The Tanks: Art in Action – A Must-See For All The Senses

Entering the strange subterranean space underneath the Tate Modern for the first time is exciting – it feels like taking an adventurous step into the unknown.

Passing through a sliding door on one side of the Turbine Hall, visitors can now explore the colossal spaces that were once used as oil tanks to fuel the old Bankside power station.  Together with the raw concrete areas that surround the three original tanks, this lower world has been turned into permanent areas for what is described as “live art” or “art in action”.

The Tank Experience

It is difficult at first to know where to look and what order to experience all that The Tanks have to offer… I found it to be something of a sensory overload. There are exhibits of mobile sculptures, experimental film, contemporary movement;  interspersed with video sculptures and intimate interactive dance performances all available for visitors to experience at close quarters.

First off, I was haunted by shards of eerie music in a darkened space while trying to decipher the meaning of Lis Rhodes’ Light Music, Paris (created in 1975) with its crossing beams of light. As someone fiercely protective of her personal space and somewhat claustrophobic, there were moments when the mysterious imagery of Korean artist Sung Hwan Kim was a little too creepy for my liking. This was a good point to cosy-up in Suzanne Lacy’s Crystal Quilt, another exhibit that is part of The Tanks: Art in Action series.

Crystal Quilt

On 10 May 1987 in Minneapolis, USA, 430 women over the age of 60 gathered to share their views on growing older. The resulting exhibit exists in the form of a video, documentary, quilt, photographs and a sound piece. In the smallest of the tanks, lit in red and still smelling vaguely of oil, the visitor can listen to what these women had to say: one of them wonders why young people never want to talk to her about changing values and ideas, only changing material things and fashions.  The video of the hall where the women gathered is shot from above and features the participants seated at square tables with red and yellow cloths on a black and red carpet … effectively creating a quilt effect. The original aim of the “Crystal Quilt” was to empower older women. At the time – as now – it sparked the debate as to where lines should be drawn between art and social comment.

These underground chambers are truly unique and are believed to be the only museum space dedicated full-time to performance art – a bold step into the unknown, even for Tate Modern. Despite not enjoying all of the installations, I lapped up the electric atmosphere and sense of eager anticipation that fills this special space. I felt that absolutely anything might happen at any moment – and yes, there was a lasting after “affect”. Experiencing this type of live art at its best will continue to live on in the memory, rather than on the gallery wall.

The Tanks: Art in Action, Tate Modern, 18 July – 28 October 2012