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March 29, 2006

Christopher Peachment doesn't enjoy Embankment at Tate Modern

Posted by Christopher Peachment

The Unilever Series at Tate Modern:
Rachel Whiteread's Embankment
Tate Modern, London
11th October 2005 - 1st May 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays & Saturdays until 10pm)

Social Affairs Unit reviewer Bunny Smedley explained in a previous review (Bunny Smedley enjoys Rachel Whiteread's Embankment at Tate Modern) why - whilst she was not sure that Embankment was greatly art - she greatly enjoyed the work. Here Christopher Peachment explains why he did not enjoy Embankment.

It seems a little tardy to comment on Rachel Whiteread's Embankment some six months after it was installed at the Tate Modern, but I always have to grit my teeth to go in the place. I can happily spend an hour or two any day of the week at the Wallace or the old Tate, but squaring up to the Tate Modern takes an effort of will. It has been six years now since it opened, and I cannot make myself like it. And them insisting on it being called Tate Modern, rather than the Tate Modern, is only part of it.

I could complain about the barren stretch of wasteland in front of it, with its nasty gravel and scrappy trees, which blight one of the lovelier stretches of the Thames. (The bridge doesn't help either, but letís not go into that).

But it is the building that lowers the spirits. Gilbert Scott has some claims to greatness as an architect, but this building is not one of them. It is reminiscent of Fascist architecture, which like Kremlin Mayday parades and Nuremburg rallies, was designed to impress the gullible and subdue dissent. The notion that it would make a good art gallery would only have occurred to Oliver Cromwell.

Stepping inside is no easier. Go in through the riverside entrance and you are at once obstructed by a shop selling T-shirts, and no way of getting on to the escalator. To do that you have to go a long way out of your way, down a flight of stairs to the basement and start again on the long haul upwards.

Going in at the side, directly into the Turbine Hall induces the same queasiness you get in vast secular buildings. I have experienced similar feelings of empty grandeur when going into the old airship sheds at Cardington.

Then the problems start. The long ramp down into the hall should surely have been levelled. Nothing can stand on it. And slap in the middle of the floor is a large staircase, obscuring any long distance view of the art commissioned to fill the space.

It is a bad space for art. It encourages a vacuous gigantism on the part of the artists, understandably in a spirit of self-defence against the sheer volume they have to fill. It's a bully of a space, and unlike most bullies, it isn't a coward underneath, and it can't be bought off. It dwarfs anything in it. Not one work of art yet commissioned has been successful at coping with the size of that hall.

Embankment has been well enough covered to need no further description. It is a pile of white boxes, and I can't see that there is much more to say about them. That won't stop the critics from trying however:

The title refers not only to its riverside location, close to the Thames embankment, but to the nature of its construction with the piles of individual boxes forming a series of barriers.
(From the accompanying brochure, which is a Text by Morgan Falconer, drawing on an essay by the curator Catherine Wood.)

Thank you for the information about what an embankment is. And no, they don't form barriers. There are clear paths through the boxes, and they are so flimsy that one good shove would bring them down. Not much of a barrier, nor of an embankment:

They begin to suggest a maze.
No, they don't. There's a maze at Hampton Court for anyone who hasn't yet cottoned on to what a maze is, and this is nothing like a maze. Children were finding their way in and out with no trouble.
But there is also the spirit of absence here, a ghostly echo of all the abandoned space that surrounds day after day.
No, there isn't. Being among the boxes is quite claustrophobic. And living in London, as many of the visitors do, one is hardly ever surrounded by abandoned space, certainly not "day after day". Which is why standing in the middle of the Millennium Bridge outside is preferable to having to look at it.

As usual with minimal works of art, some personal history of the artist is gone into in order to explain the meaning. It seems that Whiteread came across an old cardboard box when clearing her house, and one thing led on to another. Again, thank you for this information. Like the old joke about lawyers' digressions, I am left better informed but none the wiser.

Richard D. North did suggest that this could only allude to that:

awful little trope, "memory, identity and loss".
Yes, it must be that, unless perhaps it is something to do with climate change and the challenge that faces us all in the new Ice Age, which was something else he perhaps had in mind when he said the boxes reminded him of icebergs. What I haven't yet seen is a long piece on how they are reminiscent of sugar cubes and the appalling effect this might have on children's teeth.

Minimalism is a dull style. The economy of means leads nowhere but to an economy of effect. And conceptualism is the worst fraud yet committed by the artist on the public in a long line of 20th century frauds. The theory goes:
I am artist. I have an idea for a great work of art. But I can't be bothered to execute it with any degree of effort or skill. So, you will have to take it on trust that whatever I give you is a great work of art, because I say so.
This last theory was once put to me in all seriousness by a woman artist with whom I was living. When I replied that we will be the judge of all that, her response, before climbing in a taxi and going back to live with her mother, was:
You can't, you're not an artist.
Embankment is dull and ugly. There was a time when art students were taught that one important aspect of sculpture was the relation of volume to space. I imagine they stopped doing that some time before living under the shadow of the Atom bomb ruined all our lives. But if a sculptor can't follow that basic relation, then what they produce will be nothing.

Allowing the boxes to spill out of the space and sit on the building's girders probably looked like a fun idea for the students stacking them up, but anyone with half an eye would have told them to put them back where they belonged.

One final comment. It is interesting to note that of seven different levels of rooms next to the Turbine hall, only one is currently given over to the showing of the Tate's standing collection of art. All the rest are taken up with cafes, restaurants, bookshops, T-shirt shops and all the rest of whatever the marketing department insist on. Admittedly, there is a sign saying that one level was closed due to re-hanging, which will be opened in May. This might prove welcome. The Francis Bacon paintings have been hanging at the wrong height for some time now. And they are in rooms too small for them. More than two or three viewers crowd the space and obscure the pictures. But then the building was only ever intended to house machines.

To read Bunny Smedley's very different take on Embankment, see Bunny Smedley enjoys Rachel Whiteread's Embankment at Tate Modern.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

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