As a twentieth wedding anniversary treat, F. secured tickets for a matinee at the old/new Globe Theatre of The Two Noble Kinsmen, Shakespeare’s late collaboration with John Fletcher. £52 bought us each a foot and a half of wooden bench just under cover (it rained only confetti). The groundlings paid £5 and were forced to stand by stewards. The whole production, and especially the acting, was electrifying. The only slightly dull voice belonged to Theseus, played by an actor called Martin Turner. The “jailer’s daughter”, who isn’t even given a name in the play, nearly stole the show with her histrionics. Some sexual gestures were attempted but – how innate is decent modesty – came over quietly. A giant horse’s skull dominated the set and occasionally served as a mask for Athena, a goddess with whom, after a summer in Greece, I now feel acquainted.

 

Before this, we had explored Tate Modern, an exhibition space newly established in a vast power station next door. And as our taxi mysteriously dropped us at the back of the building, we had the opportunity, walking round, to see that power was still being generated in a corner of it.

 

Two large entrances equally beckoned. We chose the descending one and found ourselves in the main hall, dominated by three towers by Louise Bourgeois, “I do,” “I undo” and “I redo”. The visitor is supposed to ascend, alone, by its spiral staircase, each of these structures and contemplate, among convex mirrors at the top, reflections of the Self. However, each tower had about half an hour’s queue beneath it with its own marshal, so we were deterred. This seemed unfortunately exclusive. The name of Louise Bourgeois tops the outside of the building in letters adjacent, and equal in size, to Tate Modern.

 

To one side of this massive hall is a more conventionally layered building. Escalators convey the visitor towards galleries in which hang actual canvases. Cubism, for instance, has its room, filled with muddy gloom. Matisse still provided, perhaps, the brightest memory. The best way to explore many of the exhibits seemed to be as a child. Just in front of us two women were on their hands and knees exploring, among four large mirrored cubes, each other and themselves in infinite regress. As the twentieth century progressed from heroic modernism to conceptual art, so the child’s test came to the fore: Is it interesting? From an abstract photograph layered in grey, from dark grey at the bottom to silver grey at the top, the eye instantly withdraws. One cannot persuade oneself even to look at it. Equally boring was the ubiquitous preoccupation with machinery. A machine is a successful theory, something understood. To God everything is a machine. How could so many sculptors overlook this aspect of the machine – its boringness? Nevertheless many of the exhibits were hugely novel and intriguing, easily passing the child’s test.

 

Of the people I have spoken with who have been to Tate Modern, a great many speak of it as “empty”. Although partly an impression invited by the adoption of a huge space, this is literally not true. There are many exhibits in many galleries on many floors, perhaps rather too many for one visit. The space is daringly converted; the exhibitions imaginatively themed. Exploratory texts – integral to such a programmatic, statement-making century – are on a modest scale. Interest bubbles up everywhere.

 

Perhaps what visitors mean is that this whole stretch of art – the second half of the twentieth century – is devoted to the manufacture of significance. We came to one room in which the decorators’ tools – paint rollers in trays – had been left on trestle tables. I warned Farah, this room was not an exhibit, but one to be passed through. But she suggested, rightly, that the room was, in fact, an exhibit. Some “artist” had even given it a title. We looked in disbelief at the paints and boxes, unable to decide if they constituted an “exhibit” or not, but soon converged on the only possible conclusion: that it made no possible difference one way or the other.

 

It is a daily observation that the dominance of science has created a crisis of confidence for both religion and art. The inevitable context of this obsessive quibbling over significance is the experience of its loss. Thus a pervasive sense of emptiness hovers over the whole project, even when it is playful and not overtly nihilistic. It does seem, once again, that the great vice of our time is abstraction – intellectualism – and the loss of relation to the spiritual, instinctive, spontaneous life as all previous centuries have known it. Our achievement is an inescapable self-consciousness amid suffocating peace and plenty.

 

1st September 2000.

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