I’m not usually one for an art gallery. If you were to plonk me in a random city and ask me to pick from a list of local attractions, I’d prioritise: a) anything that involves moving on water, b) anything that involves interesting food, or c) anything that will make my ears happy and my legs want to dance. I don’t think you can usually do any of these things in an art gallery (but if you can, please tell me about it!)
The Tate Modern is one of the UK’s most famous art galleries and I have been twice throughout my entire life. Once with a couple of friends (all I have is a fleeting memory of something we were chatting about as we descended an escalator), and once when I needed to quickly make use of the facilities whilst drinking from the pop-up places on the South Bank. I have often heard and read about how wonderful this place is supposed to be, yet I’ve probably never really embraced it properly. I love the concept of art, but mostly as written or musical forms as opposed to static ones. When it comes to the prospect of art galleries, I just don’t always get them.
On a recent day off work, I was in London with some time to spare and thought I should try and broaden my horizons by making a proper visit – alone – without the distraction of catch-up chats with friends going on in parallel, and with the time to move around on my own terms. To read what I wanted to read. To pass by what I wanted to pass by.
I ended up covering every square meter of the Tate within about 50 minutes (the recommended visiting time is 3-4 hours). I guess I just don’t have the sort of brain which is always receptive to what I’m sure are genius feats of creativity. During my trip, I was confronted by: some fluffy drapes hanging from the ceiling in the entrance hall that resembled something from the dodgy Ghost Train at Cassiobury Park funfair in the 1990’s, Cezanne’s paintings of a few discoloured apples that looked like something from a yellow-sticker haul, and a picture frame sculpted into the wall that just looked like somebody made a mistake with a chisel then tried to make it look intentional by completing the rectangle shape. Each of these things are no doubt way better than any ‘art’ I could produce and I mean no disrespect to the artists, but they just didn’t make me feel anything at all.
But, there were a few exhibits which really did make me stop, stare and think. Tracey Moffatt’s ‘Up in the Sky’ collection of photographs designed to capture indigenous and non-indigenous lives intertwined in a deprived town in the Australian outback, Martha Rosler’s representations of American airports as channels of the human body and transience of life, then this one, Cildo Meirele’s ‘Babel 2001‘:
It’s a tower comprising of 800 vintage radio sets ranging from the oldest at the bottom, to more modern ones at the top. They are all playing at the same time; different frequencies, at only slightly different volumes. “No two experiences of this work are ever the same”, reads one of the only exhibit descriptions I have ever been interested enough to read in full.
And that’s entirely the point of it. Meireles’ exhibit aims to remind us that as soon once we reach information overload, communication fails. Read one hundred random facts and you’ll maybe remember ten percent of them. Read three and you’ll probably remember one hundred percent.
Out of 800 radio sets that were all playing at once; I could only really recognise one song, an ’80’s number I never remember the name of. There were dozens of voices, but I couldn’t make out what any of them saying. A friend of mine went to the same exhibit a few days later and heard something else entirely. I found the whole thing incredibly clever, and very powerful. When one person speaks you’ll hear every word but when everybody is doing so at once, in different frequencies but similar volumes, nobody really gets heard, and that’s a shame.
We live in an age where technology has advanced so much, even since 2001 when this work was completed. The parameters of choice have become so broad, that we’re far less likely to be hearing or seeing the same things anymore. I have previously written about the impact of the likes of Freeview and streaming services on the day to day chats we used to have about television, but it doesn’t end there. These methods of communication and entertainment are designed to make our lives better and our minds more informed but I’m not always entirely sure that they do.
The more we have of something, do we still make the most of each individual component? Do we really remember each episode we’ve watched if we’ve binge-watched several series? Each book we’ve read if we’ve almost exhausted the Library? Or each stereo we listened to if there were 800 to choose from? Does knowing that we can pretty much find out anything we want to know within minutes thanks to the internet make us really feel more intelligent as a society or does it only make us set a higher bar for ourselves? I remember sitting in front of the computer in my early ’20’s, fresh out of Uni with no idea what to do next, knowing that in the hidden corners of the internet right before me I could probably find an opportunity that would change my life or kick-off my career, but feeling slightly pressured by that same knowledge, and simply having no idea where to start looking. I think I searched for a bit of advice, only to find dozens of people sharing a billion contrasting opinions that only added to the confusion, and ended up giving up and looking up recipes for interesting curries instead.
Among the vintage radios forming Babel, I recognised the Sony stereo that accompanied my school homework and thought back to the days when you couldn’t simply skip a song you didn’t enjoy, only manually fast forward. And though something like Spotify would have seemed the stuff of dreams back then, I felt some nostalgia for the days when you’d just have to listen to a song regardless, and would often grow to like it in time. We are very lucky with what we have now but there is definitely something to be said for keeping it simple, too.
I left the Tate, bought a coffee, and spent some time thinking about what I’d just seen. I then realised what I was doing, and acknowledged taking a step closer to realising what all the fuss about art galleries is about 😉
(But seriously, if you know of an art gallery on a speed boat, that serves unusual world grub and plays Weezer as you walk around please let me know)
Song of the Day: The Shins – The Great Divide (Flipped)
This is the sort of anthemic song you feel should have been around for years, but in reality it’s only a couple of years old. It’s just lovely. That is all.
“Ooh, the blind
Collective mind of man is all they’re offering
Then you bring a breath of life out of the emptiness
Your hand in mine, oh-oh-oh (your hand in mine)
The great divide”