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Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis (London)

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Showing at the Tate Modern from 1 February until 29 April 2001. Exhibition Hours: Sun - Thurs: 10.00 - 18.00 (last admission: 17.00)
Fri and Sat: 10.00 - 22.00 (last admission: 21.00)Admission: £8.50, £6.50 concessions. Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9

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      17.03.2001 06:34
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      The Century City exhibition at the Tate Modern focuses on nine of the world's most vibrant cities in the last century, and collects together art from the period of each city's history which was associated with the most artistic innovation. The result is something of a mixed bag, as each city differs in terms of the media used in the art, as well as in the themes and culture of the place and time. Certainly, the exhibition is an ambitious one, and hosts an interesting collection of art. It's also a very large exhibition, taking up the entire fourth floor of the Tate Modern, as well as almost all of the floor space of the Turbine Hall. It took me four hours to tour the exhibition, which I visited at 6pm after work on a Friday evening. Tate Modern is open until 10pm on Friday and Saturday evenings, and generally in the evenings, the galleries are much emptier making touring the exhibitions a much more pleasant experience. It was also interesting to see modern and contemporary art collected by chronology and artist, rather than in the thematic arrangement that the London Tate galleries have controversially adopted lately. On the negative side, the exhibition is prohibitively expensive, boasting probably the most expensive gallery admission ticket price in London at the moment, at a shocking £8.50 for adults. However, if you're a friend of the Tate, admission is free. Also, as I say, the various cities' exhibitions are only loosely connected, and it is unlikely that any visitor will enjoy all periods of art on display equally interesting. Hence, at least some parts of the exhibition will be less interesting to each visitor. Personally, I found the Paris, Vienna and Lagos exhibitions less interesting, but really enjoyed Mumbai, Moscow and Rio. From the entrance to the exhibition on the fourth floor, the first city you visit is; MOSCOW 1916-1930 During this period of Moscow's history, the main ar
      t movements in the city were constructivism and suprematism. These avant garde movements died out in the 1930s when Stalin tightened his grip on the country, and made socialist realism the official art form. Avant garde artists were forced to conform, with threats of imprisonment or death. Nonetheless, the 1920s were a time of great innovation in Russian art. Eisenstein directed his classic movie 'Battleship Potemkin', and the classic style of Russian political poster was established by the Bolsheviks. Since the majority of the Russian people were illiterate at this time, the posters were designed to communicate revolutionary ideals through imagery. In the first room of the exhibition, there are several examples of the propaganda poster, including Klucis's 'Communism is Soviet Power plus Electrification' and 'We will repay the coal debt to the country', and Rodchenko's 'Advertisement for the State Airline Dobrolet'. There are also several models of buildings by constructivists working in Moscow in this period – a radio tower designed by Shukhov, a design for Pravda's headquarters by Vesuin, and Melnikov's design for The Rusakov Club. The second room consists primarily of suprematist paintings by Malevich and Suetin. There are also several sculptures by Tatlin, most notably his 'corner reliefs' which are abstract works constructed from shards of metal, presenting materials in space without frames or plinths. There are also several constructions by Rodchenko suspended from the ceiling, consisting of flat geometrical shapes within others. The third room deals specifically with Russian film and theatre over this period, and includes models of the constructivist-style stages featured in films from the period, such as Popova's 'The Magnanimous Cuckold'. There are also several posters advertising film and theatre presentations, designed by many of the artists who a
      lso designed propaganda posters for the Bolsheviks, and therefore shared many of the design properties. Rodchenko's 'Battleship Potemkin' poster is on display. Also, Mulchina's 'Industrial Worker and Collective Farm Worker', holding hammer and sickle respectively, is on display. This sculpture was the model for one of the most famous Soviet images of all time. The predominant style of Russian art over this period is extremely distinctive, typified by bold curves and sharp edges. Colours are primarily dark and drab, and there is a marked tendency towards darker reds. Given the age of many of the pieces on display, this is a remarkable collection, and makes me wish that more Russian art were displayed typically in modern art galleries. LAGOS 1955-1970 This period of the history of Nigeria saw it move away from British colonialism, before becoming independent in 1960. The country became more confident, and saw the establishment and popularity of 'Highlife Music', a lively upbeat style of music incorporating elements of Cuban rumba and Latin music, which plays in the Lagos gallery. This period of optimism was brought to an abrupt end with a series of coups, followed by a civil war. Many artists fled the country, for fear of losing their lives. Many of the artists on display were members of the Mbari Club – a group based in Nigeria, encouraging African artists. Malangatana Ngwenya of Mozambique portrays a story of domestic betrayal in 'The Story of the Letter in the Hat'. It's a crudely painted, but effective painting, showing confident use of colour to convey emotion. Ibrahim Salahi of Sudan is represented by several paintings incorporating African decorative traditions, such as a style of calligraphy very similar to Arabic termed 'Sudanese Hand'. Erhabor Emokpane of Nigeria presents several paintings heavily influenced by the Western avant garde movement, while still
