What the Hell Is That? A Visit to the Tate Modern

One of my favorite “Saturday Night Live” skits features Steve Martin and Bill Murray as tourists looking at something off-screen. After several back and forths consisting of basically “What the hell is that?”, Steve Martin says, “Well … get a photo of me with it anyway.”

Welcome to the Tate Modern, a wild ride of a museum just across London’s Millennium Bridge on the south side of the Thames.

A man and his crap

Earlier Saturday, we visited the Sir John Soane’s Museum, what I call a museum of a man and his crap, much like the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia or Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pa. Soane was a famous 19th century architect, who assembled an impressive collection of artifacts in an equally impressive building, which he molded to suit his architectural acumen and his tastes. The house and its contents were donated to the city upon Soane’s death, primarily to deprive his deadbeat son of an inheritance.

It doesn’t take long to visit the Soane’s Museum, so with only Harrod’s on the calendar for the rest of the day, I used the lure of afternoon snacks to persuade Declan to visit the Tate Modern. I like a lot of modern art that looks like, well … art. Mark Rothko painted mainly colored squares next to squares of a nearly identical colour, but I kinda like them. Alexander Calder mobile? Great! Andy Warhol pop art? Bring it on!

Of pallets and couscous castles

A pallet that looks like it was rolled off the loading dock at Wal-mart to the floor of a museum? WTF?!? One reviewer wrote: “Tony Cragg’s impressive Stack, a square of pallets and objects like a cube-shaped sandwich, is fascinating.” This person obviously hasn’t seen a bale of cardboard roll out “like a cube-shaped sandwich” from the compactor in the storeroom of any big box retailer.

Here’s another gem: “… visitors were fascinated by Kader Attia’s sculpture made entirely of couscous, resembling a Star Wars-style desert dwelling …” The sculpture (?) is called Untitled (Ghardaïa) and is a scale model of the ancient city Ghardaïa in the M’zab Valley in Algeria. Couscous, the Tate website explains, is a staple food of North Africa. I just call it Couscous Castle.

However, Declan and I did quite like Babel, Cildo Meireles’s gargantuan tower of mostly working radios that dominates the room it’s in.

But I had a hard time explaining Fountain, “by” Marcel Duchamp. In 1917, Duchamp purchased a urinal, put it on its side, painted “R.Mutt 1917” on it and entered it in an exhibition, where it was promptly rejected. The original was lost, but Duchamp “commissioned” 17 “replicas” in the 1960s. I can’t imagine where the original wound up, perhaps in a men’s room?

I recognize that art is in the eye of the beholder, and one person’s masterpiece is another’s piece of crap. I may not appreciate all the art—the car bumpers hanging by ropes, the contractor’s levels lined up on one wall, the what-the-hell-is that sitting on a table—but I do admire the balls of the artists who can explain some of this shit and make art out of it.

I wonder, how much is talent and how much is chutzpah? I may not know what it is, and I may not like it, but please take my photo with it anyway.

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