Head down to Southwark tube station and then start out along the long fifteen minutes walk to get to Tate Modern, stopping en route at the Sainsburys convenience store to get the super six-spoonfulls of sugary sweet uplift and effervescent carbon dioxide bubble intake refreshment that only a tin of lip-smacking fizzy Coke can provide. It’s a powerfully hot and sunny day today and even in my lightest of linen suits I’m still feeling slightly overdressed and eager to escape from the hi-energy heat and dust of the metropolitan backstreets and get into shade of the gallery’s cooling megalithic structure. And so it is that I enter through the back way into the extension annex that was originally called the Switch House but is now officially named the Blavatnik Building after the Ukranian business man who contributed a ton of money to get the place built. Apparently Len, as he is known to his friends, amassed his considerable fortune ‘through business via diversified investments in myriad companies through his conglomerate company’. At least, that’s the rather uncomfortable form of phraseology that Wikipedia uses to explain how this particular philanthropist got the spondoolicks that enabled him to become so very spectacularly philanthropic.
Anyway, having acknowledged Len’s generosity I amble on up the staircase to get to the second floor display space where I join the small queue that is moving expectantly towards what I’m sure the Tate hopes will be its big summer blockbuster exhibition experience. And edging forwards, I can’t help starting to feel my age. It’s not so much the inevitable puffing and panting that has accompanied the overheated exertions undertaken to get me to the show but more the obvious chronological disparity between my own antique status and the youthful appearance of the majority of those snaking along in the line ahead of me. Ok, so there are one or two other oldies but the vast majority seem to be in their teens or twenties, not to mention a long trailing tail of even more junior art lovers who cover a range of sproglet sizes from squeaking babies to sprawling toddlers and bouncing pre-schoolers. I think it’s fair to say that somehow I seem to have strayed outside the realms of my usual comfort zone demographic.
Now, when I go to the National Gallery to check out one of their serious investigations into important thematic aspects of classical art history or else to review retrospective revaluations of the works of some old masters or mistresses, it tends to be me who is the sprightly one, dodging around the rest of the crowd as they hobble and wobble, stumble and bumble, squint and peer, and generally totter their routes around the rooms. But now the tables have been turned and it seems to be me who is in danger of being bumped into, tripped over or, worse, accidentally squashing one of the over-excited bratlets who have been brought to the Tate as some kind of holiday excursion treat. Of course, it’s not quite the same family day-tripper contingent who might normally be headed off towards Alton Towers, Legoland or Brighton beach – everyone definitely appears to be more Guardian-reader than Sun-lover – so the relative level of bawling and running around is, I suppose, a little more restrained. But even so, the crowd are clearly anticipating that the entertainment provision is definitely going to be far removed from any kind of boringly traditional examination of pictures on the walls and much more along the lines of those interactive science park spectacles that are meant to trick toddlers into thinking that maths is cool and physics is fun. Presumably, the parents here are expecting that, by the end of their tour, they will have convinced their progeny that art galleries are not dull and scary places that are full of grumpy grey-haired men shuffling around and moaning about dusty old paintings but rather exciting fun palaces full of gimmicks and gizmos, light, laughter and wonderment.
So, what is it that has enticed all these happy middle class family units to trip down to the Tate today? Well, it’s a mini retropsective review of the installational works of Olafur Eliasson, the man who fifteen years ago very famously filled up the Turbine Hall with mirrors and lights and created by far the most popular work ever to have filled that unforgiving space. To be honest, I can’t remember the exact configuration of elements that made up the environmental artwork but I do recall that it somehow seemed to appeal to everyone who saw it and that the sort of must-see buzz that it generated resulted in crowds of people – many of whom were perhaps not typical gallery-goers – to make special visits to see the special attraction. Without wishing to be too grumbly, I didn’t think that it was really all that spectacular but I have to accept that mine was very much the minority opinion and everyone else thought is was very decidedly fabby-dabby-doo-dah-day. Hence, it seems that the folk memory of that exciting event has permeated its viralised way through the media of magazines and online chat fora that has led to my current situation, stuck in a crocodile line awaiting entrance into the structured trail of wonders that I fear may have perhaps been just a little bit over-hyped.
Indeed, for generations of kids who have been raised in a world of extraordinary computer graphic simulations, instant access to a universe of social networking networks and a googlopoly of you-tube informationals, I think I’d be kind of surprised if they were really going to be all that impressed with what I think they’ll view as the very tame analogue theatricals that they’re going to find here – and that have become characteristic of Eliasson‘s professional stock-in-trade. And even for someone like myself, who can very easily remember a world of bakelite telephones, gas-powered refrigerators and two-channel TVs that required the viewer to get up and twiddle a knob to shift from BBC to ITV, the smoke and mirror illusions seem all fairly unexceptional.
I guess the top three attractions are Your Blind Passage, Your Uncertain Shadow, and the Big Bang Fountain which, respectively, involve walking down a corridor full of mist which limits the view to a few feet; standing in a room where the shadows on the wall are quadruplicated and multicoloured; and seeing a bubbling fountain of water frozen by dint of a slowly blinking stroboscopic light. Elsewhere are multiple models of Platonic solids, photographs of shrinking glaciers; videos of melting snowballs, a wall of moss, a short kaleidoscopic tunnel of metallic mirrors to walk through, some disco glitter balls, a small curtain of rain containing a very fuzzy rainbow, and some very long shallow wave machines that pulse out a sequence of very tiddly tsunamis. On a simple experiential level, I’m not sure that any of these little diversionary doo-dads really registered very much more that a flickering fleeting batwing flap twinge on the Richter scale of shock and awe.
But, hang on a minute, I’m not in the kid’s introductory section of the Science Museum but looking at this stuff in an art gallery so it must be art and, therefore, requires also to be evaluated on some kind of measure of its inherent aesthetical value. In which case, in its current format, which is, as already hinted at, a sort of one-way trail through a dozen small rooms, I just don’t think it’s really much good at all. And I think the main problem is probably that the lay-out – the sequential trudge through one not-very-special effect installation after another – really doesn’t help Eliasson‘s artistic cause. Any one of the individual works, separated off on its own, might very well encourage a more considered thoughtful examination of its formalistic, Minimalistic qualitites and perhaps even suggest some potential mystical or metaphysical meanings, not to mention resonant nods to more generalised environmental concerns. But by squeezing all these attractions together I think the end result is a sort of creaking theme park of damp squib attractions destined to disappoint everyone, from the parents and kids hoping for more whizz-bang thrills to the more mature seniors who take the trouble to go along to art galleries wishing to find enlightenment or, at the very least, expecting to find something looking a bit more like art and definitely not wanting their ruminative contemplations disturbed by the squeals and squawks of a bunch of kids.