      retaining some indigenous aspects of visual culture, and subverting imposed ideologies, particularly Christianity. Probably the most interesting pieces, however, are Adebisi Akanji's screens constructed from cement and metal. Occupying the middle of the gallery, the screens depict images of culture of the time in Lagos, placing elements of traditional lifestyles alongside elements of modern culture. I must confess to finding the Lagos works among the least interesting in the exhibition, though this was probably due to the lack of diversity of works on display. Although the text of the signs around the gallery implied that this period of history in Nigeria was typified by confidence and enthusiasm, I found there was little to suggest it in the works on display. NEW YORK 1969-1974 This period in New York saw an explosion of creative activity in the city, with artists attempting to recreate the artistic content that the recent trend toward minimalism had begun to eradicate. This led to an explosion of, often misguided, enthusiasm, and a desire to "produce" often without much thought as to what, or more importantly, why. Nonetheless, despite this, the Tate has managed to collect together a selection of thought-provoking and interesting works from this frenetic period of innovation. The period also saw the appearance of a new range of media in art, particularly video, photography and performance art. The low rents in the Soho district of Manhattan allowed younger artists to turn vacated premises into space for them to display their art. One movement established during this period in New York was termed 'anarchitecture', which saw itself as "seeking an alternative architectural language", generally by destroying (sorry, "destructuring") abandoned (sorry, "non-u-mental") buildings. For example, in 'Bingo', a 1974 piece by Gordon Matta-Clark, the façade of an Am
      erican house scheduled for demolition was divided into parts, several of which are displayed in the exhibition. Vito Acconci was very much a performance artist, whose art generally consists of documentation of his performances. Documentation of two of his best-known performances is displayed here. In 'Seedbed' (1972), he lay under a sloping area of the gallery floor, and masturbated while listening to visitors of the exhibition. In 'Following Piece' (1969), he picked out random people, and followed them until they entered a "private place", noting down where they went, and what they looked like. As liberation movements gained popularity across America, artists begin to explore and question the status quo, by pushing back the boundaries of what might be considered art. Benglis's 'Contraband' (1969) consists simply of a patch of multi-coloured latex that has been poured onto the floor, for example. Warhol is, of course, represented, with his 1972 silk screen print 'Vote McGovern', consisting of Richard Nixon's face, and the words 'Vote McGovern' written along the bottom of the print. The New York exhibition was certainly an interesting one, showing a lot more diversity to the form that the art took. A broader selection of media is explored, and the pieces that have been selected give a good idea of the styles prevalent at the time. The exhibition also gives a better impression of the public feeling at the time in the city, strongly reflecting the upheavals in political and aesthetic thought at the time. VIENNA (1908-1918) At this point in Viennese history, the city was the centre of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Rapid population expansion led to social deprivation and a shortage of housing before this period, and the situation only worsened as time went on. The art of the city reflected this social discontentment through its honesty and naturalness.
      In the first room of the Vienna exhibition, the main exhibit is the 'House on the Michaelerplatz'. There are architectural sketches by the architect, Adolf Loos, along with a model of the house itself. At the time, the avant garde style of the building, which seems remarkably staid by modern standards, was considered outrageous by the Viennese. Off the first room is a smaller room, housing small paintings by Kokoschka, Schiele and Gerstl, representing "sexual instinct and the self". These paintings are very similar in style, depicting people through a minimal use of lines and colour to hint at underlying form and texture. They are remarkably effective and emotionally strong pictures, conveying the identity of their subjects with minimal brush strokes, as well as breaking social taboos with their frank portrayal of the human body. The end of this small room consists of a reconstruction of Freud's consulting room in Vienna, along with several first editions of Freud's books. The Vienna exhibition also includes several large canvases bearing self-portraits of Schiele and Gerstl, as well as a series of works depicting the effect of the First World War on life in Vienna. Kokoschka and Wittgenstein served in the army during the war, and this influenced the style of their later works. Schiele guarded prisoners of war. The Vienna exhibition really didn't inspire me. I suspect part of this stems from examining artists from this period when I studied GCSE Art, and so there's that inevitable stigma attached to them. It is an interesting period of modern art history, and a lot of art in that period challenged people's acceptance of the honesty in art, particularly with reference to the human body. These are also excellent examples of pictures to reflect the period of modern art history, but I didn't find it particularly interesting. From the Vienna exhibition, you head across the fourth floor
