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|Termite Queen of the Thames
by Jerry Saltz
|LONDON -- The impact of the recently opened Tate Modern on the British art world is so sweeping and complex that the history of the London scene may now be divided between BTM and ATM -- the eras before and after this gargantuan museum's debut. Last winter, when I took a hard-hat tour of the 370,000-square-foot power station and the graceful footbridge then being built across the Thames to its front door, I was flabbergasted and jealous. This was ambition on a new level: art as empire. I thought, if someone doesn't blow this place up, these guys could really take over.
The Tate Modern is literally and figuratively the biggest thing to happen in the world of contemporary art, anywhere, for the last 25 years. The mutant offspring of such questionable immensities as the Pompidou Center and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, the new Tate represents either the beginning of the end of the British art scene, or the end of the beginning. It makes you wonder if success will spoil the English art world.
It's a tricky question. The YBA -- or Young British Artist -- phenomenon was inextricably tied to undergroundness, hysteria and huge doses of us-against-them. Born in the about-face between America's hyperbolic late '80s and early-'90s downsizing, YBA was a something-from-nearly-nothing, do-it-yourself revolution.
The local scene was faltering; four good London art schools poured artists into a moribund system. The English audience hated art and everyone knew it, and it didn't help that America tolerated only three or four British artists at one time. Something had to give.
Something did. The YBAs mushroomed in these unstable conditions. Theirs was a battle won by people who didn't know what they were fighting for, and the new Tate is the prize they never dared hope for. Obviously the outlaw aspect of the first phase of that scene had to pass.
While much of the hysteria remains -- especially around drinking, drugs, and partying -- the Tate Modern confirms that a state of equilibrium has been reached. The time-honored British indifference and hostility to art have turned almost amiable.
To some this is cause for alarm. Over coffee, artist Jake Chapman told me, "The Tate's like an all-welcoming, beneficent parent. It only says yes. They don't present art as implicitly resistant, but as pleasant."
Now if the Tate Modern shows art that makes everyone laugh, it will no longer be a laughing matter. As curator Clarissa Dalrymple memorably put it, "Tate Modern is a great palpitating termite queen: It must be fed in order to produce."
So where does that leave London? YBA is officially history. Ten years after its onset, the mood and topography of the British art world has altered dramatically. A younger generation admires the achievement but reviles the shock tactics of its elders. In addition to thriving West End spaces, new galleries, large and small, shoestring and blue-chip, artist-run and otherwise, have opened in new neighborhoods. Thirty have moved into the formerly derelict, now super-trendy East End alone, where it feels like Soho in the early '80s -- a land rush. W dubbed it a "boomtown."
The Chapmans run a tiny gallery out of Jake's house, next door to Chris Ofili's, a block from Gilbert & George's. Tracey Emin lives nearby; so do Peter Doig, Marc Quinn, Gary Hume, Wolfgang Tillmans, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, and Rachel Whiteread. Locals boast the area has "the highest concentration of working artists in Europe."
On this visit, I noticed something else had changed. Amid this expansion, the stultifying localness of the British scene seemed to be lifting. Of this year's four Turner Prize nominees, only one was born in Britain. And by Turner standards at least, the exhibition was fairly tame; there were no tampons, dead animals, body parts or elephant dung. No incredulous pundits reporting from the steps of the Tate Britain. The winner, German-born Wolfgang Tillmans, orchestrated a beautiful allover array of his photographs. With nothing to squawk about, the popular press resorted to complaining that the supply of English artists was "drying up"; Time Out wondered if maybe the prize shouldn't be "scrapped."
But the British have something we lack, and that is community, by which I mean a small group of people who spend a fair amount of time together, stay up late, and probably drink and argue about art with one another. Because their scene is so much smaller and always circling its wagons against marauding tabloids, there's a sense of camaraderie that's absent here.
We have that, only here, there are so many more people staying up late in so many different locations, there isn't the same feeling of common ground or common enemies that there is in London. Or should I say was?
Now the British scene is large, flourishing, and disparate. Success, however, has not brought magnanimity. Londoners have grown even more snooty about New York -- especially Chelsea. They call it "commercial," "slick," "sedate" and "boring." Victoria Miro asked me if her new slick East End digs didn't look "too Chelsea."
They claim money's "corrupted" New York; that we've got "too much" of it; that we're too "professional." Which is odd, considering how many of London's new galleries look so much like Chelsea spaces, and how many of their artists make some of the slickest, most produced art around. But who cares what they think of us? Still, it sometimes makes you want to kick some YBA ass.
But back to the Tate Modern. If it isn't altogether great, it's greatly successful. In the first six months, three million visitors have passed through its ludicrously large Turbine Hall entryway. Paradoxically, the galleries upstairs feel cramped. Bottlenecks occur, walls are too thick and some art feels squeezed in.
The first show, drawn entirely from the museum's collection, is, well, problematic. Installed nonchronologically according to themes, it includes insipid pairings like Claude Monet and Richard Long as well as didactically titled rooms like "The Grid" and "Structure and Form."
On the other hand, many galleries work perfectly. Among them, the wondrous haiku formed by a sweet painting of a sitting room by Frank Auerbach next to a sunlit bedroom by Edouard Vuillard next to an interior by Danish little master Vilhelm Hammershøi.
Elsewhere, maybe my favorite Picasso, the exquisite Weeping Woman from 1937, faces an outrageously sinuous reclining-nude sculpture by Henry Moore. Best of all, and as confrontational in its presence as it is subversive in its placement, after numerous rooms of female nudes by male painters, there's Sam Taylor-Woods's mesmerizing Brontosaurus, a video of a naked man dancing.
But the Tate Modern is about much more than the inaugural show. The product of a surging economy, this museum is a gigantic vote of confidence in contemporary art. That and a tremendous thank you to the likes of Hirst, Whiteread, Saatchi, Goldsmiths' great guru-painter Michael Craig-Martin, Frieze magazine, a handful of art dealers, and the YBAs of the '90s. Essentially, the Tate Modern is saying to art communities everywhere, "We want to be your museum."
It made me think about the Guggenheim's proposed Frank Gehry behemoth on the East River. It will be big and beautiful. It will have nothing to do with us or art. It is a monument to the Guggenheim and its director. To get an idea of how thrilling and galvanizing the Tate Modern is, imagine the excitement if our own Museum of Modern Art -- rather than rebuilding its 53rd Street headquarters -- were to renovate one of those great industrial buildings in the West Forties or Fifties and erect a footbridge across the Hudson leading directly to its entrance. If they built that, we would cum.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.