It was worth braving the crowds to view the new Switch House extension at Tate Modern on Bankside during its launch week (14-19 June 2016) and explore several new floors of contemporary art from Tate’s permanent collection, as well as selected pieces on temporary display in the featured Artists’ Rooms and themed galleries.
For this inaugural summer season the Switch House displays presented on Levels 2 to 4 of the new 10-storey twisted pyramid-shaped building were designed to tell the story of “how art became active from the 1960s” through to the present day.
The light, spacious and angular galleries featured a combination of assemblages devoted to the work of individual artists – such as Louise Bourgeois, displayed in the east wing of Level 4 – as well as thematic, narrative-led presentations documenting how contemporary artists have represented their perspectives on modern life through different genres and forms of visual art: from contemporary paintings and sculptures, through to more experimental audio-visual presentations, mixed-media installations and performance works.
The three main thematic exhibitions in the public galleries were:
- Living Cities – a combination of works exploring contemporary urban life and addressing issues of migration, sense of place, belonging and the socio-political dynamics of diverse communities in constant flux. Among the featured works were a poignant montage of photographic images and video stills documenting migrant workers’ living conditions – titled, “Temporary Dwellings” (1974-1977) – by the Turkish feminist artist Nil Yalter; and a large floor installation of the Beirut cityscape engraved in black rubber positioned in the centre of the gallery space – titled, “Beirut Caoutchouc” (2004-2008) – by Lebanese artist Marwan Rechmaoui.
- Between Object and Architecture – exploring the relationships between artworks and the environment through (primarily) large structural works by artists such as Carl Andre, Joan Jonas, David Medalla, Rachel Whiteread and Mary Martin. My favourite pieces in this space were an aluminium and steel wire assemblage of interconnected tubes and baubles suspended from the ceiling – labelled, “Untitled (Living Sculpture)” (1966) – by Italian artist Marisa Merz; and “Inversions”(1966) by the British abstractionist Mary Martin – a geometric, aluminium and wood wall installation previously on permanent display at Tate Liverpool.
- Performer and Participant – featuring the work of artists whose conceptual practice dissolves the boundaries between art and life through the integration of performance art or audience participation techniques. The stand-out installations in this section were: “Women and Work” (1973-1975) by the British feminist artists Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly – who documented the struggles and campaigns for equal pay that British women experienced in the 1970s, visualised through black and white photographs of factory workers in Bermondsey (London); and Tropicália Penetrables PN2 and PN3 (1966-1967) by the radical Brazilian avant-garde artist Hélio Oiticica (1938-1980). (NB: The Tropicália projects were originally designed as immersive installations that visitors walked into, through and around, but unfortunately the structures were cordoned off on Level 3 of Switch House to keep audiences flowing past at a regular pace).
On balance, I was delighted to see so many modern and contemporary pieces by women artists displayed throughout this new space. However, what remained a disappointment with this institution was that the Tate’s perspective on “internationalism” continues to project a heavily skewed bias towards purchasing and displaying artworks produced by artists from Europe and North America, as opposed to also promoting post-modernists from Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean and other areas of the Global South on an equivalent scale –regions of the world that have equally ground-breaking, innovative, experimental and politically agitational contemporary art movements to contribute to important international discourses about “how art became active from the 1960s to now.” Let’s hope that in the months and years to come we see an increasing focus on curation that demonstrates the Tate is genuinely reaching out to embrace artistic excellence drawn from far beyond the West. In this way, the architectural twist (or “turn”) physically built into the fabric of this impressive new structure on London’s skyline will also symbolise a geographical and curatorial “turn” (or “switch,” with every pun intended!) towards recognising and valuing art from the Global South.