Field trip: The Tanks. Live art takes centre stage.

Eliza Tyrrell

With the Olympics looming and the London 2012 Festival booming, all eyes are on London – even ours. Eliza Tyrrell turns her gaze to Tate Modern’s latest addition, live art venture, The Tanks

All polished, grey concrete floors and vaulted ceilings, The Tanks, the new, £90m live art space that opened beneath Tate Modern this month, blends seamlessly with the main Tate building. Uncannily, its underground network of rooms feel like they’ve always been here. Which, of course, they have: these rooms were once vast oil tanks that fed the former Bankside Power Station and have been sitting unused beneath Tate Modern for well over a decade.

This industrial past is evident as soon as I walk in. Oxides and acids leach into pock-marked walls. Weaving through the fluorescent-lit columns, I could be in any number of industrial urban warehouses around Europe. Having seen several live art performances and installations in car parks, and partied in a few too, it’s all comfortably familiar.

Beyond the huge hallway and into the rooms themselves – titled Live, Commission and Collection – things smarten up. A heavy iron-riveted drum of a space, washed in red light, houses Suzanne Lacy’s sound installation, ‘Crystal Quilt’. Sung Hwan Kim’s commissioned piece nearby exploits the space most successfully; his three films, scattered installations and light displays are a made-to-measure experience. He splits the room into two, with an inter-connecting smoked window that allows me to spy on the screens and people in each.

The atmosphere here is distinctly informal: young kids sprawl on the carpet in front of Kim’s main film, ‘Temper Clay’. Engrossed and relaxed, children add to this space in a way that isn’t as apparent in the ‘proper’ galleries above. Take Anthony McCall’s ‘Complete Cone Films’. Visitors cluster uncertainly between a freestanding reel-to-reel projector and the screen displaying McCall’s work; one asks a steward if this is a film. When the steward replies, “no, it’s a performance of a film,” and little happens after the title flashes onto the screen, a few kids begin weaving their hands in the projected beams. Wonderfully, the crowd gradually turns to watch them instead.

With the exception of Sung Hwan Kim’s work, it sometimes feels that the art here is dressing the space rather than the other way round. But this is perhaps inevitable: the costly and impressive architecture is the main draw for now and, over time, the focus will surely move to the live art and performances played out inside. I hope so, because The Tanks’ focus on live art is something pretty special; the audience’s response to being asked what they think about it (displayed on a multimedia board in the atrium) reveals a healthy combination of humour, thoughtfulness and scepticism.

Part of the attraction of live art is its temporality. Another is that audience interaction throws up unexpected results. For me, however, the real attraction lies in the fact that live art is difficult to commodify. It is the perfect antithesis to the kind of art that characterized the Blair years, or the kind of work that can be knocked out in the Tate shop as bags, brollies and limited-edition prints.

If the main Tate building is Modern then The Tanks are contemporary. The addition of live art gives Tate Modern an edge – with the audience to go with it. On my visit, the first Sunday since opening, The Tanks was bustling, no mean feat on a scorching day.

Will The Tanks deliver Tate Director Chris Dercon’s vision where “performance, sound, moving images and participation – art in action – can carry as much weight as anything else we’re doing?” It has the space, and comes with the financial support. The Tanks is already looking to the audience and the audience is looking right back. When asked “what is the role of the audience?” someone posted, “it brings art out of where it sleeps”. The Tanks could be just the wake-up call that contemporary art was looking for.

The Tanks launches with a 15-week festival of live art. Tate Modern, Bankside, London, until 28 October 2012, free (some events require advance booking). Read our round-up of the best of the nationwide London 2012 Festival, or watch our candid video interview with one of the world’s greatest performance artists, Marina Abramovic.

Images (top to bottom): Sung Hwan Kim, Washing Brain and Corn 2012, © Sung Hwan Kim; entrance, Eliza Tyrrell; Line Describing a Cone 1973 by Anthony McCall born 1946; comments wall, Eliza Tyrrell.

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