The new Tate Modern is a game-changer. For an economically divided London, it is a huge, important statement about inclusiveness and connectivity. In a cultural climate threatened by the nostalgic insularity of Brexit, it displays art radically, putting geography before history, space before time. And to an art world giddy with inflated prices and vanities, it responds with a double whammy: free spectacular fun — Hélio Oiticica’s reconstruction of a Brazilian favela, “Tropicália”, with live screeching macaws; “Tatlin’s Whisper #5”, Tania Bruguera’s policemen on horses corralling us through the Turbine Hall — plus a serious presentation of permanent holdings largely resistant to commercial hype.
All this is made possible by the breathtaking scope of the 10-storey, £260m extension and the full launch of the former oil Tanks. These measureless caverns announce the moving image as central to contemporary creation, and accommodate multiple ways of showing it. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s eight-screen video about the mutability and threatening enchantments of Thai rural life, “Primitive”, is currently staged across a labyrinth of mini-cinemas unfolding into lavishly cushioned lounges.
Rising from the Tanks, Herzog and de Meuron’s zigzag tower, the Switch House, which from outside looks forbidding, even dreary, inside proclaims openness, welcome, freedom: vast oak-floored arenas and terraces, big window seats, panoramic vistas, a crystalline layout of galleries and an easy flow between them. The Switch House is Tate’s key interpretative tool: with spaces designed to advocate a particular strand of art-making, it allows the clearest, most cohesive narrative in any public institution so far of the paradigm shift since the 1960s, when minimalists, conceptualists and performance artists ditched expressiveness and set out to move audiences physically rather than emotionally.
Which makes performers of us all. In the Tanks, visitors throw long blue shadows against blank walls in Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s light installation “Séance de Shadow II (bleu)”, while Robert Morris in his 1965 walk-round glassy mirrored boxes creates sculptural “situations” where “one is aware of one’s own body at the same time that one is aware of the piece”. In the Switch House, works from Roni Horn’s four-tonne block of pink glass, inviting myriad distortions, to Ricardo Basbaum’s sleep-in interactive steel cages “Capsules (NBP x me-you)”, cast in theatrical gloom by the pattern of light and shade of the exterior’s brise-soleil brick meshing, demand that we use our own bodies to understand and activate the art.
Indeed, even before you set foot among the displays, the Switch House’s monumental central spiral staircase, a helter-skelter of smooth modernist grace more exhilarating than any artwork in the building, makes you conscious of your own movements, twists, turns, pace, balance, agility, fragility. Then you enter the dramatic inaugural gallery, 60 metres long, entitled “Between Object and Architecture”: the intellectual heart of a project proposing art, architecture, audience and everyday life united as one entity.
Opening salvos are Tony Cragg’s cubed strata of wood and rubbish, “Stack”, and Carl Andre’s “Equivalent VIII”, notoriously known as “The Bricks” since, following Tate’s purchase in 1972, it became an emblem for traditionalists of expensive trickery. “Equivalent VIII” is now in the company of Li Yuan-chia’s swaying steel circles of fridge magnets, “Hanging Disc Toy”; David Medalla’s flashy bubble machines, “Cloud Canyons No. 3”; Jac Leirner’s wall-based mounting of coloured spirit levels, “8 Levels”; and Saloua Raouda Choucair’s stone towers, “Infinite Structure”. With these new neighbours, Andre’s identical sand-lime bricks, arranged in a rectangle in two uncemented layers, seem a quaintly modest kick-off to revolution.
Next to these, works by artists from Taiwan, the Philippines, Brazil, Lebanon, Andre also appears distinctively American, his austerity coming straight from the puritan heritage. Tate exploits superbly here the play of straight lines and hard edges — strict macho minimalism — against a curving softer aesthetic, often explored by women: Eva Hesse’s nervy papier-mâché and dangling cords, “Addendum”, and Marisa Merz’s suspended aluminium stapled into tubes and snail shapes, “Untitled (Living Sculpture)”, constructed in her kitchen.
As you ascend the Switch House, such formal considerations fall away in favour of what begin to look like global souvenirs, big-time: Ana Lupas’s extensive multi-part work of photographs and haystacks encased in tin, “The Solemn Process”, produced with communities in rural Romania from 1964-2008; the sprawling installation of money-trees and build-your-own-village wooden blocks in Meschac Gaba’s “Museum of Contemporary African Art”; Suzanne Lacy’s “The Crystal Quilt”, the result of a collaboration with elderly women in Minneapolis. There are highs here — Kader Attia’s cityscape made from couscous, “Untitled (Ghardaïa)”, is a standout in a section on displacement and migration — but I confess to finding much of this worthily dull.
In 1976, curator Richard Morphet defended Tate’s purchase of “Equivalent VIII”, which he believed “will in time be generally accepted as among the most important art of its period. This cannot yet be proved or disproved.” Andre is now acclaimed father of minimalism: was Tate prescient, or just very influential? Three-quarters of the works now on display at Tate Modern have been acquired since 2000, most from eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. Will these be icons of the future, or just global baggage? The overall impression at the newly configured museum is that the answer doesn’t matter: rather, gathering the latest art from five continents must be experimental, fluid, experiential.
The costs are obvious — there is not a single painting in the Switch House. On the other hand, its concentration on the conceptual liberates, to some extent, the original building, now renamed the Boiler House, for more sober readings. Organisation here is still thematic, but within each mostly politicised group (“Artist and Society”, “Media Networks”) a more chronological approach prevails to showcasing a collection now transformed by acquisitions specifically redressing gender and ethnicity balance.
At best, the Boiler House displays are fresh and illuminating, the reclaiming of modernist primitivist tropes by non-western artists particularly so. Thus Sri Lankan surrealism — Lionel Wendt’s strange, cropped homoerotic photographs of Kandyan dancers — faces Britain’s best Picasso, “The Three Dancers”, whose vertical abstracted forms are in turn imitated by Louise Bourgeois’ early, angry sculpture “Knife Couple”, Ibrahim El-Salahi’s marvellous ghostly, veiled figures painted on Sudanese handwoven textile “Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I” and Wifredo Lam’s smoky head-dressed figure “Ibaye”, referencing Goya.
Nevertheless, there are extraordinary omissions: no Francis Bacon in a gallery exploring post-Holocaust figuration; and the collection’s greatest painting of the last two decades, Cy Twombly’s “Four Seasons”, not on display. Painting generally feels boxed in: Doig, Tuymans, Sasnal, crowded into one small gallery, sacrificed to grandiose solo displays of recent shallow one-shots — Barbara Kruger’s 2012 photograph of a hand and the question “Who owns what?”, Phyllida Barlow’s irregularly structured, coloured wood panels, “untitled: upturnedhouse, 2”, concerning “obstacles to be navigated”.
“At Tate Modern, contemporary art lies at the heart of the debate about ideas and values,” says Nicholas Serota, “not, as often elsewhere, relegated to the end of a long historical line where it suffers in comparison with the established masters of the early 20th century.”
His new Tate is a museum for the way we (hope to) live now, asserting broad democratic reach, curiosity, tolerance, the importance of community, communication, civic encounter over individual genius and elitist highlighting of masterpieces. I admire it, but cannot love it.
Switch House opens June 17, tate.org.uk