Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

English museums have secret awesome exhibits

September 6, 2010 · 5 Comments

I visited the Tate Modern this week determined to disprove my growing suspicion that modern art is an Emperor’s New Clothes type hoax designed to make me look like an idiot. Unfortunately, the first time I visited I only had half an hour. So I rushed through a floor of splattered paint and a white room filled with off white canvases that, according to Agnes Martin, were supposed to represent “weightlessness and infinity” rather than the possibility that the museum staff had run out of white paint.

Then I came back a few days later when I had more time, and as luck would have it the first exhibit I came across was Art & Language by Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden with the promising description that “viewers are now confronted by themselves, thereby questioning a long-held notion of painting transcending reality.” I understand that some art is supposed to be philosophical, but it was a mirror on canvas, which makes it the exact equivalent of that scene in my favorite childhood movie, Neverending Story (costarring a delightful dragon puppet) in which the main character has to face himself in a metaphorical mirror to save the land of Fantasia. Obviously the best movie ever created, but not art. It made me angry.

So I went through the next few rooms with the mirror as a yardstick for my expectations and found the following pieces:

  1. Giuseppe Penone’s Tree in 12 Metres (two trees in a museum)
  2. Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Untitled (some guy’s messy garage in a museum)
  3. Keith Arnatt’s Self Burial (a bunch of pictures time elapsed pictures of a guy sinking in quick sand)


I list these pieces because they were really underwhelming until I looked at them a second time, and they turned into basically the coolest things ever. The Tree in 12 Metres was actually two perfect trees shapes carved out of a giant block of wood. Every messy garage item was a replica carved, textured and painted with polyurethane foam and acrylic paint (this includes an old rubber tire, an unvarnished wooden bench with knots, and a bunch of other distinctly textured items). The time elapsed photographs interrupted a TV program once a day in sequence showing for 5 seconds without any explanation.

Giuseppe Penone Tree of 12 Metres 1980-2

I’ve been seeing this pattern everywhere, and I feel like the British must have a huge penchant for Easter eggs. The Bloomsbury walk was covered in historical landmarks that I always thought were a huge deal. In the United States, Virginia Woolf’s house would at least be a small museum as opposed to the small plaque next to an otherwise occupied building. The Victoria and Albert Museum was a whole other level of hidden amazing things. Along with a novelty bustle that plays God Save the Queen every time the wearer sits down (classy), one of DaVinci’s notebooks, marked in tiny writing, was sitting in a random corner (The other five of his notebooks that the museum has are just in storage right now. No big deal). Do they just have so much history here that they have to ignore some of it so as not to turn the country into a museum? Or does that obsession with understatement that Kate Fox talks about seep itself all the way in British history so that they hide their great achievements in a corner out of amusement and feigned modesty? It seems so contradictory to what I would expect from a former empire. I expect neon signs. Not that I’m complaining. I don’t think I would get this excited about a foam tire replica under any other circumstances.

                                                                                                                                                                                          Tree of 12 Metres 

                                                                                                                                                                     (Giuseppe Penonoe) from Tate.org

Categories: 2010 Jesse
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5 responses so far ↓

  •   bowmanc // Sep 6th 2010 at 17:40

    I had this experience with the Tate Modern. I was at first extremely angry and frustrated with pieces that I frankly didn’t understand. Though I still think many of these pieces are rubbish, some are much, much better than at first glance. I do, however, disagree with your point regarding Britain’s too much history because of feigned modesty. In fact, I would say that they love to highlight their history – just how many museums do they have?! However, most only portray the positive aspects. The imperial war museum made the Brits out to be the heroes of both WW I and WW II (which is, to say the least, debatable). I’ve also seen remarkably little about the horrible effects of imperialism, aside from the dock museum. I guess the winners don’t only write history books but curate the museums as well.

  •   maryc // Sep 6th 2010 at 18:12

    Jesse, I had this same experience with the Tate Modern as well! I actually went with you the very first time and I remember leaving frustrated and rather confused with how to categorize and analyze modern art. I love Dali and van Gogh, but can’t grasp the depth of such art as a few lines on a white canvas. The second time I visited I further explored the various displays and opened my mind. There definitely was an immense amount of creativity and talent mixed in among the more unusual pieces. For example, I was moved by Maurizio Cattelan’s “Ave Maria” depicting the right-armed salute and forced the viewer to recognize its true and negative connotations. (You can see the art here: http://images.chron.com/blogs/peep/0a0aCattelan_Ave%20Maria1.jpg)

    In regards to England’s display of their history, I don’t think they try to hide it. I actually think they put their proudest historical moments on open display and then try to apologize for and excuse their past errors and misunderstandings. (Remember their apologetic note in the Docklands Museum that explained why they used racist terms against England’s African slaves?)

  •   maryc // Sep 6th 2010 at 18:15

    Sorry, I guess that link doesn’t work. Here’s another image:

  •   battilaj // Sep 6th 2010 at 18:40

    I was just talking about this with another group. The museums do portray a really narrow and glorious view of England, possibly because of government control, and I definitely agree that they seem proud of some of it. But I stand by the fact that a lot of the displays I saw were extremely understated, especially compared to anything I’ve seen in the US. All those house in Bloomsbury were barely even marked. The London Wall has car parks built around it. And some parts are glossed over completely. The Docklands exhibit on slavery was told from a white English point of view. No survivor’s tales.

    But I probably should have said important events instead of just acheivements.

  •   Karl // Sep 8th 2010 at 05:53

    All points well taken. But, what would Bloomsbury look like if every house of important person was turned into a museum? There would be no residential space left. I think the depth of history here forces some tough choices that are less common in a young country like ours.

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