Interview with Lars Nittve,
director of the Tate Modern in London - the first European modern art
museum since the opening of the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1977.
(continued from page 1)
After the opening of Tate Modern there has been a heated debate
about the arrangement of the art works according to themes rather than
chronology. Are you still convinced that this was a good decision and
if so, why?
Yes, I am convinced for a couple reasons. We have some visitor research
that indicates what people think about it. A bit over two thirds of
the visitors say they find the thematic way of arranging works helps
them to understand better why artists are doing what they are doing
and why their works look they way they do. There is a little less than
a third of our audience that are quite irritated by this arragangement.
Indications are that the irritated group are those people who know more
about art. It seems that if you know your 20th century art, you don't
like the history you have in your head disrupted, while if you are more
of a newcomer to art, it seems to be quite helpful. This is encouraging,
because one of the reasons we wanted to this was that we were quite
confident that there is not one true story of modern art. There are
multiple stories and the same art work can participate in many different
stories and we wanted to open up the history of modern art.
One of the key things that are quite important to the gallery is that
we want to come back to a balance between the early modernist period
and the contemporary and show how many links there are between now and
then and what the differences are. But the story has grown very long.
When the chronology of the -isms was first presented, the story to be
told was between 30 and 50 years long. The story we are telling now
is 70 years longer, the collections are bigger and the distance between
the beginning and the end of the story - if it even was a single story
- has grown so long that it is very hard to make that link. You have
to have a lot of stamina to actually make it from beginning to end in
one go. So we wanted to break that up and bring artists from the beginning
and the end of the story closer together.
One thing that struck me when we thinking about this was that the chronological
ways of showing a collection is not ahistorical, but here is less of
a history in it. When the stories grow long, it means that every single
room often contains works made by only one artist or by several at about
the same time. This means it is like a time capsule.
When you instal a gallery, basically what you do, is to choose which
works to show together. What steers these choices is what you think
would help the public to come to grips with these works of art and to
understand why an artist did something the way he did it. In a chronological
arrangement you are basically saying the artist did it because all his
mates were doing it at the time. What we wanted to do, is to get closer
to what goes on in the brain of the artist, where of course they think
what their mates are doing, but they also think of what artists were
doing 50 or 70 years ago.
One thing we got completey wrong, though, was the conception of space.
We were thinking of five or six people in a room standing around and
looking at the art works in this room. In fact, we have a hundred people
walking along the walls which means that you get congestion and you
cannot make the links in the way we anticipated. So we had to rethink
several rooms and to hang the rooms in a completely different way.
So Tate Modern it still is a work in progress?
It definitely is. What we have decided is to keep this framework of
themes for five years or so. But in real life we'll do it this way as
long as we think it is productive. We already have changed some 15 to
20 rooms, but within the existing framework.
The first major exhibition at Tate Modern, "Century City",
has met with rather negative critical response from the media. Was this
justified, did it surprise you?
We were all mentally prepared for this. After having had this huge
success, this was the next moment where there was a chance to bring
us down a bit from our elevated position, this is not only British,
but certainly also a British habit to this. What surprised me was the
level of aggression in some of the negative reviews. But there was some
criticism that is fair.
I think the exhibition is remarkable. But it is also clear that some
parts are stronger than others. The balance between the different cities
could have been better.We did choose to work with outside curators in
most cases, which I think is right. So you have Nigerian curators for
the Lagos section and Japanese for the Tokyo section. What is difficult
when you work like this - which is important so you don't appear to
be patronizing -, is that you give up a certain element of control over
the character of the project. We did want the exhibition to be about
difference, not similarity, but there clearly is an imbalance. Also
it is a little bit unclear whther it is an exhibition about art and
culture produced in a city at a certain point in time or whether it
is about art and culture which is about the city. It has been read in
slightly different ways by different curators. So some sections are
more about urbanism while others are about art and culture in general
from a particualr place at a particular time.
But having said that I am still very proud of the exhibition.
But is not one problem also that the title "Century City"
raised certain expectations. Some people expected to understand better
what it is about a city that gives rise to a particular art. Whereas
when you come here, you find the art, but the question is where is the
city environment in which this was created. You see the art, but you
don't learn about the atmosphere in which this art was created, you
do not get a feeling for the cultural or intellectual vibrancy that
led to this kind of art.
Of course, you cannot reconstruct a city in an exhibition. But my
impression is that the exhibits convey a certain sense of urgency and
vibrancy. And the catalogue adds to the understanding. But you can only
do it to a point, clearly. It is difficult. But I think the most successful
cities in the exhibition give people a great experience.
What are your expectations and plans for Tate Modern?
Basically we want to create a gallery that on the one side fulfills
the expectations of a classic major museum of modern art where you are
able to see the best possible exhibitions of modern classics with the
best possible loans from all over the world. We want to be that, as
solid as a rock. At the same time we want to challenge the expectations
of such a gallery and actually rethink what such a museum should be.
One of the key things for us is to achieve more of a balance between
the historical and the contemporary and to bring back that link. Also,
we want to move beyond painting, sculpture, works on and look into other
techniques, films, video, documentray material and also start to integrate
design, dance, music, performance, and so forth. Not starting to collect
it, but not to have artificial borders between the designer who is preoccupied
with certain issues and an artist who is preoccupied with similar issues.And
then we want to expand the geographical reach outside the traditional
Western centres. Acknowledge that some of the most interesting art is
currently made ouside the old centres. The short-term way is to do this
in exhibitions, the much longer process is to build up a collection.
But is is definitely our intention to do this.
Die Fragen stellte Brigitte Voykowitsch.
24. März 2001
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