Tanks for Everything

Left: Tate Modern curators Stuart Comer, Catherine Wood, and Kathy Noble. Right: Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota. (Photos: Dafydd Jones)

THE OLYMPICS DON’T KICK OFF in London for another few days, but they’re already inescapable: The Flintstones-meets-street-art logo is visible everywhere, stamped on lamppost banners and smothering tube signs. While many Londoners are dreading the crowds, those with tickets can’t wait for the games to begin. “I’m going to women’s weight lifting,” bragged a publisher friend. “They have three moves: the pull, the jerk, and the snatch.”

For the London art world, however, the summer’s main event took place last week, when Tate Modern opened the Tanks, a new underground extension with a 225,000-square-foot footprint. Once the repository of a million gallons of oil, these vast concrete cylinders have been transformed—by Herzog & de Meuron, who also converted the disused power station that now holds Tate Modern’s principal galleries—into spaces dedicated to performance, installation, and experimental film. Last Monday night, the museum launched a fifteen-week festival programmed by Catherine Wood (curator of performance), Stuart Comer (film), and Kathy Noble (interdisciplinary projects).

VIPs entered a purple-lit Turbine Hall, with spotlights sweeping from floor to ceiling. (“It’s like Speer at the Oscars,” someone muttered.) The audience featured an intergenerational mix of the city’s most renowned artists—including Michael Craig-Martin (1970s), Anish Kapoor (’80s), Rachel Whiteread (’90s), and Jeremy Deller (’00s)—as well as curators, dealers, academics, critics, and directors of other local spaces. As I sipped a sickly sweet strawberry champagne, I was introduced to Brian Boylan, chairman of Wolff Olins, the company that brilliantly rebranded Tate over a decade ago. “It’s too bad you didn’t do the Olympics,” I offered by way of praise. “I did,” came the response, delivered with all the placidity of a man who’s already received an earful.

Left: Artists Richard Long and Michael Morris. Right: Artists Jessica Voorsanger, Bob and Roberta Smith, and Jeremy Deller.

The evening began with speeches, comme il faut, delivered in the Tanks antechamber, a beautiful concrete space with stark, slashing columns. Tate Modern’s handsome director, Chris Dercon, gave a long list of thanks, which included the couplet “Maureen Paley and the government of Flanders.” Next up was Tate chairman Lord Browne, a self-described “oilman,” who trumpeted the fact that the Tanks are just the first phase of an addition that will increase Tate Modern’s size by 60 percent. Nicholas Serota, director of all Tates, was followed by diminutive heavyweight Joan Jonas, come to deliver the New York performance world’s imprimatur. When I wondered aloud why a British performance artist hadn’t been asked to speak, a local replied, “Because none of them is that famous and they’ve all got a chip on their shoulders.”

Finally, we surged into the new galleries for the inaugural performance: Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, from 1982. The former oil tank—fully lit and completely empty—could be seen in all its industrial glory, and it was immediately obvious to everyone what Tate Modern has achieved: Nearly a hundred feet in diameter and over twenty feet high, soundproofed and kitted out with theatrical lights, this is an important new space for live performance.

The audience sat or stood around a square marked on the floor, and two dancers—de Keersmaeker and Tale Dolven, dressed in pale gray dresses that matched the concrete—entered through the crowd. In the first part, Piano Phase, the dancers turned in circles, their parallel uniformity matching the regularity of Reich’s score; as the musical structure began to break down, de Keersmaeker gradually sped up, disturbing the symmetry. While the choreography responds to the Minimalist music with repeated phrases of angular movements, here it also seemed to echo the geometry of the Tanks.

Left: The Tate Modern Turbine Hall. (Photo: Dafydd Jones) Right: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich, 1982/2012. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Tale Dolven. (Photo: Herman Sorgeloos)

Although originally created for a proscenium stage, the dance looked unbelievably stunning in the round. The solo Violin Phase—in which de Keersmaeker repeatedly traced and erased a large chalk circle on the floor—worked particularly well. (This might be why it’s a favorite with museums: She performed the same piece at MoMA a year and a half ago, dancing on a thin layer of sand in the atrium.) “De Keersmaeker’s choreography makes me think of what Yvonne Rainer said: ‘Dance is hard to see,’ ” curator Wood said to me. “The repetition makes it visible.”

After the performances, I ventured into the accompanying spaces, dedicated to commissions and Tate’s collection. Tank 1 was given over to Korean artist Sung Hwan Kim, whose dark and fragmented installation suggested he wasn’t ready for such a high-profile opportunity. (Apparently, a new work by Mike Kelley was to have filled this slot.) In a smaller room next to the Tanks, two new acquisitions were displayed: Suzanne Lacy’s multimedia presentation of The Crystal Quilt, her 1985–87 collaborative performance with women of a certain age, and Lis Rhodes’s 1975 film and sound installation Light Music (unfortunately out of order on opening night).

The first museum to develop a performance program, Tate Modern clearly believes that the contemporary fixation with live art is here to stay. But instead of focusing solely on the stars of this practice, Tate’s curators appear determined to shine a light on a wide range of international players, young and old, celebrated and emerging and rediscovered, many of whom are women. (Note the difference between the Tanks lineup and that of the main spaces: Hirst, Munch, and Tino Sehgal.) The calendar for the Tanks after the next two and a half months has yet to be mapped out—or funded—and I for one can’t wait to see what direction it takes . . . and how other institutions around the world will respond.