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A Pitch Dark Void: Twenty Years Of The Tate Modern's Turbine Hall
Robert Barry , May 30th, 2020 10:08

As London's Tate Modern celebrates its twentieth anniversary this month, tQ's critics recall some of their more memorable trips to its iconic Turbine Hall

Juan Muñoz, Double Bind (June 2001 – March 2002)

Double Bind was the second Turbine Hall commission and it set an extraordinarily high bar. While Louise Bourgeois’s giant pregnant spider, the work inaugurating the annual commission, had little concern with relating to the specific contours of the cavernous architecture, Juan Muñoz’s complex and elusive installation was all about utilising it, albeit with some theatrical, sleight-of-hand manoeuvres. As the viewer proceeded down the long slope, past the stairs leading up to the balcony where one usually gets an aerial view of whichever work is on show, there was nothing to be detected in the gloom. The work revealed itself slowly and in partial glimpses. First there was the false ceiling, then the gaping shafts which spot lit the gloomy stage. And then you saw them: through the ceiling portals, the grey, grinning/grimacing figures.

At intervals, empty glass lifts would come down and then go back up, adding another layer of intrigue. Were the figures, all male, each in a crumbled suit – tiny or life-sized it was difficult to tell – playing a joke on us? You could also go upstairs (though not via the lifts). The upper floor was empty, apart from those lifts periodically rising up through the shafts, and a floor patterned with both real and painted vents. Muñoz, who died aged forty-eight just two months after the installation’s opening, liked to mix realism and illusionism. He described himself as a storyteller, though he was rather more in the tradition of Borges than that description normally allows. Fisun Güner

Carsten Holler, Test Site (October 2006 – April 2007)

Whenever we were in London my mum would sandwich in a trip to The Tate Modern, eager to rinse her membership for all it was worth. I was five when it opened and from that age it was the Tate where I was captivated aged 6 by Cornelia Parker’s ‘Cold Dark Matter’ (perhaps because at that age I really liked explosions) and by Juan Munoz’ eerie sculptures; I still have postcards on my bedroom wall of both.

The fact the Tate was the first art gallery I really remember going to means that it became almost the platonic idea of what such a space should really be. It was only later that I came to realise what strengths, weaknesses, and defining characteristics were the Tate’s alone, most obvious among them the Turbine Hall. Whatever was in it, a great crack along the floor or a great artificial sun in the sky, just walking through the doors would instantly resurrect that same childlike openness and wonder.

Nothing was more memorable, however, than Carsten Holler’s ‘Test Site’, these snaking, perilous metal slides that sprawled up into the sky. On the one hand I remember them for the visceral thrill of art at its most physical, and on the other for the fact my dad completely fucked his arm on the way down the biggest slide, slashing it to shreds on the metal edge. Patrick Clarke

Mirosław Balka, How It Is (October 2009 – April 2010)

The sculpture by Mirosław Balka is called How It Is. Firstly you walked up an iron ramp. That word ‘ramp’ jumped out. Knowing Balka’s work frequently refers to Polish history you recall the ramps, the unloading platforms, at Auschwitz. This ramp at the Tate led into an immense container, a giant grey steel mass thirteen metres high, thirty metres long. You are immediately blinded, oppressed, utterly fearful. Now inside you confront a pitch dark void, the inverse of one of James Turrell’s colour fields of light. Steps forward are tentative in the extreme. It’s impossible not to be reminded about the carbon monoxide gas vans of Chełmno, the Zyklon B showers at Majdanek. Was it like this before the screams? An unlit space crammed with other people like yourself, all about to die.

Balka’s oeuvre obeys Claude Lanzmann’s strictures about the visual depiction of the Nazi crimes; there are no images of bodies, what were real people. As with films like Shoah, Nemes’ Son of Saul and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Balka takes us to the doors of extremity, a glimpse of the evil. His is a work about a world with no love, no hope. How it is. John Quin

Tino Sehgal, These Associations (July 2012 – October 2012)

Out of the blue, an opportunity came to about-turn from my architecture office job drawing floorplans and thresholds to spend a summer on radically different tasks. As a ‘core participant’ of the year’s Turbine Hall installation, These associations by the artist Tino Sehgal, I worked at Tate Modern full-time slowly walking, sitting, singing, sprinting full pelt down the concrete ramp, and carrying out semi-choreographed and improvised spatial relationships with over one hundred others of all ages and backgrounds. From back ache and anxiety to warmups and massages, it was an unexpected but entirely welcome career change.

I was told 2.5 million people came to Tate that Olympic summer, and in that crowded cavernous Hall most couldn’t have helped but notice weird, uncanny goings on. Some who lingered, trying to work out patterns or just understand what this unannounced happening was, may have been approached by one of us, and gifted a small meaningful thought which came to our mind as we approached. A memory, a fear, a loss, a discovery. Sometimes these led to intense hour-long one-on-one conversations, oblivious to surrounding crowds, sometimes they were delivered in passing, leaving the visitor alone with the thought.

It’s now impossible to visit Tate for the ghosts not to come back, one of the largest rooms I may ever visit, but one packed by the haunting of a million tiny memories. It’s strange to now just walk on that concrete floor normally, to get from the Boiler House to the Tanks, and not momentarily think myself back into a spatial game with the people around me. From the ambient noise of the space, I now hear snatches of personal conversations with people I will never meet again echoing for eternity. Will Jennings

Abraham Cruzvillegas, Empty Lot (13 October 2015 – 3 April 2016)

“Something … growing out of nothing.” A plant or a flower bursting through “a little crack in the pavement, against all odds. That for me,” says Abraham Cruzvillegas, “is an image of myself.” A few days before visiting Empty Lot, Cruzvillegas’s mammoth exercise in guerilla gardening in the Turbine Hall, I had caught him speaking at Frieze Master – on the subject, not of the installation itself, but a quite different sort of harvest, the Wellcome Collection, across town by Euston Station.

Empty Lot itself took the form of a huge diamond of timber, hoisted upon a scaffold, filling the vast expanse of the Turbine Hall from end to end. The frame held a hundred-odd triangular seedbeds, each one bearing soil gathered haphazardly from parks, allotments, and other spots throughout London where the concrete momentarily gives space for green fingers. The cracks in the pavement, if you like.

Throughout the course of the show, these planters weree lit and watered, given whatever nourishment they need in order to produce – what, exactly? As one visitor noted, overheard by me as I visited the installation, it might have proved to be the most conspicuous marijuana plantation in Europe. Cruzvillegas himself certainly didn’t know what might grow there over the life of the exhibition. Maybe nothing. That’s not the point. Indeed, he seems to rather relish the idea that this patch of highly-prized central London real estate might be allowed, for the sake of art, to be completely unproductive for a while.

But already when I visited, less than a week after it opened, the Empty Lot was already showing a few green shoots. This kind of ‘autoconstrucción’ has been central to Cruzvillegas’s practice for over a decade now, inspired by his own childhood in the improvised settlements of Ajusco. Like the mandrake root in the painting at the Wellcome that he spoke of Frieze, whatever hardy sprouts might emerge from the Tate’s ragtag of soil samples were to stand as a metaphor of creation itself. Robert Barry