It was clearly a vagina. A six-foot long, grey vagina, covered with short spikes and precisely positioned tentacles. Also, it seemed to be made of the same material as a child’s cuddly toy. It was obvious as I took my first steps into the Tate Modern, that this was going to be a struggle.
It was not the first time that I had visited the famous gallery. I can recall huge installations, a great sun and mirrored ceilings in the Turbine Hall, and the silent wandering between spaces that invariably became a plodding quest to find the next bench to sit on. The place had featured in a number of dates, both good and bad, since I was 15 years old and continuing right up into the age of 23. School trips, family vacations and once a very rare act of truancy had all added their own memories of the place, building a picture in my head for over 20 years. In all that time there was one thing that remained constant.
Art. I still don’t get.
This time, however, would be different. I was alone, without the task of keeping a rapidly deteriorating date together, schoolwork assignments, or the heady thrill of the first (and last) time truant. I had time to go slowly. I was free to allow myself to see the art. Really see it. Whatever that means.
Starting at the great plushi vagina monster, my route spiralled through the building. The first floor followed the theme of body, sometimes the connection was clear, but more often than not I relied on the printed cards beside each piece to tell me what it was I was supposed to be seeing in the mess of swirls and colour, funny shaped furniture, or piece of construction material left on the floor.
Wondering if I had bitten off more than I could chew, I entered one of the final rooms on the first floor and broke into a wide grin, I even let out a small laugh, though it was almost immediately sucked into the silence of the space. The cause of my smile, and the first piece of art to which I’d experienced an instinctual response, was a chair. A simple wooden chair to begin with, but rising from it with charming curves were the lines of beads that formed something like the body with something like a head, topped by a very unfortunate ‘alfalfa–like’ hairstyle. I couldn’t deny that I liked it, even if I couldn’t explain why. Is this art appreciation? Was the egg of ignorance cracking inside me? I still wasn’t sure, so continued on.
Two things caught my attention on the next level. The first was a collection of photos showing a man’s penis, which didn’t quite seem to fit in with the place. The second, much more interesting thing, was a video installation in which an artist had asked blind adults to finger paint different animals. In the video they were painting, but much more interesting were their actions and the comments they made while working. Some had been blind since birth, others had lost their sight as children or in accidents as adults. One man got upset as he couldn’t imagine what a beetle might look like, and his only reference were the insects he had squished as a child. Their spatial awareness was, in most cases, amazing, and many of them said they could picture the animal in their heads, even if they’d never seen one. I think I like this one as it surprised me, and gave me a reminder that I have more than just a casual interest in psychology. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of the finger paining, but I did take a snap of the penis’.
By this point over an hour had passed and I was moving onto the third and final floor. If I’m honest, my attention may have been drifting away from the art and moving towards the young women of the Tate Modern by this point. It wasn’t time wasted though, as there is something to be said about observing people observing art. Furthermore, it was on the third floor that I found my favourite space, and also a golden example of why most of us roll our eyes at ‘modern art’.
The room seemed all about the outdoors, about nature and about life. Bundles of twigs, racks of sheep’s wool dyed blue and grey, and pebbles dangling from strings adorned the walls, and a paper cut-out of a polygon, which I was less sure about. In the centre was what looked like a very fragile bench made of stone slabs held together with wire, forming a square. More than anything else I had seen since arriving in the gallery, I felt a connection with the things in this room, I’m familiar with the materials and recognise some of the objects and methods used to produce the final pieces. They seem more alive to me, more real. This was best demonstrated by the ‘ Tree of 12 Meters’. The artist, Giuseppe Penone, had started with some huge industrial square-cut timber. He had gone on to remove the outer rings, revealing the form of the once young tree inside, going back in time through its history. It was stunning to see these narrow trunks, hidden by generations of new wood, reaching out and up to the sky. I really liked that room. I appreciated that art.
Feeling a little enlightened and nearing the end of my time in the Tate, I made my way through the last few rooms, heading back towards the stairs which would take me to the exit. That’s when I saw ‘The Bigger Picture – An Untitled Painting’, by Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden. I imagine it was the result of a looming deadline to produce something while simultaneously needing to focus on moving house. The two had cunningly decided to kill two birds with a single stone and hung one of the unwanted mirrors from the second bathroom in the Tate Modern.
That was it. A mirror, available at IKEA stores nationwide. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then had the audacity to suggest that by looking at the mirror we “unwittingly became part of this work”. I’d agree, but at the time I wasn’t wearing my “I’m a lazy, arrogant, pretentious ****hole” T-shirt. I understand that a concept or idea can be artistic, but come on guys, pull your finger out and put some effort in. After all, this is the Tate Modern, not a toilet.
And so my attempt to understand art was over. I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, a few of the pieces had affected me in some way, even if that was giving me the desire to check my teeth for tenacious bits of spinach. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority had not affected me at all, even with the printed cards to guide my thoughts. Maybe yoga will help, that seems to solve most people’s problems, or maybe I need to become a wealthy middle-class urbanite before I can delude myself enough to see this stuff anything more than it really is. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’m as ignorant as a child and always will be.
Either way, when it comes to art, I still don’t get it.
Disclaimer: The photo of the giant grey vagina isn’t mine, I got it from the Tate Modern website. I hope they don’t mind. I’ve always gotten in trouble when I’ve tried to take photos of them before.