What do you do with a series of immense underground concrete oil tanks that once fed one of London’s mightiest power stations? Do you blow them up? Do you cover them over and forget them for ever? If you are Tate Modern, building a new extension above and alongside, you look creatively at these spaces, which no-one could afford to build for an art gallery today and you what the Tate describes as “the world’s first museum galleries permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art, performance, installation and film.”, along with the opportunity for new commissions to fit the spaces.
The Tate tried a taster in 2012, before construction of the new extension and now the Tanks are in full use. Not immediately obvious, you flow down a concrete staircase of ballroom proportions to this strange underground world, to a lobby where the only hint on what might be inside the dark spaces are projections with the name of the artists above the new doorways. A similar underground space is the Kunstbau in Munich, tucked alongside the adjacent underground station, with the advantage of being more rectangular and flexible, but the disadvantage of not being physically connected to its mother museum, the Lenbachhaus.
If there is a theme to the current selection of work in the Tanks, it would be culture, identity and memories, linked also with different generations.
Susan Hillier’s “Monument” comprises 41 moving photographs of 19th century memorial plaques from London, each commemorating an ordinary person who died while undertaking an act of heroism, while the visitor can also listen to a commentary by the artist on death, memory and representation.
Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga in “In Wetin You Go Do?” has covered the floor of a tank with concrete spheres connected to each other by heavy ropes, of different sizes like people and arranged in small groups in the way that people interact, with noise coming from three of the spheres representing a different imaginary character, reflecting on life’s difficulties in English, French and Nigerian Pidgin.
In the three-screen presentation “The Unfinished Conversation”, John Akomfrahis explores how identity is shaped by differences in history and memory, often involving conflict and pain, based on the work of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932–2014), who described identity and ethnicity as being the subject of an ‘ever-unfinished conversation’, while in “Mother Tongue”, three generations of women from the family of the artist Zineb Sedira, born in three different countries, try to exchange childhood memories in their native languages, highlighting the shifts in cultural identities that have happened within one family over the generations.
Reflecting English culture, Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet” projects recordings from 40 different singers from Salisbury Cathedral choir performing Thomas Tallis’ 16th century work “Spem in Alium”, split into 8 groups of 5 singers (bass, baritone, tenor, alto and soprano) to produce harmonies that resonate and change as the visitor walks around the Tank.
Cardiff commented that ‘I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.’
Above ground, the Tate has yet to fully make use of the huge expanse of roof that the Tanks provide outside the entrance. A start is the large red letter sculpture “Forward” (2016) by Erik Bulatov whose illusional paintings explore the interchange of letters, colours and space.
Born in 1933, Erik Bulatov is not well-known outside Russia, though he has been shown at the Saatchi Gallery and is considered by his fellow countrymen as one of the leading Russian artists of the latter half of the 20th century.