Sunday, July 27, 2014

Organizing Elements (The Tate Modern)

As we learned upon embarking on our journeys through the Tate, this modern art museum was laid out in a manner most peculiar for art museums; as one ascends through the levels of the buildings, he experiences a transition through not only periods in modern art but also thematic elements present in the works – as opposed to artistic classification or by artist. By organizing the museum in this way, one may experience the transition in Western artistic and philosophical thought through the 20th century. 
One piece that initially caught my eye and then my emotional investment was Shepherd of the Landes. This bronze sculpture by Germaine Richier beautifully and hauntingly paints a ghostly, almost inhuman portrait of post-WWII humanity. 
Based upon the image of actual stilt-using shepherds from the Landes region in France, a country ravaged by war, this evocative and somewhat unsettling form appears burnt and misshapen. Its body is dark and metallic, legs long and insect-like, face displayed in a way that is, while recognizably emotional, utterly lacking in human essence. One can almost feel from its jarring gaze the bleak and shocking aftermath of the War in Europe. The sort of existential loss of faith and understanding in humanity prevalent in many works of art during this time is easily related by the ghastly, near-human features of this sad construct.
This plays well into the Tate Modern's method of organization. The themes in modern art in the post-war period tended to be surreal and bleak, I noticed as I explored the halls. The title for this third-floor installation is entitled "Transformed Visions," speaking, I deduce, about the transmogrification of artistic thought on violence and war following the atrocities of the 1930's and 40's. 
This piece and its placement really began to help me understand the purpose and direction in a lot of modern art. After such paradigm-shattering horrors as the two World Wars, the old styles of realistic painting and sculpture could hardly serve to embody the experiential dimensions of suffering and dehumanization. Thus, a sculpture such as The Shepherd of Landes is far more apropos, communicating well this confusing and terrifying time in Western history.

But life and time march ever on; and as one continues the journey through the Tate Modern's gallery, the truth of this notion becomes ever clearer. The next floors move further in time and the subsequent thematic elements present themselves. While the zeitgeist of post-war Europe was steeped in dehumanizing tragedy, the following decades opened up to lighter, sometimes more diverse forms of expression. The fourth level of the Tate reflects this in its halls, "Energy and Process" and "Structure and Clarity." These collections explore themes of natural elements, structure and varied form, minimalist expression, and new materials and media in art. 
One piece I was drawn to was Gilberto Zorio's Terracotta Circle. At first, this seems like one of the classic "oh come on, I could make this in my garage" sort of sculptures. 
But there is more to it than first appears.  What may seem like a dirt circle with a glass tray of lead hanging above at first glance is actually a careful and measured study of human proportion through the use of changing elements: the glass hangs at the artist's full height; the circle's circumference is the span of his arms. What strikes me most about this piece, especially as compared to the Shepherd above, is its ability to study part of the human form in a way that is decidedly not dehumanizing, but does not literally illustrate any part of the human body. The pieces on this floor tended to follow this theme. Many of them were small organizations of found elements into cairn-like structures or simple paintings. Yet in their simplicity they reveal something about the artist and his experience. Many sculptures (such as the one pictured above) transcended the immediate visual experience by requiring multiple perspectives of viewing, as well as an appreciation for the physical materials the work is made from, not just the image then coalesce to represent. 

Thus, the relationship between the two works in my mind is an excellent analogy for the essence of the Tate and its mission. Transitions in time and theme throughout the past century have developed modern art. Artists continue organize the elements of human experience by ever-changing but always powerful methods.

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