Is Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall a Good Place to Show Art?

Installation view of El Anatsui’s Behind the Red Moon (2023) at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall (photo Michael Glover/Hyperallergic)

You enter by what looks like a thin, wide, upper-lip-sticky mouth. Or perhaps it’s a downward-sloping, low-lying wound in the side of a building that was once known as the Bankside Power Station.

All told, it makes for a pretty odd sort of an entrance. 

The glass doors sigh wide at the very sight of you, sniveling homunculus that you feel yourself to be, and then in you go, into a space, my goodness me, of soaring height and great cavernousness …

Is Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall really a fit place to show art, though? Yes and no. Sure, it has the size and the proportions of the nave of a Gothic Cathedral, but how can you deal with the fact that it is split in half by a bridge (and therefore can never quite be seen in its entirety), has a long sloping floor until it flattens out mid-way, is reportedly not fully climate-controlled, and can therefore never show off the likes of a really horrible painting by Julian Schnabel? 

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Louise Bourgeois works in her 2000 presentation for the Tate’s Turbine Hall (photo by Allan Harris via Flickr)

Suckers keep on raising their hands, though. So many artists have wrestled with its (im)possibilities down the years, starting with Louise Bourgeois in the year 2000, who plonked one of her spiders down on the bridge and part-surrounded it with watch-towers, complete with a bevy of sinister, on-all-sides-seeing mirrors. It was interesting enough, but it has to be said that those spiders get everywhere, and they usually seem to be pretty indifferent to their surroundings. I myself prefer the one outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, especially at night. Those watchtowers could have been anywhere else, too.

The boldest attempt to encompass (or wrestle to the ground, because it does feel a bit like a fight to the death) the Turbine Hall in its entirety, to draw attention, and perhaps even to square up to, the multiple challenges of its height, its length, its shape and its industrial-scale heft and detailing, (black-painted girders stand in for stone piers), was made back in 2002 by Anish Kapoor.

The appearance of this space has a strangely residual whiff of religion about it (the family of architects who made it, the Gilbert Scotts, were famous for the scale and the sheer grandiosity of their gothic-revival churches). Kapoor took the space on in its entirety, and even partially sacralized it.

Kapoor took three giant rings of steel, clothed them in a membrane of PVC, and stretched it and stretched it and stretched it until it reached almost the entire length and breadth of the building. I remember walking beside it then, looking at it from above, and never quite being able to grasp its overall shape (was it really a sort of double-trumpet or not?), or to work out how it had managed to navigate above (or below), and past, that double bridge … 

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Detail of Marsyas installation by Anish Kapoor for his 2002 Turbine Hall commission (photo by Matt Hobbs via Flickr)

Yes, there were two bridges once, and one of them was moveable because it needed to be ready to serve the needs of the giant turbines that once lived in this space — not for that long, though. The building’s afterlife as a Temple of (medium to high) Art has been almost as long as its life as a power station.  

In 2019, Kara Walker fabricated a rackety and gloriously buffoonish fountain that was a part-playful, part-serious take on a Baroque monument — a public sculpture of the kind she had always wondered at when she was doing a residency in Rome. Think of the Trevi Fountain crossed with the Victoria Memorial at the head of the Mall in London. But that sculpture and its faux-water surround only took up the space beyond the bridge. You couldn’t even see it from the entrance.

And that’s been a problem from the beginning. It’s a long room split in two, and it’s awfully difficult to encourage the twain to meet. And many artists have chosen to occupy the windowless far end because it’s pretty well self-contained.

Before Walker there was the adventure playground moment, when the space was filled with swings and shrieks of delight from children of all ages. These swings were wide enough to take three bodies at a time.

And then there was the time when Juan Muñoz lodged some of his impish, small-scale human figures in spaces on the underside of the bridge.

On yet another occasion Rachel Whiteread showed off a great stacking of white boxes against the windowless end wall. You could see them best of all from the bridge itself, which is, you discover when you climb up to that level, a kind of broad, gray viewing platform. Those stackings of white boxes were just about as enthralling to behold from above as any stackings of white boxes can ever expect and hope to be. Yawn-worthy.

Best — and most popular with the public by a mile — was the giant, foggy London sun that Olafur Eliasson and his team of tech wizards conjured into being on the end wall in an installation called “Weather Project. That was back in 2003. Hundreds of drowsily satisfied sun-sippers lay on their backs in front of it, in lazy homage. In part, this project succeeded because light spreads. It is not a bounded material. It ekes out, fills, turns corners, creeps here and there. 

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The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson for the 2003 Turbine Hall commission (photo via Flickr)

Which brings us to the present. A new installation by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui has just gone on show in the Turbine Hall. Does it work well with the space? Or has it defeated him too? El Anatsui’s project comes in three bits. The first act of the drama confronts you when you enter the hall through those sliding glass doors. A giant, almost floor-to-ceiling, red sail on the curve, gleaming metallically, rears up in front of you — look up and you spot the curving girder from which it is suspended. This billowing shape, reminiscent of some ocean-borne sail puffed out, only really becomes evident as you walk down and past it, and then look back. The front is red, the back yellow, and the whole hanging is slightly on the move, perpetually, because it is so flexible. It is fabricated from hundreds of old bottle caps, which are kept in place by metal meshing. 

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Installation view of El Anatsui’s Behind the Red Moon at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall (photo Michael Glover/Hyperallergic)

Part Two is high in the air, just before the bridge, and there is something Calderishly mobile about it. Are these fragmentary human shapes that hang above us, each one suspended from a wire? And how do they relate to each other?

Part Three happens close to the far end wall, and it is a giant wall, at an angle, that gleams and glisters, blackly — once again, metal meshing holds it all in place. It could be a sheer, soaring craggy cliff — or the fall of a monstrous curtain of interdiction. At its foot, ruckings and buckings and slitherings of metal make turbulent water shapes on the floor. Walk around to the back, and the colors take you by surprise — a mosaic splashing of reds, riddled with blacks and golds.

The fact is that if you stand to the side of The Wall, and look back up the hall, you can see all three acts at once, and as a kind of progression. Climb up to the viewing platform of the bridge, and those mobiles tell slightly different stories. It all depends upon where you stand. From one angle, they are solitary monads, hanging, each one alone and separate, in the universe. From another, they close together to form the shape of the globe that is our common earth. 

There is a coming-togetherness. El Anatsui has succeeded where many others have faltered, or settled for a joke.

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