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.

Culture Guides

Image courtesy of HOME


Cinemas around the North are putting on their festive hats this month but don’t worry, there’s plenty going on even if you aren’t into the whole Christmas thing.

Intervention 15 by Edward Krasinski


100 artists feature in an exhibition celebrating the Bluecoat’s 300th anniversary, Edward Krasinksy is a surprise hit at Tate Liverpool and Manchester Museum looks at a world without bees. Our top exhibitions in Manchester and the North.

Credit Karen Wright


It may be blinkin cold but The Whitworth’s Frost Fair will warm your cockles, as will some tip top theatrical family classics – but not as you know ’em.



Plenty of festive fun, including some seasonal storytelling in Manchester and Liverpool, then much to add to your lily-white 2017 diary…

La Vie Parisienne


As the days get shorter, Manchester’s music calendar gets busier – with the city’s music venues burst from the seams with live music for you to enjoy.



We’re breaking this month’s theatre picks into grit and glam. Glam because it’s the season of shiny, sparkly things, ­and grit because, well, we’re Northern after all.

Destination Guides

Things to do right now

Powered by culturehosts
Dance 07–08 December 2016 , from £10.00

Gary Clarke Company: COAL at Contact Theatre

Film Season: Fade To Black – Generations
Cinema 25 November–09 December 2016 , from £5.00

Film Season: Fade To Black – Generations

Feed Me - Image courtesy of Rachel Maclean
Cinema 03–13 December 2016 , from £7.00

Film Season: I’m Too Happy

Theatre 17 November–15 December 2016 , from £7.00

Scouse: a Comedy of Terrors

Michael Rosen - Image courtesy of Z-Arts
Families 17 September–17 December 2016 , from £7.00

Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake & Bad Things at Z-arts

Benji Reid: A Thousand Words
Exhibitions 22 September–17 December 2016 , FREE

Benji Reid: A Thousand Words

La Vie Parisienne
Music 07–17 December 2016 , from £21.00

La Vie Parisienne

Photo of the festive display outside the Corn Exchange
Food and Drink 10 November–20 December 2016 , FREE

Manchester Christmas Markets

Exhibitions 24 November–21 December 2016 , FREE

Tim Isherwood: Please Use The Intercom

Find Rudolph
Families 26 November 2016–02 January 2017 , FREE

Find Rudolph

Tim Etchells, Lets Pretend (Large) (2014), installation view, Grundy Art Gallery. Photo: Phill Heywood, courtesy Grundy Art Gallery.
Exhibitions 01 September 2016–07 January 2017 , FREE

NEON: The Charged Line at the Grundy Art Gallery