New artist announced for the Unilever Series, Tate Modern Turbine Hall
by Natasha Norman
Already condemned by the UK Guardian's Arts blog writer Jonathan Jones, as a middle of the road choice for the Tate Modern's Unilever Series, French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster is the ninth artist to be commissioned to challenge the cavernous (but rather awkward) design by-product that is the Turbine Hall of London's Tate Modern. But then, the English press has always been a bit rude about institutional commissions that smack of the cultural ruling class investing large amounts of taxpayers money in artists' dreams.
Since the Tate Modern's opening in 2000, the gallery's design to fit within the confines of an old power station along the banks of the Thames, has enabled the curator to commission an extensive work annually. Gonzalez-Foerster joins the project's prestigious list of established artists: Louis Bourgeois, Anish Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson, Rachel Whiteread and most recently Doris Salcedo. Most have created some lasting first impressions on viewers arriving at the foot of the great hall that runs 155m and reaches 35m high, interrupted by a bridge that forms a viewing platform projecting from the second level galleries.
Gonzalez-Foerster's previous portfolio of works shows a subtle, Baudelairean preoccupation that is in line with past curatorial choices for the award. A subtlety of thought is advocated despite the immense space the works must grapple with - no American flash here. Poetry of light and experience is the basis for Gonzalez-Foerster's increasingly public works, often derived from the artist's personal filmic associations. Her urban fantasies are constructed to great effect with various light sources including video projections that engage the viewer as a participant.
Roles of actor and spectator, artwork and viewer became curiously muddled most obviously in two works, Bonne Nouvelle, Station Cinema, 2001, that was an installation in a subway, and Séance de Shadow, 1998, that responded to visitors' movements, activating bright lights to cast the shadows of bodies and objects onto a blue gallery wall. Her forays into film, light and sound environments have seen her direct and co-direct a number of films as well as light and video shows at rock concerts. She seems preoccupied with a Zen-like blankness or emptiness at the core of her art, a vanishing point in the perspective of meaning. She seeks to impart the intangible, inexplicable joy of pure experience in the present moment.
Previous Unilever project participants have seen the Hall spanned with dark blood-red PVC in Kapoor's work entitled Marsyas. Tremendous vertical steel rings trumpeted the membrane out at each end of the hall, the smooth concave shape interrupted over the bridge by a third horizontal ring that inverts the notion of inside and outside, object and object space. Eliasson's The Weather Project drew the biggest crowd when he reinvented the space with his installation comprising a semi-circular array of hundreds of mono-frequency lamps that bathed spectators in a yellowy dusk-light. A reflective ceiling, mirroring the array and completing the circle, created the impression of a burning sun, further enhanced by mist that gathered among the lower levels of the hall in shifting clouds.
The latest participant, Doris Salcedo, was able to realise a deep chasm that spanned the length of the hall and dug down deep into both the literal and ideological foundations of the gallery. The work's title, Shibboleth, refers to the standards of belonging and excluding, exposing personal and historical ideological rifts that underpin societal progress.
The poetics of the works aside, what is dazzling to the viewer is the sheer scale that these artists have been given to use for expression. The very realisation of artworks of that size is an overwhelming reminder of the scope and support in which the London art scene flourishes. Jones' parting comment that Turbine Hall commissions are 'nothing more or less than monuments to what it means to be middle class in modern Britain' is an illuminating contextual reference from one immersed in the innuendos of that very scene. To an outsider, the freedom and funding middle-class Britain has to monumentalise itself and to influence ideas about art the world over, is just enviable.
See Jonathan Jones' blog for an insider's comment: www.blogs.guardian.co.uk/art/2008/03/does_tates_turbine_choice_make.html
Visit the Tate Gallery's website for more detail on the artists: www.tate.org.uk
For a more comprehensive look at Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's work, look at Daniel Birnbaum's article 'Running On Empty' in ArtForum, Nov 2003: www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_3_42/ai_110913975