Head down to Blackfriars tube station and then cross the bridge, turn left along the embankment, go right past the silver birch trees and then left again down the slope into Tate Modern arriving in the Turbine Hall where, once again, another artist has just received their commission to try to decorate this most formidable of forbidding spaces. So, who is the latest contender to be given the chance to sup from this, the artworld’s largest poisoned chalice? And have they survived the challenge that has caused such discomfort to so very many of their previous predecessors? Well, this time it’s the Black American artist Kara Walker who got chosen for the honour and, confounding the expectations of cynics like myself, I think she’s actually done pretty well and come up with a solution that, while not an absolute tour de force, coup de theatre, jeu d’esprit, gesamtkunstwerk mind-warp stunner is, nevertheless, a very creditable attempt to square a lot of very tricky circular pot holes, pit falls and bear traps. I think the smartest thing she’s done is to realise that there’s simply no point trying to create one singular installational artwork that will fill the entire great open arena of space that’s available. The overall cavernous dimensions of this cultural void are just too big, so that anything that attempts to cover the entire floorspace and extend upwards into the rafters inevitably gets spread so thin and stretched so tall that it dissipates into inconsequentiality. Added to which are the other logistical problems of trying to engage with the floor that’s on a declining tilting angle for the first half of the available area until it meets with the interruption of the stairwell that so awkwardly bisects the rest of the space. And then, of course, even if the artist manages to find a way to successfully involve and resolve all of these very real practical formal difficulties, what’s left is the world’s largest blank canvas or emptiest stage which, by dint of its spectacular scale, demands that the author proclaims some message, narrates some story, illustrates some proposition, posits some paradox, or otherwise engagingly enlightens an anticipatory audience with a display of a similarly appropriate magnitude of significance.
No easy task, and so it’s no wonder that most artists, who are presumably initially thrilled at he thought of being given the opportunity of filling such a big prestigious space and garnering such extravagant exposure, are soon crushed by the weight of expectation and defeated by a task beyond the breath of their invention and the depth of their imagination. Which is why I say hats off to Walker who has discarded the idea of the full-scale site-specific installation and instead offers up a magnificent mocked-up, fake marble, Neo-Baroque style decorated fountain sculptural assemblage. It’s big enough and eye-catchingly interesting enough to fulfil the crucial requirement of providing the sort of spectacle that attracts the passing visitor and encourages them to linger an lurk around – either gazing at all the various decorative elements that adorn this grandest of water features, or else settling down around the base to follow the route of the spouting sprays as they cascade along their endlessly recycled journeys. And not just that but it’s also got a reasonable enough smidgeon of resonating conceptual content to keep those who prefer the cerebral entertainments of deconstructive decipherment and intellectual analysis above the more direct appeal of visceral uplift and retinal titillation.
Walker is well known for her work that references and then subverts the iconography of racial stereotyping that has permeated – and perhaps still does permeate – American culture and so, perhaps not unsurprisingly, for this work she has turned her steely critical condemnatory gaze back to the original colonial criminals who initiated the route cause of so much subsequent suffering. At least, I assume this great mocking marmoreal memorial is meant as an attack on the British merchant classes who benefited from the villainy of slave trading and then tried to whitewash their sins by projecting an image of cultured respectability as advertised through the classical decorations that adorned their opulent houses and gardens. As for the actual decorative elements that Walker has included in her outsize satirical cartoon, these seem mainly to be generalised allegorical figures and symbols. So, at the summit is the Spirit of Liberty – from whose splendid prominent bosom come the cascades of water – while below her is a character who might be Toussaint Louverture, the heroic leader of the slave rebellion in Haiti, a gruesome gibbet and two other less well defined characters, who are presumably representing either subjugation or resistance or some other intermediate purgatorial state. Finally, in the watery pools around the base is an uncomfortable mixture of the tragic and comic that ranges from a drowning man to a woman snorkeller and a selection of half a dozen circling sharks all with big toothy grins. Taken as a whole, I’m not sure that this Fons Americanus is a completely total success – the carvings look a bit too rough and ready and the mixed messages of their meanings is less than pellucidly clear – but, nevertheless, the work is definitely one of the more arresting and interesting items that have gone into this dark space and seems certain to give Walker a well-deserved career-enhancing reputational boost.
Having said all that, I suppose there is one small carping caveat which I wouldn’t normally raise except that Walker‘s professional persona is so much based on her own polemical political positioning. So, the Tate‘s accompanying informational wall panels are very keen to stress that while the entire rocky edifice of the fountain appears to be carved from solid chunks of white marble, in reality the actual materials used to make the work are cork, acrylics and cement, and are all very carefully chosen so as to be recyclable and environmentally friendly. However, since the whole show here is sponsored by Hyundai Motors, a company famed for producing those very naughty gas-guzzling SUVs that are generally considered to be horribly damaging to the planet’s eco-systems, I do wonder whether some might suspect there’s a case of attempted cultural greenwashing going on here. In which case it seems odd that Walker would be unbothered about supporting this or else unaware of its implications.
Anyway, with that thought in mind I head on up the escalators to go to take a look at the retrospective of works by Nam June Paik, where all such politically contentious quandaries fade away as I wander around this joyous celebration of a certain crazy entertaining form of Modernism that came and went during the second half of the last century. Paik is, of course, famous for being the artist who used the television as his medium of choice, not just experimenting with video art productions but actually using the entirety of the wooden, metal or plastic box and all of its messy electronic innards as component parts to create a whole series of various sculptures and installations, some exuding a jazzy electronical fizz but others offering a more contemplative subtlety. And the opening rooms to the show contain some of the most iconic examples of both of these archetypical strands: the TV Garden, a small jungle of herbaceous plants into which are embedded a dozen or so twinkling screens; and the TV Buddha, in which a small statue of the deity sits in front of a one of those sexy space-age spherical screen monitors and look at his own image being beamed back at him via the wonders of closed circuit video camcorder wizardry.
Elsewhere there are a walls of stacked up TVs all sparking out collages of different random imagery, clunky looking robot statues, and a whole lot of other very analogue mash-ups which for current day teenagers must look like the quaintest and dreariest of dusty antiques but for baby boomer generationals will probably churn up a whole lot of happy nostalgic emotional memories. For me, it’s hard not to smile when looking at the video clips of President Nixon explaining what a straight-up guy he is when his face is being distorted into grotesque shapes by the application of some magic magnetic wands. Though perhaps even more comical and frozen in time are the scenes of the disco dancers bopping away in the 1970s when colour TV was still a novelty and production engineers filming the groovers just couldn’t resist twiddling around with all the dials and equalisers to ratchet up the psychedelic overlays and other colour contrast experimentals.
Just as interesting and, others might say just as hopelessly dated, are some of the other works that Paik produced that were supplemental to all his more familiar TV output. And the artist does seem to have been happily immersed in the sort of anti-establishment American beatnik scene that emerged in the ’60s and attempted to make multimedia mayhem with performance projects and other absurdist entertainments. There’s something delightful about looking at all the old photographs and scratchy video recordings of these happening events where artists, poets, dancers and assorted cultural shamans like Alan Ginsberg and John Cage would come together to do their thing. The pictures of Paik pouring a bucket of water over his head or dipping his tie in ink and trailing it along a scroll of paper or playing a piano that’s been strung with additional bangles and bells – well, for some of us these evoke happy distant memories of a dawn when it was blissful to be alive and to be a teenager was maybe not exactly heavenly but certainly very optimistically upbeat.