I have just visited Tate Modern primarily to see the Malevitch exhibition before it closes on October 26 as well as the Sigmar Polke retrospective which opened earlier this month. It is a good week to visit the Tate, though it leaves you a bit arted out. But it was the huge sculpture by US artist Richard Tuttle occupying the Turbine Hall which really grabbed my attention. It was good to see artwork back in that vast space after the gap which followed the decision by Unilever not to renew its sponsorship. With Hyundai taking up the baton, we can now look forward to large scale installations until at least 2025.
Tuttle’s work is the first and is coupled with a retrospective of his works at the Whitechapel Gallery. Tuttle is widely admired for his minimalist sculptures and work with fabrics; often he works really small. One of his most famous pieces is a three inch piece of rope.
At 40 metres, his Turbine Hall work is the largest he has ever done but has not been uniformly well received. “The American artist’s massive winged sculpture is beautiful to look at, but has all the depth and profundity of a Christmas garland” said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian
Over at The Telegraph, Alastair Stewart wrote,“The fundamental problem, though, is that the work represents no recognisable form, shape or thing. The best abstract sculpture eerily makes the suggestion of something figurative (is it a bird? Is it a plane?) – yet Tuttle’s evokes nothing whatsoever. It simply is what it is.”
Personally, I don’t have a problem with a work being simply what it is. But in this case I felt there were references; the work is not explained, so there is no way to tell whether I am right or wrong, but it appears to me to be a turbine, a turbine filling the Turbine Hall; what could be more fitting? Of course it is highly stylised; the wings are not circular; there is no central shaft; it is made of plywood, not metal; it is draped with fabric in strong red and orange. What for other than to look cheery? One could argue the case that there are metaphors in that as well: the generation of power leading to imports – the fabric comes from India, so referencing the British empire in India which ended in 1947 the point at which the Turbine Hall was being designed. Probably not.
Pretty well all the Tate told us is the title: I Don’t Know – the weave of textile language. There is a quote from Tuttle saying that he was not interested in size but in scale, which gives few clues. I didn’t feel any of that matters. What I find really clever about this work is how it uses the architecture of the Turbine Hall and incorporates it into the form of the sculpture itself. Look at the way the verticals of the girders seem to coincide with the wings of the structure – except that in fact they don’t; it is an illusion but one which works from both directions. The photograph here is taken from above.
But the same effect is noticeable when taken from below.
The line of the sculpture is also made more interesting by the line of the cross girder below and of the lights above. If those architectural details had been absent it would not have worked half as well. There are sculptures which look better in a blank or neutral space but Tuttle’s work really got me looking at the way the Turbine Hall is put together. Apart from girders and lights, I suddenly noticed shiny pipes; I appreciated the height and the breadth and the way that other people moved round the work and looked up at it and were dwarfed by it. The red and the orange of the fabric emphasised the greys and blacks of the building.
If Tuttle had no thought at all of his work resembling a turbine, that would be as interesting as if it were planned. It would suggest an almost evolutionary adaption had taken place driven by the form of the building itself. For me, at least, it was the perfect start to the new era.