A few days ago we had a message from Betsy to say she would be in London at a conference and could we meet up. Betsy is a close friend of the American side of our family and we last met at her house in Montevallo, Alabama some five years ago. We love Betsy, she’s very good company, so a meeting was arranged for Saturday, her last day in London, and the chosen meeting place was Tate Modern.
So on Saturday morning, slightly weary from a rather late night talking politics with Gerard, we headed for Richmond station and caught a train to Waterloo which is a short riverside walk away from Tate Modern. We had arranged to meet at the top of the ramp of the Turbine Hall.
The Tate Modern occupies a building that was once the Bankside Power Station, a building designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott who also designed the iconic Battersea Power Station. It supplied electricity to London during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s before closing down and eventually re-opening as the Tate Modern in 2000. The Turbine Hall used to house the giant electricity generating turbines. It is some 150 metres long, a little over 20 metres wide and 35 metres high – the equivalent of 5 storeys. As you enter the hall from the western side of the building, the first part of the hall is a long ramp about 50 metres long and dropping some 5 to 7 metres over its length. It is very very impressive.
From the opening of Tate Modern, the Turbine Hall has been used for a series of grand art projects each on a huge scale. The very first was of work by Louise Bourgeois including her giant spider entitled “Maman“. Later events have included works by Anish Kapoor (Marsyas, a sculpture that comprises three steel rings joined together by a single span of PVC membrane and filling the whole of the Turbine Hall), Bruce Nauman (soundscapes), Olafur Eliasson’s (The Weather Project a huge, yellow, artificial indoor sun which saw visitors stretch out on the floor of the vast space to bask in its glow), Doris Salcedo (Shibboleth, which featured a crack running the length of the hall) and Rachel Whiteread (Embankment, structures built from hundreds and hundreds of white boxes of many different sizes). Some commissions have been acquired for the gallery’s permanent collection, including the work by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (Sunflower Seeds, although the gallery bought only a tenth of the 100m porcelain seeds, all individually sculpted and painted by Chinese craft workers). It is a room for monumental, experimental works of art of all genre.
We arrived in the Turbine Hall a little early and decided that Margaret would take a look round the lower floors of the building to see if Betsy was ahead of us. I stayed at the appointed place at the top of the ramp. It being late morning on a Saturday, the museum was quite busy. A few small children were using the ramp as a slide and visitors were walking around the hall in every direction. At least that was the impression. Very very gradually it became apparent that some of the people were moving with excessive purpose for normal visitors to an art museum. Slowly it dawned on me that many of the people were actually actors and that what I was seeing was a piece of performance art on a grand scale. The actors numbered about 50 people, of all ages, and wearing similar clothes to the regular visitors although on closer inspection their clothes were clearly chosen to give freedom of movement.
As I watched, rather eerily, the whole mass of actors was slowly coming up the ramp, not in a single group but rather zig-zagging through the regular visitors so that it was hard to tell who were actors and who were just ordinary people moving between the galleries and shops. To add to the confusion, some of the actors looked as though they were going down the ramp although, in reality, they were coming ever upwards. There was a temptation to move away, not wanting to get dragged into the action, and yet it gradually became clear from their rather remote facial expressions that the actors were both amongst us the normal visitors and yet quite separate. So we weren’t going to be coerced in to the action – or so I thought.
Whilst still looking at the throng and trying to work out who were the actors and who were the visitors, a young lady appeared directly in front of me and said “I’m worried about my mother” and proceeded to tell me, in a strong Italian accent, about her mother who lived in Italy and who didn’t look after herself very well. It was a strange experience as it felt like the start of a conversation and yet, whenever I said anything, she listened but then went back to her story as though I hadn’t spoken. After a couple of minutes, almost in mid-sentence, she suddenly turned and melted back into the crowd of actors and visitors.
To the visitors passing by we must have just looked like two friends in conversation. No one stopped to listen because there was no outward indication that this was an element of the performance. There may well have been more of these “conversations” going on around me but I was too absorbed, listening to the story of the young lady and her mother, to notice. For me this was a stunning piece of performance art. [Margaret told me later that, at the same time, she had a similar experience with another lady talking to her about her mother.]
I would like to say that Betsy – remember her, the reason we were at the Tate – suddenly materialised from mass of actors and visitors, but no, she made a normal entrance down the stairs from the upper gallery. And with her was Caroline, a friend from college days and who now lives in London.
It was lovely to meet Betsy again, to hear about Montevallo and her teaching job at the University, and to get the news that she had at last met the love of her life and they would be getting married in exactly one month. Over the next three hours we strolled around a few of the galleries, went out to a nearby pub – The Mad Hatter – for traditional Fish & Chips, took a walk through the brand new Blackfriars Station built over the Thames, had a peek into St Pauls Cathedral, went onto the roof of One New Change, and finally crossed back over the Thames by the Millennium Bridge (the famous Wobbly Bridge) to Tate Modern again.
Betsy wanted to buy a few presents, particularly for a young nephew, so with Margaret and Caroline, all three disappeared into the gallery shop. Curiosity drew me back into the Turbine Hall and, sure enough, the “performance” was still in full swing. At first there was a lot more movement as the actors ran at some speed from end to end of the hall, skilfully avoiding collisions with visitors. This went on for a few minutes sometimes at a faster pace and sometimes a little slower. Then, once again without any obvious directions, they formed a loose circle, some sitting some standing, and started to sing.
After they had been singing for about five minutes, individual members of the cast started to melt away leaving an ever diminishing group of singers in the middle. It was during this part of the performance that I became involved again.
As before, but this time it was an older lady, I found myself listening to a story. “When I was a little girl, I lived in Norfolk. Our house was surrounded by waterways and we had to cross a bridge to reach it. As children we loved to play on the river banks.” She proceeded to tell me about a day when she found something unusual sticking out of the mud, called her brother over, and between them they started to dig it out. Shock, horror, it turned out be a finger with a hand attached. The story proceeded with them trying to get their parents to believe what they had found and on returning, of course, there was no sign of the hand. Her brother and herself always talked about this day except, being a rational male, he didn’t call it the story of the severed hand but rather the story of the missing body!!
And then, like the hand, she was gone.
It is now nearly 24 hours later, with Betsy already in the air heading homewards, and I’ve had time to read up about the performance that I watched – took part in?? It was the work of Tino Sehgal, an Anglo-German artist, who I read, is famous for his innovative works which consist purely of live encounters between people. It really worked for me. If you have a chance to visit (it’s on until the end of October) just stand and watch and the performance will come to you. You too could “star” in a Tate Modern production.