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LONDON — The day began in the Turbine Hall, the 85-foot-tall atrium at the heart of Tate Modern, the most visited museum of modern and contemporary art in the world. If the museum functions like a medieval cathedral — as the Lord Browne of Madingley, chairman of Tate’s Board of Trustees, suggested in a packet of materials distributed to reporters — the Turbine Hall is the nave, a space for aesthetic parishioners to marvel at the wizardry of temporary, site-specific installations like Olafur Eliasson’s domesticated sun (“The Weather Project,” 2003–2004) or Doris Salcedo’s subterranean chasm (“Shibboleth,” 2007–2008).
On Tuesday, hundreds of reporters assembled for a sneak peek at the new wing, a 212-foot-tall pyramidal tower adjacent to the main building. Designed by Herzog & De Meuron, who developed the original Tate Modern 16 years ago, the Switch House is sheathed in a perforated lattice of 336,000 bricks, a slate-colored skin that rhymes with the brickwork of the Boiler House next door. The idiosyncratic structure is reminiscent of a crumpled paper cup that has been inverted and slashed by a capricious hand, with irregular bands of fenestration tracking the building’s contours. At night, the Switch House is lit from within, a 10-story concrete monolith calling to the dignified masonry of St. Paul’s Cathedral across the river.
Seated on a dais in the Turbine Hall were four dignitaries, including Sadiq Khan, the new mayor of London. In the milky light of an early summer rainstorm, Lord Browne enjoins the crowd to resist those “who would seek to dislodge this country from its rightful place” in the global community. The implication is clear: the people of the United Kingdom must forsake the resurgent nationalism that has characterized domestic politics in advance of a June 23 referendum on EU membership. While Prime Minister David Cameron insists that secession would spell economic doom for the world’s fifth-largest economy, the “leave” camp has made gains in recent months with the help of Nigel Farage, a populist rabble-rouser who once told a sitting EU president that he had “all the charisma of a damp rag.”
Against the backdrop of next week’s referendum, the new wing of Tate Modern is a move towards the world, not away from it. The works on display — 75% of which were acquired since the museum opened in 2000 — were produced by artists from over 50 countries. Thus, the opening of Switch House is an epilogue to the center-periphery debate that has been underway in art history since the 1970s and sounds the death knell for the hegemony of Europe and North America in the realm of modern and contemporary art. At the same time, Tate Modern is hedging its bets with a lineup of retrospectives over the next two years that feature mainstays of the Western canon like Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Rauschenberg, Alberto Giacometti, and Amedeo Modigliani.
After the press conference, reporters were herded to a coffee station in the Tanks, three cylindrical chambers under the Switch House and, according to materials distributed to reporters, “the world’s first museum spaces dedicated to live art, installation and film.” With splotches on the wall and exposed plumbing, the Tanks bring to mind to mind the Churchill War Rooms, the subterranean bunker two miles away where then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill lived and worked during World War II.
As with many spaces in the Tate Modern’s new wing, this one has a corporate sponsor: BMW. While the British government contributed £50 million ($70 million) to the £260 million ($368 million) remaking of the museum, the ubiquity of corporate sponsors, from UNIQLO to Bloomberg to Hyundai, attests to the dependence of Tate Modern on private lucre.
Upon proceeding to a room designated “Active Sculpture,” the chatter of journalists gave way to silence and then a plaintive sonic arrangement by Tarek Atoui. This 98-foot-wide chthonic cavity is a playground for aesthetes, with mirror cubes by Robert Morris (“Untitled,” 1965, reconstructed 1971), a configuration of sky-blue lattice-construction cubes from Rasheed Araeen (“Zero to Infinity,” 1968-2007) and a semi-enclosed booth by Charlotte Posenenske that affords a moment of privacy before snatching it away (“Concept Revolving Vanes / Mobile Walls,” 1967/68, replicas 2016).
The Tanks underscore Tate Modern’s emphasis on performance art and the displacement of sculpture from the plinth. With the Tanks as a staging area, one embarks on a phantasmagorical journey across three floors of free exhibitions in the Switch House, which adds 60% more space to the original building and ratifies Tate Modern’s status as the crown jewel of a consortium of museums that also includes Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool, and Tate St. Ives.
The second level of Switch House is home to a four-ton cube of pink glass by Roni Horn, (“Pink Tons,” 2009), a silent bubble fountain by David Medalla (“Cloud Canyons No. 3: An Ensemble of Bubble Machines [Auto Creative Sculptures],” 1961, remade 2004), and swags of aluminum bunting by Marisa Merz (“Untitled [Living Sculpture],” 1966). From there, it is on to level three, where Hélio Oiticica has staged a Brazilian favela complete with sand, tropical plants, and squawking macaws (“Tropicália,” 1966–1967). On the fourth floor, the stuffed cadavers of Louise Bourgeois are suspended next to the Tolkien-esque metallic spiders that are her signature creation. Each floor, each room, is a revelation, a testament to artistic ingenuity, an intoxicating spectacle that brings together half of a century of formal innovation.
Finally, one emerges on the top floor of the Switch House, an open-air viewing terrace that affords 360-degree views of the heterogeneous London skyline, a compound of old and new, timid and brave, familiar and strange. Tate is yoked to British heritage just as this repurposed power station is tethered to St. Paul’s Cathedral, on the opposite bank, by the London Millennium Footbridge. At the same time, Tate Modern is striving to lead Britain away from a proud tradition and towards the global community. In one week, the issue will be decided.
Tate Modern’s Switch House and The Tanks (Bankside, London SE1 9TG) will open to the public on Friday, June 17.