But is it Art?

Tate Modern - the Turbine Hall ceiling, May 2008

Tate Modern - May 2008

Where?Tate Modern, Bankside, London

When?May 2008

What’s the story?If you’ve ever been to Tate Modern, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this photograph shows yet another strange modern art installation of the type that gallery seemingly has an endless supply of; maybe some sort of mysterious blue grid light sculpture on a jet black background, executed in a stark and simple industrial style, possibly symbolising something profoundly deep or weirdly philosophical or completely nonsensical (or all three), and probably worth a not so small fortune should its up-and-coming creator really become an art world superstar.

I would not have been at all surprised if you had guessed something along those lines. That would have been a good guess – but you’d have been wrong, because this photograph actually shows something just a little bit more ordinary and mundane than that.

But only just a little bit.

In fact this image, taken at dusk in the early summer of 2008, actually shows part of the ceiling of the main Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, which is a remarkable space in and of itself – indeed, it must easily be the biggest art space in London at a massive thirty five feet in height and 152 feet in length. In other words, that’s about five stories high and about 3,400 square metres of floor space, which ultimately means room for a lot of art.

But back in the days long before the presence of any art in the vicinity, when the building was the Bankside Power Station, the Turbine Hall had a very different function. Instead of the subdued chatter of tourists and art-lovers, the Turbine Hall would have been full of the noise of plant machinery. At the heart of this oil-fired power station on the banks of the Thames, the Turbine Hall was originally at the centre of the plant’s electricity production from its opening in the early 1950s right up until it was decommissioned in 1981, as a result of rising oil prices.

Almost as iconic a building as its neighbour down the river at Battersea, and a very visible reminder of London’s industrial history, Bankside Power Station lay unused, derelict and at risk from developers until 1994, when it was announced that the Tate had bought the building and planned to turn it into a new gallery to house its ever-expanding modern art collection.

Tate Modern finally opened in 2000 and was an instant hit with Londoners and tourists alike – so much so that now, a mere nine years later, plans are already being made to extend and expand the gallery to allow for the huge numbers of visitors who pass through every year, although the planned extension is already controversial.

The use of the Turbine Hall for extremely large and specially commissioned installations (like this one), and other one-off artistic events has been very popular – in fact, it was at one such event that the photograph above was taken; aptly enough during a presentation of the American photographer Nan Goldin’s famous slide projection, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency in May of 2008.

It is the ability of this remarkable building to reinvent itself (within a city that also continually reinvents itself) which is so fascinating to me. Personally, I love the idea that here is a gallery which can in itself be defined and interpreted as art, just as much as the works it contains can, and despite the fact that it was never actually built as a showcase for anything other than electricity production.

So yes, it is Art – on a grand scale. To me, anyway.

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  1. 59xmas

    Is architecture art? Surely the answer can be yes. Bankside was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, also responsible for Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral & the old red telephone box. Thus his design transends the purely functional. As you say it serves its new purpose perfectly. Comparisons can be made with that other ‘space’ over the river – St. Paul’s.

    • trickygirl

      Thank you for your comment. I very much agree that there are architectural designs that transcend the purely functional, that go beyond just being a building; and I think you are right that Giles Gilbert Scott’s designs do just that. The old red telephone box is an iconic image of Britain, particularly abroad, even now that there are so few of them left!

      I also agree that comparisons can be made with St Paul’s, which dominates the north bank of the Thames much as Bankside does the south. St Paul’s truly is a remarkable space and Wren’s design was way ahead of its time – and again, has become an iconic symbol of Britain (I’m thinking, of course, of that famous photograph of the cathedral taken during the Blitz).

      I think these two buildings, in particular, represent one of the things that make London so special. Despite being divided by centuries of history, they show us how London is always the same, yet always changing.

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