      , to the other end of the building to continue the 'Century City' exhibition. TOKYO 1967-1973 Over this period, Tokyo underwent extremely rapid growth, and consequently skyscrapers began to appear. Also, there was widespread discontent in the city, because of the election of an unpopular Marxist economist city governor, Minobe Ryokichi, leading to frequent student rioting. Artists in Tokyo reflected the populace's anger, by questioning the artistic traditions and received values of Japanese art, and seeking new ways to make (or indeed "not make") art. Two movements of art appeared in Tokyo in this period; Mono-ha and Bikyoto. Mono-ha challenges conventional methods of representation, which impose a distance between man and the world, seeking instead to present the world as it is. A prime example in the exhibition is Koshimizu Susumu's 'From Surface To Surface', consisting of planks of wood, cut to highlight innate qualities of the materials. Bikyoto, however, sees art as an institution, and works of art in this movement are "not made". Probably the most entertaining piece in the exhibition is a reproduction of Akasegawa Genpei's 1967 'Greater Japan Zero Yen Note'. In 1963, Akasegawa printed one-sided paper money as invitations to a show. This attempt to subvert the monetary system in Japan led to a counterfeiting trial, and the artist serving a three-month prison sentence. For this 1967 piece, he continued his attempt to subvert Japan's economy, this time by attempting to put the country's currency out of circulation, encouraging the public to send him real money in exchange for zero yen notes. Several Angura, a Japanese underground theatre movement, posters are on display too. Generally, Angura performances took place in very small theatres, publicised by extremely artistic and very colourful posters. Throughout the Tokyo galleries, you can hear Yok
      o Ono's 1973 single 'Cheers to Women on Top', which is pretty unbearable, and makes touring the exhibitions a slightly more hurried experience... though maybe that's just me. In the final room of the Tokyo part of the exhibition, images from the pages of 'Provoke' magazine are on display. The magazine only ran for three issues, but still acted as "a bomb in Japanese photography". Provoke rejected trends for careful composition of photographs, reproducing pictures taken without looking through the viewfinder, in an attempt to capture "immediate reality". Images are deliberately grainy and unfocused. I found the Tokyo part of the exhibition particularly interesting, collecting together a good and varied selection of pieces from the city, and giving a good feel for the sense of rebellion of the time. PARIS 1905-1915 At this time, Paris was the unrivalled centre of the art world, attracting an international range of artists. The cubist and futurist movements became popular, reflecting the dynamism and complexity of the contemporary world. This period ended, however, with the outbreak of World War I. Fauvism is represented in the first Paris gallery, with paintings by Matisse and Derain. Portraits of each, painted by the other, in the style of fauvism, are presented in the first gallery, along with a painting of Waterloo Bridge by Derain. The galleries also include several of Modigliani's elongated sculptures of heads and faces. A series of futurist collages by Braque and Picasso are presented, made from fabric, wood, wallpaper, lino and newspaper clippings. Braque's 1910 painting 'The Sacre Coeur of Montmartre' is also on display, which is a prime example of analytical cubism. Probably the most interesting of the pieces on display, however, is Leopold Survage's 1913 'Twelve Coloured Rhythms' series of paintings, "examining inherent
      qualities of colour". The paintings consist of a series of twelve canvases, which when viewed in order, appear to form an animation of colours swirling about on a black background. It's nothing particularly innovative, but it's well painted, and intriguing to look at. The Paris gallery seemed, to me, one of the less interesting cities in the exhibition. Yes, there are some excellent examples of futurism and cubism on display, but not a great deal else, so if you're not a fan of the movement, then there's not a lot of excitement in this city's galleries. RIO DE JANEIRO 1950-1964 In the 1950s, Rio expanded massively, emerging from its colonial past. New movements such as neoconcretism, the bossa nova, and cinema novo emerged in the city. The art movements emphasised the simplicity of form and spatial construction. The innovation and invention in the city came to an abrupt halt in 1964 with a military coup. Neoconcretism is represented in the exhibition by Lygia Clark's bichos (beasts) and Helio Oiticica's bolides (fireballs) - articulated sculptures, and box-like objects respectively. Neoconcretism is a movement of highly expressive abstract art, in contrast to the earlier mathematically-derived art of the concetism movement, attempting to reduce the barrier between art and the spectator. In the second gallery of the Rio exhibition, lively bossa nova music by Joao Gilberto plays, and sketches of Brazilian architecture from the period are on display, along with photographs of buildings in the city of Rio. For me, the Rio exhibition was unexpectedly enjoyable. The neoconcretist movement is remarkably reminiscent of minimalism, and several of the paintings reminded me of the work of Mondrian. It's certainly an interesting collection, but it might only have appealed to me because I'm fond of minimalism as an art movement. LONDON 1990-2001 Dubbed "the worl
