Tate Modern - Century City
Century City is only one place - exhaustion.

"With each crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life. The metropolis exacts from man as a discriminating creature a different amount of consciousness than does rural life."

When Georg Simmel published this in 1902, little could he have predicted how mass media would bring the metropolitan stimuli to the village. With 20th century societies being so homogenised, the diffuse distinction between the city and the country is logically avoided in Century City. Instead, the city reference focuses on where ideas have grown up. The blurb says

"Century City is a celebration of creative flashpoints, the pivotal artistic and intellectual movements that have emerged in and reflect the context of the metropolis."

In effect, the ideas explored in this show show the reverse of the Tate's intention. Less than marking out specific cities it points to how alike cities become under globalisation. And be prepared to be exhausted. Take Tokyo for example, or was it Paris?...

Tokyo 1967-73

Tokyo's hosting of Expo 1970, it seems, precipitated internal left-wing arguments against Japan's emerging economic might. Low-tech and 'non-making' in art were de riguer. Nobuo Yamanaka's pinhole cameras defy Nikon's sophistication. Nikon's full name, Nippon Kogaku, roughly translates as Japanese Optical Company, which makes a pinhole camera a literal, optical way of harking back to a, well, what exactly? Poverty perhaps? Akasegawa Genpei's attempts to circulate zero-yen banknotes certainly allude to this. Herein lies the irony of such anti-institutionalism ending up in vitrines in a museum like the Tate Modern. Furthermore, Provoke, an underground magazine at the time, visually predicts consumer mags. But, hold on. Was this Marxism cum later-Capitalism specific to Tokyo? Didn't this happen with Situationism in Paris? Aren't Situationist posters worth a fortune now? What about that subversive Woodstock memorabilia?

Rio 1950-64

In short, Rio is portrayed here as having an end to colonialism, then a heyday of Bossa Nova on the Copacabana Beach until a coup in 1964. This translates into geometric high-modernism that will either have you running with a piercing scream or nodding to yourself. Helio Oiticica's Monochromatics look like a seventies sci-fi computer readout enlarged wall-size, frozen, perhaps crashed, a prediction of Microsoft Windows. Perhaps it represents the side of a building at night, which would be very city. 'Ah, neo-concretism' you might read aloud from the notice 'how very Rio!' Did those aloof tower-blocks in Hackney draw inspiration from here? How about the French architect Le Corbusier? Is architecture and art really a metaphor for a city and its zeitgeist? Perhaps not here in Rio de Hackney. How about Paris?

Paris 1905-15

>Paris was undoubtedly the world's art capital during this period, even until the second world war. As such, the work on display here gives the few people left who have never seen anything by Picasso yet another opportunity to redress the balance, though not necessarily a good one. Nor is there much to buttress Century City's premise. Poor examples of Fauvism and Cubism stretch across 2 rooms with little reference to cities. The exceptions are 2 cityscapes by Albert Marquet and Robert Delaunay's excellent The City of Paris, which dominates the 2nd room.

The 3rd room of the 5 in this disproportionately overrepresented period and city covers Cubism's relationship with theatre. Picasso and Braque's papier colles work well opposite theatre programmes and posters of the day. The avante-garde had a field-day. Cut-out magazines being sold as art, Stravinsky's violent Rite of Spring, it must have been difficult to comprehend. As would have been the pan-European war looming over the capital. Strangely, considering the pummelling France took, this is not developed. The mechanically obsessed Futurists with their theatrical performances that turned into riots have little to contribute here. Nor does what is there.

Moscow 1916-30

Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and the high-priest, Kasimir Malevich. This is an art history of Suprematism. Suprematism, logical and reduced like Mondrian's grids in another city at the same time. But Suprematism was more dynamic and speedy with its diagonal movement, and importantly, very popular with the Communist regime. The state's posters adopted this dynamism in a way that advertising still does for similar and different reasons now. The purity, as it were, of these geometric abstracts also has the addition of materials you wouldn't necessarily associate with primary coloured oblongs: wood, brass, leather. Mechanical structures protrude from the paintings like physicist's diagrams. It was doubtless an exciting period. And then Stalin came along and decreed socialist realism as the official version of what art was. Suddenly, thrusting planes were out, and romanticised and detailed canvases of farmers were in. It is amusing in a way. The idea that one person or a minority could dictate which art has value. Such was the evil of Communism, as it could never happen in a democracy. Which leads us to, at least to some people, possibly the century city. Now what's that term? The American Century?

