Theo Hobson

The dull piety of the new Tate Modern

The dull piety of the new Tate Modern
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I happen to like the new Tate Modern building. The content’s the problem. The art currently on show there sums up some of the worst defects of the art world. Just when it should be exuberant and joyous it is pious, timid, cold - like a sparky young woman who goes all bluestocking on you.

This isn’t a whinge about modern art - I love the stuff most of the time. But it can be overtaken by nervous self-consciousness. Called to boldness, it plays it safe. The new space currently focuses on performance. But there was no performance - no little burst of arty theatre to amuse or challenge us. Just lots of video, and lots of reports of past performances (many of which had an earnest political feel). It’s as if the wackiness and risk of performance art must be balanced by academic coldness.

Sometimes the curating is inept. In the first room I entered there was a pile of TVs showing a film, and in front of them something large and soft, it was too dark to see - maybe we were meant to sit there and watch, but no one was, everyone kept their distance, in case it was part of the art-work. Later I returned, lay on a beanbag, put on some headphones and rather enjoyed the piece, which included a gang of naked women horsing around, subverting our pornographic expectations. (I also liked another film in which this artist, Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, talked about her work, which is daringly silly, amateurish, fun. But why wasn’t she allowed to actually stage a live piece?)

The sculpture section was underwhelming - oh look, that pile of bricks again. The presiding spirit throughout was Louise Bourgeois - as well as getting a large room of her own, her style (spiky gothic psychoanalytic) permeated a few other rooms. I like this style in small to medium doses - but I had a sense that the curators struggled to see beyond it.

Of course contemporary art will baffle and annoy one a lot of the time. But the opening of a major new space should showcase the big, bold, brash and fun. Here there was an offputting littleness of vision that seemed designed to ward off the visitor, to say, ‘this is the realm of experts: you might prefer Madame Tussauds’.