Post-apocalypse London: Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster takes refuge in the Tate

26 10 2008

The year is 2058. London has been devastated. By what is unclear – was it ecological or human in origin? – but the remains of society are gathered in bleak shelters around the city. One such shelter has been constructed in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern but this is no cosy catastrophe as the monsters have been invited inside…

Spider domination

At least that’s the vision of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster (often misspelled Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, even by the Tate) in TH.2058 the ninth exhibition to fill the Tate’s huge Turbine Hall. One end of the Hall has been screened off by red and green plastic strips – and this is sectioning off is probably the first mistake – and the space filled with blue and yellow bunk bed frames. On one frame is a small transistor radio playing a corrupted bossa nova medley by Arto Lindsay and the sounds of the apocalypse – dripping water, ominous booming – can be heard around the hall (the clip below gives an example).

Sounds of the apocalypse

Scattered around these frames are selected science fiction books, such as JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and V for Vendetta by David Lloyd and Alan Moore. The end wall has been converted into a screen showing The Last Film, comprised of extracts from films such as Alphaville, La Jetée and The War Game. To add to the collective nature of the exhibit, a number of art works previously shown in the gallery are reused, most obviously a version of Maman (1999) the giant spider of Louise Bourgeois (which lacks the power and menace of the version that was outside last year) but also Maurizio Cattelan’s large cat skeleton, Felix (2001) and Henry Moore’s Sheep Piece (1971–2). The full list of books, films and artworks can be found here.

This reuse of artefacts is possibly the second mistake; whilst individually these are (mostly) great works, putting them together did nothing to create a feeling of being in or surviving the apocalypse. Staying at home and reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 whilst Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (or even the Steven Soderbergh version) played on the TV would give a much more atmospheric vision. I’m also unclear about the selection of the works as there is no apparent theme – other than a generalisation that they can be classed as ‘science fiction’ – and the lack of anything by John Wyndham is positively bizarre given the subject of the installation.

The apocalypse is now

TH.2058 does suffer in comparison to the preceding Turbine Hall exhibition, Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth (which we wrote about here) as that work – a crack in the floor running the length of the building – should have been abstract and alienating but was fascinating, inclusive and thought-provoking. In contrast TH.2058 is supposed to bring people together in adversity – the unspecified apocalypse – and encourages people to stay and participate by reading the books and watching the film. Some did but many, myself included, walked around, saw what there was and left. I felt that it was not so much bad as simplistic and rather obvious, telling you what the future will hold rather than letting you think about and imagine it for yourself.

Reading the apocalypse

Others have had similar experiences with the author M John Harrison describing TH.2058 in The Guardian as:

“rather feeble, to be honest. It includes a “mission statement” on the wall that creates the atmosphere of a futuristic refuge shelter much more effectively than the exhibition itself. I like to feel threatened by installation art. In the past, I’ve come out of Tate Modern shaking my fingers as if they’ve been burnt, but that wasn’t happening here”

He goes on to say that for him it fails “because it feels like nothing more than the sum of its references” and that Gonzalez-Foerster’s “reading list is more powerful and important than her installation”. Both sentiments with which I concur.

Caged beast

Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times is even more scathing; “feels like nothing more than the cobbled-together pastiche that, in fact, it is” and concluding that:

TH.2058 is the most disappointing Turbine Hall commission to date. It lacks the scale of the giant trumpet, the drama of the crack, the atmosphere of the Sun, the fun of the slides.”

And from The Telegraph we have more in a similar vein from Richard Dorment:

I find this whimsical, end-of-the-world scenario with its fashionable ecological warning too precious for words. In terms of the execution, the whole thing feels fussy and lacking in the visual cohesion I think a successful project in the Turbine Hall needs.

The failure to integrate the different elements means that the piece lacks the doom laden atmosphere I think the artist intended, while the need to consult a wall label in order to understand what on earth is going on is also weakness in this particular kind of art.

The closest to a positive view I can find comes from Charlotte Higgins again in The Guardian:

“Tate has another Turbine Hall hit on its hands. Not only does it have at its heart the kind of “interactivity” that is so popular among visitors to Tate Modern, but also, with its apocalyptic vision, it seems deeply in tune with the times”

This maybe right but she doesn’t say anything about why it will be a ‘hit’ other than it’s in the Turbine Hall so many people will want to see it (which does show that the Tate’s large exhibitions have become an essential experience).

Through the beds

Regardless of the less than positive views being expressed I would still recommend a visit to understand the comments better or even to disagree with them and point out why they are wrong! TH.2058 is on until 13th April 2009.

Some more of my photographs of TH.2058 can be seen here and there are many more on Flickr (although there is a remarkable similarity about them, again perhaps showing that it is failing to inspire photographers as well).

— Words, photos & sound by Paul

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