      d's coolest city" by Newsweek magazine, London is nonetheless not a great place to live. Homelessness is at an all-time-high, public transport is on the verge of collapse, and yet despite this, contemporary art is thriving... but why? Well, we have the recession to thank. Former shops and warehouses, forced to close by the economic climate, provided cheap studio and exhibition space for artists. London's contemporary art is characterised by a crude, humorous style, and seeks to find beauty in the ordinary. In the centre of the turbine hall is a 1993 sculpture by Damien Hirst, 'The Acquired Inability to Escape, Inverted' consisting of a glass box, containing an inverted desk and chair, implying the impossibility of escape for the wage-slave. A large banner ('Access-able' (1998)) across the centre of the hall bears illustrations of models, photographed by Nick Knight. Upon further examination, you notice that the models used in the photographs are disabled, lacking limbs for examples. Knight's work challenges our perception of beauty, and modern stereotypes. A large collage covers a wall of the temporary structure constructed in the turbine hall, consisting of elements designed by artists including Karl Lydon, Bob and Roberta Smith, Peter Fillingham and Tim Stower. Karl Lydon's contribution reads 'This is the last time I shall be exhibiting my work because to be honest I wasn't taking it seriously and never will because my first love is skateboarding.' Gillian Wearing contributes a 1995 7-minute video entitled 'Homage to the woman with the bandaged face who I saw yesterday down Walworth Road', and Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas present a 16-minute video entitled 'The Shop (why carry a hoover)'. Work is also presented by independent artist-run groups, 'City Racing' and 'BANK'. Chris Ofili presents 'Sh*thead', a piece of work composed of elephant dung
      and human hair, and Tracy Emin presents 'All the loving', a box of all the underwear she wore between 1982 and 1997. One particularly interesting piece, presented by 2000 Turner Prize winner, Wolfgang Tillmans, 'Concorde Grid' (1997), creates an impression of the urban landscape by presenting a series of photographs of Concorde flying over the city of London. The photographs are arranged in a grid formation on a wall, in his usual simplistic 'taped to the wall with sticky tape' style of presentation. The London exhibition was a reasonable collection of contemporary London art, accurately reflecting its humour and liveliness. MUMBAI/BOMBAY 1992-2001 Mumbai is a city reconfiguring itself, shirking off its colonial roots. Sectarian riots in 1992 between Hindus and Muslims followed the destruction of a mosque to the north of the city, leading to a polarisation of the city's classes. It's a contradictory city, mixing colonialism and indigenous cultures, big business and extreme poverty, tradition and radicalism, and the art selected for the exhibition at the Tate reflects these contrasts. The first thing you notice upon entering the Mumbai exhibition is the 'Pavilion' (2000) – a cinema hall erected in the gallery by a collaboration between the artist, Sam Kapadia, and craftsmen, employing techniques for temporary structure construction typically used in the city. The pavilion bears a film hoarding for the 2000 film 'Fiza' about the 1992 riots in the city of Mumbai. The most interesting works in this part of the gallery include; Sharmila Samant's 'Global Clones' (1998), in which a pair of Nike trainers are positioned on the floor, with video projected onto them from above, featuring traditional Indian footwear moving along between the trainers. Shilpa Supta's 2000 piece 'sentiment-express.com' draws attention to sweat shops in India –
      visitors to her exhibit can dictate love letters into the computer, choose a paper type and scent for the letter, and the artist in Mumbai will write out the letter by hand and send it. Rummana Hussain's 'A Space for Healing' (1999) was completed shortly before the artist's death, and is a deeply moving piece. Combining elements of a Sufi shrine and a hospital, the piece consists of a room, lit with pulsing red lights, reminiscent of a heartbeat, with a series of brocaded stretchers laid out on the floor, and household implements arranged around the walls, resembling Arabic script. The Mumbai exhibition reflects the contradictions and different styles of the city of Mumbai today, and is a fascinating and vibrant introduction to contemporary Indian art. Certainly, the Mumbai exhibition left me wanting to see more contemporary Indian art, as very little of it seems to be shown in the United Kingdom. CONCLUSIONS The exhibition is very much a mixed bag. Many different styles and media of art are on display, with the result that most visitors will really enjoy some sections, and hate others. Individual city exhibitions are generally very good, collecting together some of the most interesting and representative pieces of the various cities in the time periods selected. However, the exhibition is prohibitively expensive, so it's unlikely that anyone other than an art enthusiast would choose to tour it. Especially since the Tate Modern's free permanent exhibitions would take a visitor to the gallery quite long enough to tour, without spending time going round a temporary exhibition too. It took me four hours to go round the Century City exhibition, making notes on the pieces that particularly interested me, which represents pretty good value for money. I suppose the main question to bear in mind about the exhibition, when deciding whether to go, is whether or not you have an interest in the develo
      pment of art across the world in the Twentieth century. If not, it's unlikely that you'll find enough to interest you across the whole exhibition.

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