The Tate Modern extension will help transform the gallery into the world's most cutting edge art space

 
Steve Dinneen
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Phyllida Barlow's untitled upturned house

It’s been 14 years in the planning, it’s four years overdue, and it cost £260m. But the extension to the Tate Modern will finally throw it’s doors open to the public on Friday. So has the project, the recipient of the largest cultural fundraising effort ever seen in the UK, been worth the wait? Has it ever.

Already hugely influential – a pioneer in rejecting chronological displays for its permanent collections, for example – the Tate Modern is now set to become the most cutting-edge large-scale gallery in the world. This isn’t only down to the new Switch House building, which offers thrilling architectural quirks wherever you look, from the grand poured-concrete spiral stairway all the way up to the 10th floor viewing platform; it’s about the palpable buzz of the new, the feeling that the Tate Modern as an institution is pushing in a direction unlike any other gallery on this scale.

Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn agrees, yesterday hailing the project as a blueprint for cultural programmes across the capital. The Switch House caused a stir among traditionalists – something of an oxymoron in the modern art world – when it said it would dedicate an unprecedented amount of space to performance art. But after spending a few hours there – a fraction of the time it would take to properly explore the vast space – you get a sense of what this iconic building could become over the next decade.

At its base lies the Tanks, a series of performance spaces filled with video installations, interactive sculptures and, yesterday, a troupe of artists recreating famous works by Duchamp. Further up is a fascinating collection themed around Object & Architecture, which explores how sculpture escaped from the plinth to colonise the floor (Lynda Benglis’ folds of melted goop), the ceiling (Marisa Merz’s tangle of melted air-conditioning tubes) and everywhere in between.

Performer & Participant looks at the relationship between the viewer and the viewed, taking in Marina Abramović’s dark banquet table filled with objects for the audience to “use” on her (guns, chains, a loaf of bread), to Hélio Oiticica’s wistfully evocative Tropicalia, in which one visitor at a time can walk through her sandy installation, becoming a focal point for other visitors.

The original building’s Boiler House – the main exhibition space – has also seen a complete rehang, with a more international and performance-based outlook. In one room, which also houses a giant Anish Kapoor egg, an operatic Tate guard sings the phrase “This is propaganda” every time someone enters. Nearby, vivid geometric abstractions by Bridget Riley nestle beside a sedate Monet garden scene.

The permanent collection is divided into Materials and Objects, Artists and Society, Media Networks and In the Studio, with accessible captions aimed at young visitors and those with little or no knowledge of art history. But there’s a joy to be had wandering aimlessly from room to room, discovering giant heaps of sackcloth balls here and a patch of red dirt filled with grotesque human-animal hybrids there.

While some rooms are densely packed, other works are given room to breathe – a single low-hanging mobile catching the light of a projector, for instance – and the works tend to reward the bold curation by expanding into the space. And you could spend an entire afternoon in the deferentially dim room containing only works by Rothko.

There’s an element of politicking to the new exhibitions, of changing the conversation rather than engaging in it. The accepted superstars of pioneering 19th and 20th century art – the Matisses and Monets and Lichtensteins and Warhols – are given more or less equal footing with little-known artists from across the world, while female artists make up half of the collection (unlike many other major galleries, as evidenced by a self-congratulatory room of works by the art collective Guerrilla Girls shaming institutions for their lack of engagement with women). Quite right. The Tate Modern has always been an agenda setting institution and I can’t think of a better place to present a more holistic picture of art history.

Tate Modern director Frances Morris said yesterday the new space will “transform the way we see modern art”. Having visited, I have no doubt she’s right.

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