x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Tate Modern at 10

A look at the many stunning artworks housed in the museum's five-story exhibition space The Turbine Hall over the years.

The Tate Modern has showcased blockbuster exhibitions on Hopper, Picasso, Dali, Rothko and Matisse.
The Tate Modern has showcased blockbuster exhibitions on Hopper, Picasso, Dali, Rothko and Matisse.

It is 10 years this week since London's Tate Modern opened its doors. As one might expect, there will be valedictory celebrations, with performances, music, film and art events. But for once, it's completely deserved. It has showcased blockbuster exhibitions on Hopper, Picasso, Dali, Rothko and Matisse - par for the course for a major gallery in a capital city, but nevertheless expertly presented. New, young artists have also enjoyed an impressive platform. But most of all, with The Turbine Hall - its huge, five-storey tall exhibition space - Tate Modern can genuinely argue that it has changed the course of contemporary art for good.

This cavernous space has played host to a 30ft spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. It was transformed into a giant playground with Carsten Holler's series of metal slides, while Rachel Whiteread seemed to recreate an entire city through thousands of white boxes. The floor was even excavated and smashed apart for Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth. But to dismiss The Turbine Hall as somehow glib or crowd-pleasing misses the point. Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project was at first glance "just" an orange, sun-like globe projected on to a wall. But it was immediately mesmerising - an elemental experience that drew people in off the street. Once inside they jumped, they made shapes (there was a reflective ceiling), they stood and stared. Eliasson has said it made people think differently about how they were supposed to behave in a gallery, and certainly it offered the kind of communal experience you might enjoy at a music festival than a fusty art museum.

Sheena Wagstaff, the chief curator at Tate Modern, looks back on The Weather Project with some satisfaction. She agrees that its real success was to change, for a small moment, the way we think and how we look at our world. "Artists are really agents of transformation," she says. "Through work such as Eliasson's, we can perceive other realities, and I do think Tate Modern has contributed in radically shifting the public attitude to modern and contemporary art, via the work artists have made in the Turbine Hall."

Wagstaff explains The Turbine Hall is so enormous, it's officially designated as a "covered street". But far from being daunting, it's actually encouraged some of the featured artists' best work, as well as propelling a global movement towards grand, almost theatrical work. There are now installation spaces on the scale of Turbine Hall in Paris and New York. I wonder whether, 10 years on from Bourgeois' first groundbreaking installation, it can genuinely be regarded as an influential space.

"Well, each commission resonates beyond the significance of the work itself," she says. "It's like a democratic, communal experience, so I think its success has certainly influenced architects who design or reconfigure art spaces around the world. I call it the 'atrium syndrome'." Wagstaff isn't sure whether the legacy of work on such a scale is always a good one: it has led to a clamour for artists to create work filling vast spaces that feel like corporate reception areas or airport departure halls. So in that sense, the installation doesn't have to be monumental to work in The Turbine Hall. It has, as Wagstaff says, to be "activated by artists but also activated - in some ways more powerfully - by the audience".

And the clearest example of that was Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth. Where Miroslav Balka installed a big steel box for How It Is, Salcedo's effort was, at first glance, an entirely empty space. She violently dug up the floor of The Turbine Hall and split open a long, multi-branched crack across its length. And that was it. Yet it drew hundreds of thousands in to peer into the dark chasm below, to jump across its intersections. To understand, perhaps, the symbolism - Salcedo is Colombian, and said the work represented borders, the experience of immigrants and racial hatred.

"To my mind, Shibboleth was one of the most powerful articulations of the position of the artist that we've had here," she says. "She aggressively split open this crack, destabilising the building. It literally and metaphorically stabbed right through the heart of Tate Modern and its position as a monumental example of western development and cultural power." Shibboleth was important to the space not just for its artistic success, but because it dealt with the challenges The Turbine Hall sets in a completely different way. Speaking to Wagstaff, it's clear that for all the prestige, to exhibit here is quite a gamble for the artist too: every show is meticulously reviewed around the world and yet, as Wagstaff explains, not one of the artists has known precisely how his or her project would appear in the space, or how people would respond to it. In that sense, taking on a Turbine Hall commission is not the equivalent of a knighthood from the contemporary art world. It's more like a dangerous high-wire act.

"Yes, but artists - more than most of us - adore a challenge, particularly with such high risks involved," she says. "It's very often a watershed moment for artists at the top of their game, a defining moment between their past work and their future artistic projects. It also brings them face to face with the public in a more immediate and accountable way: despite the epic scale, the encounter for the visitor is simultaneously a very intimate one. The work somehow moves into the collective memory too: most of the commissions end up with nicknames: the spider, the sun, the crack and so on."

"But yes, it is a formidable challenge. And yet, somehow, each artist in successive projects has upped the ante for the artists yet to come." Wagstaff can point to a specific moment when she thought the idea of the space came to fruition. In 2001, the Spanish sculptor Juan Munoz created a vast hollow structure with a tableaux of small figures, partially obscured in grey light. "When he was here, Munoz speculated that 10,000 people would be in the hall some days," she recalls. "He said he was trying to build a work to which the audience could pay attention as if they were the only one there.

"I remember him saying: 'You have to make this person trust for a second that what he wishes to believe is true. And maybe you can spin that into another reality and make him wonder.' To my mind, Juan's words, substantiated by this masterwork Double Bind, perfectly encapsulated both the idea and the profound significance of the space. He came to look at The Turbine Hall as part of a city rather than part of a museum."

It's telling that the very next commission was Anish Kapoor's Marsyas, essentially an oversized red trumpet. The Turbine Hall can be poignant, but it can also be playful. It's always a spectacle. The next artist to take over the space is the controversial Chinese-American artist Ai Weiwei - and his commission is proof that The Turbine Hall has become a gallery for the world, rather than simply London.