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June 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1407

Tate Modern at twenty, ‘Burlington Contemporary’ at one

Nobody needs to be told at the moment that we are living through history: the upturning of our lives by a virus that did not even exist a year ago is reminder enough. In the London art world the pandemic has undermined the celebrations for the twentieth anniversary last month of Tate Modern, which opened on 11th May 2000, at a time when the mood was one of millennium optimism rather than millennial anxiety. The list of celebratory events promised on Tate’s website that have had to be postponed or cancelled makes sad reading of a type that has become all too familiar in the past three months. However, the unexpected intervention of COVID-19 does not prevent reflection on the rapidity of change in contemporary art over the past two decades. This is a subject that is also relevant to the publication on 1st June of the latest issue of the Burlington Contemporary journal – which is celebrating its first anniversary – partly because topics that have come to assume central importance in artistic practice over the past twenty years are prominently represented in its six articles but also because their authors offer overlapping reflections on art in relation to time, history and contemporaneity.

Perhaps the most important changes since Tate Modern opened relate to the fundamental question of representation, particularly in terms of artists who have been marginalised on account of gender or race. Far more vigorously than was the case twenty years ago, Tate seeks to widen its geographical remit and improve the representation of women artists. These are issues that Frances Morris, the director of Tate Modern, has addressed not only in the organisation’s acquisitions policy but also in exhibitions she has curated there, such as the retrospectives of Louise Bourgeois in 2007, Yayoi Kusama in 2012 and Agnes Martin in 2015. In terms of influence, however, it is possible that the most significant exhibition yet staged at Tate Modern was Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power in 2017, which highlighted the contribution of Black artists to recent American art.1 Its success led to a tour that had not been envisaged when the exhibition opened and has resulted in retrospectives of several of the artists who were included.

Although much of the publicity garnered by Tate Modern has focused on the often spectacular installations in the Turbine Hall, its most influential contribution has been the space it has given to performance art. Tate’s creation in 2003 of a performance programme under the direction of a dedicated curator, Catherine Wood, was a pioneering move, and it was reinforced by the opening of a space for live art in the building’s former oil storage tanks, as part of the extension that was completed in 2016. Tate’s programme of performance was opened up to an even wider audience by the creation in 2011 of an online space, Performance Room. It is hardly necessary to point out that the single biggest change to an art gallery’s operations since 2000 is the establishment of digital media, yet it is sometimes hard to realise how recent that is. When Tate Modern opened, the dot-com bubble had just burst, and the foundation of Facebook was still four years away.

Tate has made particularly impressive use of digital media for academic publishing. Its research department, which is second to none in the museum world, launched one of the first online academic journals for contemporary art, Tate Papers, as long ago (in digital terms)as 2004. One of the most refreshing aspects of Tate Papers is the way that it has sought to bridge the worlds of academic art history and contemporary artistic practice by providing a platform for artists who through their work are conducting research. This lead has been followed in the new issue of the Burlington Contemporary journal in an article ‘Curating and photographing art and resistance in the American South’ by Hannah Collins, which is an account of her work with Black artists in Alabama and neighbouring states for an exhibition We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South, which opened in February at Turner Contemporary gallery, Margate. Many of the artists involved were born in the time of legally imposed racial segregation, among them Noah Purifoy (1917–2004), whose representation in Tate’s Soul of a Nation exhibition led many to ask why his work was not better known.

Race is a leading theme in another article in the same issue of the Burlington Contemporary journal, Isabel Parkes’s ‘Adrian Piper’s “Indexical Present” in the work of Arthur Jafa’, which draws unexpected but enlightening comparisons between the work of Black artists of two different generations – Piper, whose performance works in the 1960s were foundational to the development of the medium, and Jafa, who won international fame for his 2016 film Love is the Message, the Message is Death. Toggling between two time periods is also an important aspect of Isabelle Loring Wallace’s analysis of Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s ‘Le Baiser / The Kiss’. This installation, completed in 2000, is based on Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois (1945–51) and Wallace suggests that the work’s combination of architecture with video establishes a connection between the glass walls of an icon of high Modernism and the transparent screens that mediate contemporary culture. In ‘Postmodern pentecostalism: apocalyptic time in the paintings of Michael Stevenson’, Anna Parlane examines the paintings that Stevenson, now famous for his installations, made in the late 1980s of the pentecostalist churches with which he grew up in rural New Zealand. As well as drawing parallels between the understanding of time in post-modern practice and the eschatology of pentecostalism, Parlane also indicates that physical remoteness from the centres of the art world can produce compelling variants of movements in art – such as the so-called ‘bad painting’ prevalent in 1980s New York – associated with those centres.

The remaining two articles address the question of the relationship between centre and margin in very different ways. As Taylor Walsh demonstrates in her article ‘Side by side: Al Freeman’s art history’, Freeman’s Comparisons (2017) uses a technique familiar to all art historians of juxtaposing pairs of images, in this case using material drawn from internet searches to comment on unreflecting male privilege. In ‘New York’s downtown in Dan Colen’s and Dash Snow’s “nests”’, Grace Linden brings a questioning of privilege to bear on the art world of fashionable bohemian Manhattan in the years immediately after 9/11. That is a time and a culture, which although encompassed in the twenty years of Tate Modern’s life, now seems remote from ours. But then, under lockdown the idea that time can be simultaneously very long and very short does not feel so strange.

1. The exhibition was reviewed by Celeste-Marie Bernier in this Magazine, 159 (2017), pp.833–34.