When industry gives way to art

Image of Peter Aspden

In the week that saw the UK double-dipping into recession, there is a countervailing bounce in the step of its cultural institutions. The launch of the Globe to Globe season, inviting companies from around the world to perform at Shakespeare’s Globe in their own languages, is a towering display of artistic self-confidence. It is difficult to imagine another city celebrating its tenure of the Olympic Games by inviting foreigners to take on its most celebrated cultural figure. It is a generous and inspired gesture.

Meanwhile at Tate Modern next door, there is further bullishness. The first stage of the gallery’s expansion will be unveiled in the summer with the opening of “The Tanks”, the former power station’s two giant oil tanks, which will become dedicated spaces for live art, performance, installation and film works.

When the 2008 financial crash struck, it seemed inconceivable that the gallery would go on to raise the £215m required to complete its ambitious building project. Now, it serves biscuits at press conferences that feature the iced outline of the projected edifice, tanks and all. More than three-quarters of the money required for the project has already been raised, and there is anything but an air of anxiety on the prospect of completing the job.

The Tanks will be launched with a 15-week festival that kicks off on July 18. It too will be replete with artists from across the world: Japan, Nigeria, Cuba, Lebanon. The South Korean artist Sung Hwan Kim will display the East Tank’s first installation, which promises to interweave strands from his country’s folklore with his own fantasies.

There is some serious symbolism going on here. The journey from oil tank to performance space – just like the broader tale of the conversion of the Bankside power station into Tate Modern – tells an extraordinary story. All that is solid melts into air, wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto, but they could never have envisaged this: an engine room of capitalism turned into a projection of cultural dreams.

As if to reinforce the wider point being made, it was revealed this week that the biggest drag on Britain’s economy was its construction sector. Here is an ironic twist: there are fewer buildings being built, yet we have a new building about to go up in London that is earmarked for nothing more substantial than the transient fads of contemporary art. If Britain’s past was based on the muscular manufacture of things, its future seems increasingly entwined with the ethereal flow of ideas.

While that may understandably provoke a feeling of insecurity, it is no bad thing. The future belongs to supple minds, not stretched sinews. Britain did well as an industrial powerhouse. But we are in a different place now. To be a world leader in culture is to promote openness, tolerance, fresh thinking. And Britain’s cultural institutions have risen to the challenge: the Globe’s chivalrous lending of its raucous spaces to the world, the British Museum’s subtle deconstruction of tried and tired historical narratives, Tate’s gleefully transmogrified oil tanks, substituting ludic reveries for the noxious liquid resource from which we have yet to wean ourselves.

Art’s successful appropriation of the post-industrial landscape is a key strand in this narrative. This has become something of a cliché in recent times, for both practical and aesthetic reasons. On a micro level, the creative economy nurtures small-sized, unstable organisations that need flexible, affordable workspaces and leases. They also need to keep abreast of current trends and opportunities. It is in the post-industrial spaces of inner cities, not in the comforting havens of the postwar suburbs, that these features are to be found.

This is also a worldwide phenomenon. In 1960s New York, artists moved into the vacant warehouses south of Houston Street, helping to create one of the most desirable neighbourhoods on the planet. In contemporary China, a country that certainly is still interested in stretching its sinews, artists took over Beijing’s 798 district to create an artistic community out of a former East German-designed Bauhaus munitions factory.

Just as the Romantic imagination was fired by the ruins of classicism, contemporary artists are inspired by the tumbled temples of the industrial world. When Stanley Kubrick wanted to depict a Vietnamese city for his war movie Full Metal Jacket, he filmed amid the rubble of the Beckton gasworks in London. It was the perfect visual backdrop for portraying the calamity of war.

The opening of Tate’s oil tanks to the world’s creative minds signals a wider truth about artists. Where we see decay and disorder, they see opportunities for regrowth. They use the debris of a fallen age as props with which to sketch out new tomorrows. What better place to contemplate? We may be running out of energy, but never out of ideas.

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden


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