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The Tanks

The Tanks, a new space dedicated to live performance art, has opened at Tate Modern. Enrico Tassi reviews a recent visit to the restored oil tanks of the former Bankside Power Station and explores why they mark an important development for the gallery.

Having descended the gentle slope of the Turbine Hall, visitors to Tate Modern can now delve even deeper into a hive of raw, subterranean galleries. Housed in the cleaned out oil tanks of the former power station, these echoing chambers offer a striking contrast to that other sunken Herzog & de Meuron structure opened up to Londoners this summer. The cavernous, solid concrete space of the Tanks couldn’t be further from the muted, cork-lined pavilion currently occupying the lawn outside the Serpentine. Where memory lies at the heart of the latter, with its incorporation of the imagined ruins of the previous eleven commissions, the Tanks are a bold embodiment of the future. The tranquility of an infinity pool has been replaced by an invigorating smell of damp (or is it oil?).

The Tanks are an important development for a gallery whose very name insists it remain at the forefront of contemporary art and its dissemination. Not only do they offer a variety of unique spaces dedicated to live and performance art – artforms often necessarily sidelined in more traditional white cube setups – but its opening fifteen-week programme of ‘Art in Action’ has been presented as an ‘open manifesto’ by Director Chris Dercon: a call to define and shape the future programme of events that the new space will house. His insistence that “it is the meeting of artworks and audiences that will establish what the Tanks are” highlights the potential of the new space as a means to re-evaluating the relation between artworks, artists and audiences in a new era of social connectivity and interactivity. Appropriately for such an enterprise, one wall of the central chamber is dedicated to displaying projections of recent tweets (#thetanks) and written responses to questions such as, ‘What is the role of the audience?’ and ‘How do you imagine tomorrow’s museum?’

If these don’t seem like the sorts of questions that can be answered within a 140-character limit, then the Tanks’ curators may have gone some way to answering them in their choice of works to inaugurate the new spaces. Fulfilling the ambition of Catherine Wood, Tate curator of contemporary art, to show that “performance isn’t just this thing that has been invented just now,” and to “set the older generations of artists . . . in dialogue with what the youngest artists in the programme are doing,” a commission by young South Korean artist Sung Hwan Kim has been placed alongside two newly-acquired pieces from Suzanne Lacy and Lis Rhodes, pioneers of contemporary social and interactive performance.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Sung Hwan Kim commission is a curatorial touch by the artist himself, who has responded to the architecture of the tank by dividing it into two rooms with two separate entrances, and installing a two-way mirror that allows a view of the second room from the first. Visitors edge forward into an increasingly dark space only to find that it leads to a dead-end with a tantalising view of visitors walking around an inaccessible space beyond. The architectural imposition reflects a dynamic of longing and displacement, which sets the tone for the works in the second room. Notable in this respect is Temper Clay, a new video piece that juxtaposes the domestic spaces of Kim’s parents’ flat in a modern apartment complex in Seoul, and the patch of land next to the country home to which they wished to retire, all accompanied by a voiceover intimating themes of love and loss, ownership and bequeathing.

Perhaps the most striking room conceptually and architecturally is the Gaonkar Haarmann Gallery, a cylindrical space whose wall is made up of cast iron sections bolted together. With each section still bearing the foundry’s mark, 18-0 / Bankside / HW & CO, it is the most overtly readymade space, incorporating rather than effacing the tank’s industrial past to achieve a unique space that invites artists to interact with it. Susan Stone’s soundtrack of seventy five older women talking about their ambitions, goals, careers and relationships turns the potentially oppressive space into one of anticipation and affirming optimism for the future: as we hear one lady relate how, at age eighty five, “there’s still things to do,” you can’t help but be struck by the appositeness of hearing this in a place seeking to present an alternative vision of what a gallery should be in the twenty first century.

Walking around the bunker-like development, I was struck by the Tanks’ practical potential as a composite and up-to-date space in which to display the work of smaller, less institutional artists whose output might not fill or be appropriate for the museum’s larger, more conventional galleries. With its multiple smaller spaces allowing for a higher turnover of works and artists than is usually afforded by the three- to five-month exhibitions upstairs, the pieces that the Tanks display can theoretically be kept as fresh as the curatorial space now available to showcase them. And it is precisely the freshness of the space itself, and the blurring of the distinction between ‘venue’ and ‘gallery’ that it invites us to consider, which is most fascinating. For it is in this reconsideration of the parameters of exhibition and performance that the Tanks’ true significance lies: it is the seed from which exciting new approaches to art and its curation might grow, ensuring Tate Modern’s position as purveyor of perpetual newness well into the future.

As Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker (amazing, a new hero!) finished her final performance of Fase, four movements to the music of Steve Reich last Friday night, her curtain call was followed by a telling gesture. Raising her arms to the ceiling of the breathtaking ‘Live’ tank – the stomach of a vast oil drum, both polished and raw – she mouthed to the audience surrounding her that this was “a great space.” She was right, and honestly, I can no longer imagine Tate Modern deserving its name without it.

‘Art in Action’ at the Tanks runs from 18 July – 28 October 2012.

For a full programme of events and exhibitions, click the link below: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/the-tanks