Nicholas Serota explains how his early encounters with art helped him to see the potential of the primal spaces of the Tanks to recover the past and connect it with what is happening now
The only means of access to the Tanks when we first visited was down a very steep ladder. It was astonishing, because although they had been emptied of oil, the smell was still incredibly strong. And there was no light – we simply had flash lamps.This was just enough to give us some sense of the scale of these spaces, and even though they’d been cleaned, there was a feeling of danger and hostility. But we saw real potential. We had all witnessed artists working with industrial spaces over the previous 30 or 40 years, but these felt more primal. We knew that the great attraction of Bankside, as a site in which to create a museum of modern and contemporary art, was that it could offer spaces of many different kinds. We envisaged classic white cube galleries, spaces for congregation and spaces that were raw.
In the initial architectural competition for Tate Modern we didn’t invite the architects to propose a use for the Tanks, as we wouldn’t get access to them for some time. We did, however, recommend that the Turbine Hall be left very bare. In about 1998 we produced a scheme with Herzog & de Meuron for the opening up of the Tanks, but were unable to realise the project at that point. We would have undoubtedly been less ambitious in our use of the spaces then, so in a way it was a blessing to have to wait. While we had invited artists to make large installations in the Duveen Galleries at the original Tate – Richard Serra, Luciano Fabro and Mona Hatoum had all done projects – we didn’t have experience of presenting live works. This really happened only when we started using the Turbine Hall as a basis for performance and action of different kinds, which has formed a foundation for the Tanks.
All of us now recognise that some of the most exciting artistic practice over the past 40 to 50 years has been in the field of performance and installation, and much of it has been rather short-lived – in the sense that it has not been possible for people to experience it other than in the moment it happened. The great thing is that we can now begin to engage more closely with such activity, as we did with Robert Morris two years ago, when we recreated a series of constructions he had made at Tate in 1971. We have skills that allow us to recover the past, but also the spaces to present what is happening now.
Fundamentally, any experience of a work of art is a learning activity. If I go into a studio and see work that was made yesterday, I have only my own resources and experience to rely on in trying to interpret, understand and create a relationship with the new. People always cite a primary experience when I ask them how they became involved in art. Whether it’s a curator, a collector, or a visitor, the most important thing is that they were standing in front of something, rather than reading a book, or looking at an image. Certain shows I saw early on were transformative for me. There was a remarkable one at Tate in 1964 called 54/64 that I went to when I was at school. It was a survey of 10 years of contemporary art, and although it was mainly focused on north-west Europe and America, it was eye opening, exciting and unusual for Britain at that moment. After all, it had been only five years earlier in 1959 that the first big exhibition of American Abstract Expressionism had taken place at Tate. Another formative experience was going to Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and encountering its founder, a man called Jim Ede, who had converted four derelict cottages to house his collection. A former curator at Tate, he had known Alfred Wallis, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in the 1930s, and he’d collected their work.
I matured at a moment when art stopped being about painting and sculpture alone, so I was in an advantageous position compared with people who were 10 years older than me, most of whom found it very difficult to deal with the notion of the conceptual and the performative. I was surrounded by the work of Keith Arnatt, Gilbert & George, Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, or installation artists such as Anthony McCall and performers such as Joan Jonas, who we showed at the Whitechapel. Embracing contemporary and historic work that crosses over disciplines and intersects with the displays and exhibitions is key for Tate Modern. We can show how the history of the past century connects with the full range of work being made by artists today.
Nicholas Serota is Director of Tate