New York 1969-74

This is a great period to examine, especially politically and socialogically. After the post-war miracle through to the first moon landing, somehow, previously unheard voices of doubt and dissent could have been a more apt theme than 'city as stage'. This is after all when Tricky Dicky buckled the economy under the Vietnam war. The peace movement flourished, fuelled by fears of nuclear catastrophe. It is astonishing then that as major an intellectual movement as feminism gets only a cursory glance towards Hannah Wilke. And does Anarchitecture qualify as a 'major' movement? Isn't Gordon Matta-Clark in the realm of art lecture-halls and obscurity? Vito Acconci's Following Piece, where he documented himself following strangers until they entered a building, says as much of the alienation between itself and the other work around it as it does of alienation in city life.

Lagos 1955-70

The Nigerian art here (subtitled 'highlife in the city') was made during the formation of Nigeria's independence from colonialism in 1960. The flavour is stridently non-european, but with some inheritance. Folkish paintings by Malangatana Ngwenya sit somewhere near to Chagall and Outsider art. Ibrahim Salahi's distended, tall and Gigeresque figures emerge from sandstorms with, well, what exactly? Hope? Foreboding? Whatever it is, it is visually more rustic than urban.

J D 'Okhai Ojeikere's photos of hairstyles show platts in patterns more outlandish than black hairstylists produce now. They raise certain questions about freedom and identity. Is freedom of expression through buying a haircut necessarily a freedom? It both expresses culture and is bound by it. Ditto the market economy. How free can a people be? Commander In Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe smiles on his record sleeve, band leader for his Nigerian Sound Makers on the Philips label, dapper in his plaid jacket.

Has the Tate considered Lagos as more 'pivotal' than Cape Town in representating post-colonialism? The news-reels of state visits at the exit point the way to an earlier time in crackly black and white, raising the future possiblities for defeating apartheid. Did these news-reels validate Lagos's existence to Europeans in their day? The white rulers smile on regardless, waving goodbye. If you went through Century City in the order I did, you'd be forgiven for feeling like you want to wave goodbye yourself pretty soon, as the exhaustion sets in. For not only is this show a confusing hotch-potch, you could say that like the Tate Modern itself, it is huge, in fact, it's beyond absorbtion. It is a relief then that at least Vienna is treated with some empathy.

Vienna 1908-18

Overlapping time-wise with Paris for an unexplained reason, the Vienna section of this exhibition has what the previous sections miss - simplicity. The main theme is the Viennese intelligentsia. This makes for photos of bearded white male patriarchs, with, I think from memory, the exception of Melanie Klein, which requires being seen in historical perspective. And so does the primary subject, Freud's research into children's sexual development. But with today's tabloid hegemony toward protecting children from abuse, it is worth remembering that time before Freud postulated that children are individuals too. Child abuse was institutionalised through the workhouse. Many became the backbone for domestic industrialisation by sweeping chimneys. The paintings here by Kokoschka and Schiele have you wondering at the difference between children and adults at all. Awkwardness, vulnerability, ordinariness, fear, contempt: which of these feelings refers to the infants displayed or to the hysterical citizens claiming to protect children's interests by driving paedaphiles underground and away from police monitoring? The instinct to protect our youngfolk brings out a confusing irrationality. Today's comforted victim, it is quickly forgotten, is tomorrow's perpetrator.

This humanist part is thus the only lucid and contemporaneous part of Century City. It is nigh-on impossible to digest the patterns in this extravaganza. Does this show show the major artistic and intellectual achievements from cities? Could it expect to? It was at this point that the preview evening finished. Bombay and London still awaited.

The Tate should have stuck with a few specific subjects and drawn parallels with other cities undergoing similar changes rather than claiming origin points that don't exist. It would also have been better if a less lofty claim were made about its content's importance. Such is the competitive patter in the major exhibitions marketplace. The real worry about the scale of major exhibitions is how to cope with them. Perhaps the strategy to adopt is one I heard of recently. It involves a brief stroll to take in the whole, followed by a leisurely one which benefits from an overview. But to be on the safe side, book ahead with your chiropodist.

Century City is at The Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG - 020 7887 8008
Until 29th April 2001

Review and photography copyright Jeff Lee 2001.
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