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I rode the Tate

April 4th, 2007 · post by natalie · Make a comment

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If you’ve ever been to the Tate Modern art gallery on London’s Bankside you’ll have an understanding of the enormity of the space there. Built in an old power station, amazingly only 7 years ago, the building has been absorbed into the fabric of the city. It is now a London landmark which many find impossible to imagine doing without. You can enter the Tate via the Turbine Hall which by nature of its name implies its size; a gigantic space reaching several stories up to the full height of the building imposes itself on you as soon as you walk in. The beauty of the hall is that it creates a unique arena that can’t be matched by any of the other galleries around the world. For a massive space warrants a massive art piece.

Over its tender years the Tate has embraced a number of installations ranging from tall, spindly spiders, Rachel Whiteread’s sugar cubes and a ’sun’, reflected above in a mirrored ceiling, prompting visitors to lie down and wave their arms and legs about. These are all installations which feature as part of the Unilever series. Quite what a major multinational brand has got to do with sponsoring art shows is beyond me but I guess that’s all fairly irrelevant. Nevertheless it’s always interesting to see what will be there next.

When I saw a picture in the newspaper of builders in hard hats, lowering the latest installation into place I was most definitely intrigued. Five massive slides, each coming off at different levels and heights had been constructed by the Swedish artist Carten Höller. My heart jumped with anticipation. The caption below implied members of the public were going to be allowed to slide down them but it wasn’t clear. I could but hope. Built like the tunneled flumes you find at water parks, only in shimmering silver, much higher and with seeming far steeper gradients. Something told be this was going to be the best one yet.

I looked on the internet but there wasn’t much information at the time. For some reason I found it hard to believe they were actually going to let real people ride these beasts. It seemed too much like fun for a serious artistic institution like the Tate. It would be just like the art world to install oversized slides and not let people have a go on them. It would be a commentary on childhood gone awry. Adults who will never grow up, donning the modern day Peter Pan outfit with their boy’s toys combined with actual children who mature way too soon, aware of the ways of the world before they reach double figures, cynics at 100 centimeters.

As it was these slides were due to be made open to the public. For a few brief moments, as you hurtled down under the draw of gravity you had the potential to be part of the art piece. To participants it could offer a whole new perspective. Personally I just wanted a go – excited at the chance to throw myself down a massive slide. I mean when else, since you stop being a kid do you get that sort of chance?

The word spread and soon the gallery had to issue stern warnings that anyone arriving after midday was unlikely to get a turn. In true military style staff were ushered in to control the crowds. We formed an orderly line for timed tickets and then queued up again at the correct slides where we were issued with special mats, elbow pads and reinforced baseball caps. Anyone would think we waiting our turn for a parachute jump, anxious to be given the thumbs up for our turn, checking for the all clear in army like precision.

I’ll even admit to having second thoughts as we worked our way up to the full height of Level 5. From there it’s a long way down. What if it broke I fretted; I’d fall to certain death. Or what if I lost momentum halfway through or banged my head. The stark disclaimer signs prominently placed, saying, ‘Visitors ride at their their own risk’ and it was ‘a fast a physical experience’ were all a little off-putting. Nevertheless we’d made it to the gallery for close enough to opening time, we’d been in all our queues and like the good Brits we are, not breathed a word, but simply raised eyebrows, when a gaggle of teenage Danish girls jumped in front to join one of their parents.

They weren’t lying when they said it was fast, my checks flung backwards as I juddered down. I decided it was safest to remove my jacket in case the buttons on the back broke off with all the friction. It was sweet to see hopeful children measure up against the height restrictions, moving their hands up at a steep angle from their heads in an vein attempt to make themselves appear taller and the parents then struggling to manage their kids – to them the slides but have seemed ginormous. It’s ironic that in a reversal of playground rules it was the little kids who weren’t permitted to play on what were essentially oversized toys.

I’d expected to feel transformed as I became encased in sculpture. I was fun but nothing quite so intellectual. In the few brief seconds that it takes, you don’t really have time to reflect or appreciate the new space you occupied or even glimpse the different view as it whirled by. Instead it was much like being at a theme park; exciting and exhilarating but most definitely low brow.

The strict rules gave a clear, serious edge to things. I did still appreciate the experience as well as the beauty of the sculptured metal as well as the social phenomena of it all.

No doubt it has proved a huge draw and I’m sure all the extra staffing costs has been paid for by the increased revenue in the gift shops where we all wound up afterwards. I also can’t help but feel slightly guilty that whilst there, at this space containing so many masterpieces, I didn’t once consider any of the other art on offer.

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