Asian art at Switch House, Tate Modern

Ai Weiwei (born 1957), Tree (2010). Tree sections and metal bolts. Object: 6800 x 6500 x 6500 mm
Wen-Ying Tsai (1928-2013), Umbrella 1971. Metal, concrete, wood and motor. Object: 2654 x 1803 x 1803 mm
Rasheed Araeen (b.1935), Zero to Infinity’, 1968/2007.
Sheela Gowda, Behold 2009. © Sheela Gowda
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Walking towards the new Switch House building from Southwark tube station, you might mistake it for a department store car park.  However, moving closer, the squat angular building emerges as a rather strange architectural object, jutting out into the space that has been behind hoardings for the past few years. I went along to test out the idea that Tate is now fulfilling its promise to become a truly ‘global’ art museum and was curious to see how much of ‘Asia’ is now being represented and how. There is already something non-Western in its earthiness. In the words of Laura Cumming, ‘It is a mountain, a fortification, a battleship, a Babel, a truncated and torsioned pyramid, a cliff, a mountain, a car park, with horizontal slits for windows, that offers visitors from its southern approach a view of convex concrete walls that look as if they are made of rammed earth.’[1]

TEXT : Katie Hill
IMAGES : Courtesy of Tate Modern and the Artists

The twisted broad shape of the external edifice is much lower and squatter than I had imagined it would be and its height took me aback, especially when juxtaposed with nearby towers such as the tall elegant chimney of the old Power Station and the exquisite sharp cut of the Shard nearby. Spatially though, the cut of the building integrates the immediate area and will grow into itself successfully, absorbing the thousands of weekly visitors who are already pouring through, lingering on the grass or sitting at the tables outside. As Adrian Searle points out: ‘the Switch House feels like it belongs.’[2]

Ai Weiwei (born 1957), Tree (2010). Tree sections and metal bolts. Object: 6800 x 6500 x 6500 mm
Ai Weiwei (born 1957), Tree (2010). Tree sections and metal bolts. Object: 6800 x 6500 x 6500 mm

 

Inside the cavernous, raw space of the Tanks on the lower level, the highlight for me is a wonderful multi-screen installation of the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a space in which you can lie on cushions and sink into the darkness absorbing these beautiful filmic meditations on Thai histories and landscapes. Wen-Ying Tsai’s ‘Umbrella’, installed in a very dark room was less successful as an experience, as visitors were unclear as to how to interact with this kinetic sculpture, which was almost impossible to see.

On Level 1, overlooking the Turbine Hall, a large tree by Ai Weiwei is placed centrally in the interim space (Tree, 2010). By now familiar from the Royal Academy courtyard display and a recent iteration in Cambridge at Downing College, the tree consists of: ‘dry, dead branches, roots and trunks of numerous species of tree, such as camphor, cedar and ginkgo’, […] gathered from across the mountainous southern region of his native China’, an uncomfortable assemblage that projects a forced naturalism. I’m not sure how well this works in this particular location, but it certainly poses a question and perhaps its awkwardness is a deliberate play on the inside-outside dynamic that is part of the Turbine Hall experience as people flood through, using it as a public space. Aesthetically, the tree appears more effective within a group in the architectural framing of the RA courtyard and the beauty of the Downing College garden. This one is left as pure sculpture in the grey monumentality of the concrete surrounds.

 

Wen-Ying Tsai (1928-2013), Umbrella 1971. Metal, concrete, wood and motor. Object: 2654 x 1803 x 1803 mm
Wen-Ying Tsai (1928-2013), Umbrella 1971. Metal, concrete, wood and motor. Object: 2654 x 1803 x 1803 mm

The recent endorsement by the establishment of the British-based Pakistani artist Rasheed Araeen (b.1935), is a welcome addition and has been a long time coming. As an important and contentious figure in the British art world, who founded the important journal Third Text, Araeen has continually pressed for acknowledgement of the ever-problematic marginalisation of Asian art within a postcolonial context. His work ‘Zero to Infinity’, 1968/2007 in the Tanks, is a welcome presence in the display of ‘living sculpture’, consisting of one hundred geometric wooden cuboid frames painted blue, that are arranged in a block but can be moved around into potentially infinite formations.

 

Rasheed Araeen (b.1935), Zero to Infinity’, 1968/2007.
Rasheed Araeen (b.1935), Zero to Infinity’, 1968/2007.

In the new displays, both the historical avant-garde and contemporary practice include Asian contributions. Sheela Gowda’s film shown in a small room on level 4, (along with Ai Weiwei’s portrait of Caochangdi), is a delightful insight into her own environment of Bengalaru, a short piece on the artist, her studio and the social and spiritual context of her work ‘Behold’, 2009, already on display in the Boiler House. This work is made of thickly matted skeins of hand-woven human hair, traditionally placed on car bumpers to ward off accidents. Other works by David Medalla and Li Yuan-chia connect contemporary audiences to the participation of Asian artists in the global avant-garde from the 1960s onwards.

 

Sheela Gowda, Behold 2009. © Sheela Gowda
Sheela Gowda, Behold 2009. © Sheela Gowda

 

Tate Modern has arguably never completely overlooked artists from Asia, as evidenced in various works already on display in Tate Modern. However, as a vital space for modern and contemporary art in London, the overall bias has inevitably been the narrative of Western modernism. These significant additions of Asian artists in the Switch House are highly selective and highlight the difficulty of meeting the demands of a popular tourist destination as well as an art-going public keen for a distinct experience. Importantly, they give a small but helpful insight into artistic discourses from parts of Asia and complement the important work of Tate’s Asia Pacific Research Centre, which actively nurtures research in the field. Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of how much Tate Modern has done to transform London’s cultural landscape. This new addition is a further testament to Sir Nicholas Serota’s vision as a true cultural leader looking at the long term in a challenging financial and political environment.

Late into the afternoon, I could see people lingering on the broad window seats looking out, occupying the space with ease. The Switch House is an unpretentious, democratic space with a certain warmth to it and an openness to the future.  Here, a number of relevant and interesting works by contemporary Asian artists can now be seen in London outside the historicising framework of the British Museum or the V&A.  This is an important step and one worth valuing.

 

The Switch House opened on 17th June, 2016. It was designed by the Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron.

 

[1] Laura Cumming, ‘Tate Modern’s Switch House review – richness and grandeur’,Observer, 19th June, 2016.

[2] Adrian Searle, Tate Modern’s Switch House review – brain-fizzing art to power a pyramid’, Guardian, 14th June, 2016.

 

 


Katie Hill  (Program Director, MA Modern and Contemporary Asian Art, London, Sotheby’s Institute of Art) is a regularly invited speaker for exhibitions and events in numerous institutions and galleries. Her recent work includes In Conversation’ with Ai Weiwei, Tate Modern, selector panel/author, Art of Change, New Directions from China, Hayward Gallery, London, and specialist advisor/author for The Chinese Art Book (Phaidon 2013). She also co-edited a special issue of the journal Visual Art Practice on Contemporary Chinese Art and Criticality, published in 2012. She is director of OCCA, Office of Contemporary Chinese Art, an art consultancy promoting Chinese artists in the UK.

 
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