January 13, 2006

The Stuff of Nightmares

Ages ago I came up with this sort of instruction manual for how to visit London's Tate Modern.

I know most people disagree, and call me a philistine if you must, but I stand by my initial reaction: the "art" is lame, and the building gives me the heebee jeebees. The word "Kafka-esque" was once overused (though not so much nowadays, for some reason) and I hesitate to use it now. But there really is no more appropriate word for the terrifying feeling of standing within that cold, cavernous Nightmare Factory. What if those gates of steel and darkness were to come crashing down, trapping you forever within the Cathedral of Hate, the architectural simulation of the sound of a thousand human screams and the clanging of a single, powerful, terrifying machine? Man, it's creeping me out just thinking about it...

I guess I'm not quite as alone as I thought in that opinion, though. Clive Davis quotes a bit from an old article by Daniel Johnson, written on the occasion of the grand opening in AD 2000:

Tate Modern is seen as sublime because it is vast and intimidating: it panders to the giganticism and worship of power with which the new anti-art intends to impress us...

Fascist art is powerful. The taboo since 1945 has allowed us to forget just how powerful. It was an international style and it left its mark on Britain. Giles Gilbert Scott's Bankside power station could easily be the work of Albert Speer: not only the massive brick facade, but the vertical windows are reminiscent of the tribune at Nuremberg... It was Speer who, long before Lord Rogers, wanted to build the biggest dome on earth in Berlin, some six times higher than the Millennium Dome. And why did Sir Nicholas Serota have to dress his staff as blackshirts?

Well, it's fortunate that the Coal Hole is just down the road. (It's still there, isn't it?)

Posted by Dr. Frank at January 13, 2006 08:37 PM | TrackBack

YES. I have very vivid memories of explaining to friends in the UK that I found the Tate cold and barren, and much preferred the British museum. It was like I'd said 'I don't like beer; I much prefer to snort bile through the hollowed-out bones of children.' There are some things we all just have to agree to disagree on, though I think this confession marked me as suspect.

I still wonder if part of the problem isn't that Americans are used to 'vast and intimidating' on a very different scale. The Tate modern is certainly less vast, and positively harmless when compared to your average US skyscraper. Or maybe people just love subverting the dominant paradigm, etc., etc., and are so trained in the alchemy of seeing a plain blue sheet or a pile of debris as 'beautiful,' that they're unable to turn off these faculties when looking at the building that houses them. I'll bet no one who really loves the art inside hates the building, and no one who finds the art pretentious and simultaneously vapid finds the building all that special.

Posted by: marc w. at January 13, 2006 11:14 PM

Marc has a point. Don't get me started on the ASDA in Leyton.

Posted by: Wesley at January 15, 2006 04:02 PM

Linking to myself, as ever -- I'm getting really hairy palms, by the way -- I rather liked the following (warning: politicalish) definition of "Kafkaesque":

Posted by: Gary Farber at January 25, 2006 05:04 AM