In light of the cuts made to the art and culture budget, it’s refreshing and possibly surprising to see that the viewing of art in London is thriving. If you think back to some of the exhibitions to have hit the London scene in the last 12 months, (Leonardo, Hirst, Hockney, Freud) the overwhelming popularity of many of the shows has required the general public to book weeks in advance or queue from five a.m. in the bleak midst of winter. In the wake of economic recession, no one would have been surprised if the serial penny counting led to a decrease in attendance figures at the major galleries. But far from it, the Capital has never experienced such widespread art fever. We have more art galleries than New York, and the second most in the world after Paris. As of this year we also have the highest museum attendance figures as a percentage of our population.
One of the great success stories of the early part of this century has been the transformation of the disused Bankside Power Station on the Southbank into the most visited modern art establishment in the world. Like its Millbank sister, it might easily have promoted solely British art and artists. But since it opened at the turn of the new millennium, Tate Modern has showcased the work of some of the biggest names from around the world. When you think of some of names to have graced the Turbine Hall alone: Bourgeois, Kapoor, Nauman, Balka, Weiwei; it has been a global enterprise, and at the same time it has been truly representative of the cosmopolitan nature of London and its people. If you spend a few moments on a summer Sunday afternoon, sitting on the communal area of grass between Tate Modern and the Thames, you will hear an indeterminate number of different languages and ages, conversing with the St Pauls vista as a backdrop.
So, in the July of 2012 came the next chapter. Again, with globalism at its core, two former oil tanks were converted into a brand new exhibition space, to be dedicated exclusively to live art. Indeed, they are the first galleries in the world to permanently cater for this art form, and their first commission? South Korea-born performance art pioneer, Sung Hwan Kim. Never heard of him? Nope, I have to admit, neither have I. But fortunately, that’s not the point. Galleries should inspire and educate, and this has always been part of Tate Modern’s raison d’être and one of the reasons for its continued success. Aged fourteen, I’d never heard of Louise Bourgeois, but I found her gigantic arachnids in the Turbine Hall mesmerising. It taught me simply that art wasn’t only about something that could be put on a wall. It could be an interspatial experience; it enters your space and vice versa.
I know enough about performance or live art to know that this idea is one of its main proponents. Works of Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden, Yoko Ono etc. in the Sixties and Seventies, challenged the artist/audience divide and with the interdisciplinary nature of their work as well as many other preconceptions that people had about the definition of art. Whilst Bourgeois’s arachnids weren’t live or performance art, I understood the role of art differently after seeing them.
You access The Tanks by turning right at the bottom of the Turbine Hall slope and head into a heavily concreted, asymmetric area that celebrates its factory origins. It would make an excellent underground lair for a Bond villain – it just needs a couple of those metal circular doors that look like the anus of a robot cat and make a scchoom noise when they open and close. Maybe Phase 2?
The low ceilinged tanks lead off this main room. Because, much of Kim’s work is video installation, the tank is mysterious and dark. The space has been organised so that you discover more of his work as you pick an indeterminate path through the space. I can’t claim to have enjoyed the installation as much as Mr Edvard Munch upstairs, but as freebies go, you could do a lot worse.
I’m often slightly cautious about performance art. I think it’s one of the least accessible forms of the subject and its intrusiveness lends itself to coming across more pretentiously than any other. But Tate Modern has succeeded already in opening up a widely perceived as pretentious subject to the masses and I have little doubt that it will continue to do so with this new space. And the building developments don’t end with the tanks either, as the site to the south side of the gallery testifies. Construction for a new multi-storey art complex is underway, due for completion in 2016.