MUSEUM AND LIBRARY
2 Time versus Theme
Chronology seeks to put order in an array of movements following the action-reaction pattern and has traditionally been the favoured option to present art to the public. The narrative created by this approach is that of a seamless development of art, with one period neatly following the next, and one artist responding or reacting to the past while also informing the future. This approach may often be a useful start to get your head around pre 19th Century art, but when it comes to art from the mid 19th Century up to the present, the sheer multiplicity of artistic practices not only in the West but also across the world simply cannot be embraced by a chronological narrative. In contrast, the themed approach is flexible from the outset and allows the viewer to draw connections between artists that otherwise would not be associated. A thematic display groups works according to their ability to reflect, illustrate or contest a particular subject.
Tate Modern’s curators chose theme over chronology for the former’s ability to open up different readings without imposing a single view about the development of art. A crucial aspect often overlooked that also impacted the choice was the actual layout and sheer size of the gallery space, demanding a less systematic approach. The permanent collection is hence displayed in four wings, each of them functioning as an autonomous unit and covering the themes: ‘Poetry and Dream’, ‘Transformed Visions’, ‘Energy and Process’, and ‘Structure and Clarity’. These terms are rather abstract and provide little guidance for what is there to be seen, except perhaps for ‘Poetry and Dream’ that, as its name vaguely suggests, covers Surrealism and beyond.
The concept behind this at first glance disjointed structure is similar to that of a temporary exhibition: each wing offers a closed narrative of a particular subject, so the visitor gets four different experiences of 20th century art. To create some coherence, each wing starts with a pairing of two works from different times. This juxtaposition is meant to set the tone for what follows, which is a mixture of rooms dedicated either to a specific theme or to a single artist. Once in the galleries, and particularly when looking at Rothko’s Seagram Murals in its own dimly lit suite, the overarching themes, regardless of how bemusing, gradually become irrelevant as the joy of looking at art overshadows any historiographical issues.
Any display, whether chronological or thematic, is not the product of some invisible and objective curatorial hand at work but a mediated text responding to a particular set of art historical ideas and values. It is the result of a carefully thought out selection process by the curator, the meaning of which the visitor constructs individually depending on his or her cultural baggage. The curator’s mediation is usually less apparent in a chronological structure; while in the case of Tate Modern the curatorial decisions are visible to anyone who cares to think about not only what is shown but how it is shown. They are there to be criticized or admired, but perhaps most importantly to encourage thinking about art. This emphasis on reflection is an integral part of Tate Modern’s commitment to experimentation and is further underlined by the fact that the displays are revisited and reviewed on a regular basis.
A visit to Tate Modern’s permanent collection is not an easy ride. Through the thematic displays the eye and mind are constantly challenged and asked to look and think again. Although themed structures are less contested now than a decade ago, Tate Modern’s experimental approach to displaying works of art remains an important point of reference. It is here that the visitor is inevitably faced with the fact that there is no longer one history of art but a multiplicity of stories, there to be discovered and explored.
The Tate Modern permanent collection of modern art is the largest in Britain and is recognised as one of the finest and most important in the world. Housed in a vast ex power station, the building itself is enough to inspire awe, but the collection and exhibition schedule require a breathtaking setting. There are many internationally important artists on display as well as representation for lesser known and new artists.
3 Who Needs Context?
Any display of art engages to a certain extent with current art historical questions and debates. Articulating these considerations in a way that is accessible to a wide range of audiences is a challenge. Although there is always the Learning and Interpretation Department to help with the educational aspect, curators are nevertheless the crucial intermediaries between the collection and the public, and a practical understanding of the diverse audiences is therefore just as important as any scholarly knowledge. Tate Modern’s approach although at times serendipitous (Waterlilies hangs comfortably next to works by American Expressionists) does also risk being inaccessible by not providing enough visual and textual information about the actual context in which a work of art is created.
Art can cross the boundaries of time and geography but is nevertheless the product of specific circumstances. These ought to be outlined clearly by any institution concerned with enhancing the understanding of art. In the case of Tate Modern, the lack of contextual information can lead to frustration, particularly when faced with highly conceptual works of art, such as the Arte Povera works included in the ‘Energy and Process’ wing. Although primarily interested in exploring different materials and found objects, Arte Povera constantly referred to Italy’s classical past as well as social and political issues from the 1960s. None of these aspects are really addressed in the wing, where Penone’s 12 Meter Trees look like lonely toothpicks amidst an array of often contextually disconnected and visually jarring works.
In addition, the themed display creates a very punctual experience of art; thereby emphasizing a series of particular moments in time and not the bigger picture: it is not possible to get a sense of the collection’s highlights, because the works are scattered throughout the four suites, unrelated to one another.