I recall going to the National Gallery in Edinburgh to see Het puttertje (The Goldfinch) by Carel Fabritius. It was the only painting I had planned to see that day and I had only heard of it through Donna Tartt’s Pullitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. The true story of the painting – one of the very few works by Fabritius to have survived the 1654 explosion in Delft which killed the artist – together with Tartt’s clever story, made me curious to see The Goldfinch for myself.

The tiny painting was positioned in a roped off area in the middle of one of the gallery halls. I was lucky to be there as an art group came in for a guided talk, so I loitered on the fringes and listened. I learned more than I can remember now, but it was with a light step that I left the gallery that day, my Goldfinch souvenirs (notebook, fridge magnet and large postcard) safely stowed in a thick paper bag.

When it comes to art, I have learned that less is more. I know now that I derive the greatest pleasure from art if I a narrow my focus to one painting, perhaps one artist, or one exhibition space per visit. If I try to see more, I’m plagued with sensory overload and intellectual dissatisfaction. It makes sense really. I would never try to read an entire shelf of books at the same time, but that’s just me. Who is to say how we should interact with art…

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