Thursday, 24 March 2016

Why I hate Tate Modern

Calder's wire sculpture of Medusa was considerably more elegant than I have drawn here
Be warned: I feel a rant coming on. Last Saturday we decided to go on an outing to see the Alexander Calder exhibition. I enjoy an art exhibition as much as the next person but I had to grit my teeth because it is on show at Tate Modern and I do not like this monstrous building. This was my second visit within a few weeks to this vast complex that had been the former Bankside Power Station.

We approached this thing that dominates the skyline by way of the Millennium Bridge, which I very much enjoy walking over, with St Paul's Cathedral behind us. To my dismay I could see an equally hideous extension rearing it's ugly head behind the main museum building that is going to be open to the public from June 2016. I always feel lost as soon as I penetrate the Turbine Hall and can't imagine why anyone thought installing escalators that miss out the first floor was a great idea. It's a bit like inhabiting an Escher painting, once you have arrived at the second floor you have to search for the stairs to traipse back down one floor and inevitably you end up walking past a gift shop. Tate Modern is not so much an art museum but merely a shopping mall with endless corridors, gift shops, cafés, restaurants (and some galleries) all devoted to flogging art in one way, shape or form.

So I was thoroughly grumpy by the time we arrived at floor three and finally entered the exhibition: Alexander Calder, performing sculpture. It occupies 11 rooms in total and my mood improved almost immediately once we were looking at the work we had gone there to see. While photography is banned (the room guards are serious about enforcing this rule) sketching is allowed and I and several other artists were happily engaged making visual notes of different pieces of work and here are some of mine.

It was difficult to draw this accurately because the piece kept changing position in the air current
The background on this piece had a number of holes in it that didn't seem to serve any purpose

Calder (1898-1976) used wire to make his sculptures at a time when it was more normal to carve from stone, bronze or wood. He had the advantage of having being raised in a family of artists with his father and grandfather both being sculptors and his mother a painter. He initially trained as a mechanical engineer and only began his art training in 1923 when he began to study at the Art Students League in New York.

His wire figures were like line drawings and his subjects included mythical figures and portraits of his friends including the tennis player Helen Wills, the cabaret star, Josephine Baker and his friends the artist Joan Miró and the composer Edgard Varèse. In 1926 Calder began to build his own miniature circus performers using wire and fabric and then he used these figures to stage live shows in front of small invited audiences who came to see the Cirque Calder.

Calder experimented with controlling the movements of his sculptures by using a small motor. These motors are too fragile to be used now so we have to admire these works as static pieces but there are a few films dotted around the exhibition of some of the works in motion. Since the motors were always at risk of breaking down Calder stopped using them and let his sculptures move on their own as they responded to air currents.

Marchel Duchamp coined the term 'mobiles' in 1931 to describe Calder's moving sculptures and it is a term we still use today to describe the toys that hang from babies' cots. I found the experience of watching these moving sculptures fascinating as they constantly changed position and perhaps that is a subtle legacy that Calder has left our babies while they stare upwards from their cots.

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture - on until 3 April 2016