The Tanks: Art in Action at Tate Modern, London

Upon descending the grey, scarred slope of the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, a new and unfamiliar opening in the wall reveals itself to the right. This is the entrance to a previously hidden set of underground chambers, the former power station’s giant oil tanks, which are being unveiled to the public this week as gallery spaces devoted entirely to performance, sound, moving image and installation.

The raw and bare interior leading into the tanks is quite a contrast to The Tate Modern’s “white cube” gallery spaces on its other floors. A sense of being deep in the gut of the building overwhelms as the viewer becomes surrounded by concrete foundation-pillars and low ceilings. This is continued in the “Tate Collection: New Acquisitions” room where works by Suzanne Lacy and Lis Rhodes are exhibited in preserved and restored industrial settings. The sound element of Lacy’s The Crystal Quilt resonates in the Tate’s smallest tank. Lit in a dark red, the smell of oil still lingers. For this piece, viewers sit on a circular bench in the middle, absorbing the voices of women talking about how they feel being part of the older generation. “My grandchildren and my great-grandchildren think I lived in the dark ages!” one voice says, ironically speaking from a speaker hung on the shadowy, dark ceiling.

Contrastingly, the female element of Lis Rhodes’ piece is an absent female; concentrating on the lack of women composers in Western classical music, the sound produced by this work is cold and mechanical. Two male projectionists sit at one end of the room, perhaps highlighting the more significant presence of men in the world Rhodes is depicting. The theme of absence is further strengthened by the projections themselves; the beams of light become empty musical staves flickering weakly across the blank room. This and Lacy’s piece work well in the tanks, but the most impressive and immersive piece occupies one of the larger spaces – Korean artist Sung Hwan Kim’s commission disorientates from the outset, cutting off vision at the entrance of the installation, plunging the viewer into total darkness. Sound is perceivable after turning the first corner, electric guitar decaying and pulsating in a slow vibrato. It then becomes clear that Kim has divided the tank in two; through a misty window, flickering with reflections, the second half of his installation can be observed – shadows of figures wandering silently between slowly fluctuating videos. The piece in the first and smaller space, From The Commanding Heights, shows a strangely eerie, masked person from above, moving in an inhuman manner. Lyrics to the accompanying song begin scrolling across the screen… “the terror of knowing you’re with me, the terror of knowing you’re with me.” With these haunting words, the architecture of Kim’s constructed space, the milky window and the flickering lights, Kim manages to create the feeling of a presence in the tank – the eyes behind the mask suck the viewer in, trapping him/her in the tiny room behind the camera.

Disappointingly, however, Kim’s work obscures the tank it occupies from view; his walls are constructed in front of the original tank walls, the smell of oil has been smothered by the smell of new carpet and the spherical shape has been divided through the middle. Despite this, one aspect of the tank has been left untouched. The space has not been acoustically treated and so the sound has remained preserved in its high reverb state.

The final room is a spacious, grey concrete hall with four pillars marking the corners of a central, square performance space. The lighting in here is a clinical white. This feels like a space to observe; it is the tank dedicated to live art. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s two dancers enter into the square as Steve Reich’s Piano Phase fills the room. Viewers stand in the round as the two thin bodies move softly, phase-shifting through repeated sequences and endless spinning for about an hour.

The Tate Tanks feel more like a non-profit art project space than part of a museum. This is a good thing. The space provides a new, current and forward-looking dimension to the Tate experience which will no doubt bring in a different and larger audience than it is used to. Upon discussing the Tate Tanks’ mostly performance-based programme, Chris Dercon, director of the Tate Modern, exclaims “Dance and Live art are invading the museums!… The tanks are going to challenge the artist; they will make the artist rethink.”

The Tanks: Art in Action, Tate Modern, 18th July until 28th October. Tate Modern, Bankside, London.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker Fase Four movements to the Music of Steve Reich (1982)
© Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
Photocredit: Herman Sorgeloos

Text: Claire Hazelton