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Paul Mellon Centre: “Bankside, Britain, Global, Public: The Turbine Hall Series in Tate Modern”

February 5, 2021 @ 6:00 am - 7:00 am

A Research Lunch event by Grace Thompson
This paper considers the concept of the British public as navigated by the works of the Turbine Hall series. The series, which has run annually since the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, consists of twenty large-scale works, uniquely commissioned for the space, and executed by a range of international artists. The series represents both a new, global trend in British art, and one of the most visited and emblematic cultural events in the UK. A departure from what had defined British art in the previous decade, the works in the series have displayed a synchronization with European and American trends within the “social turn.” However, the image-friendly, high-budget, non-lasting and corporate-funded works are in many ways incurably complicit with the privatization of culture and the spectacularization of experience. Monumental in scale, the series boasts soaring visitor numbers and a great deal of media attention. The series knowingly engages with the tensions and contradictions of public space that are embedded in the post-industrial Turbine Hall. In particular, artists have responded to an architecture which facilitates surveillance, questioning the distinction between observer and observed.
In seeking to understand the formulations of publics which are in play, this paper contextualizes the series in regard to three competing arenas that were operating around the millennium, all of which were generating renewed interest in definitions of “public;” firstly, the widespread theoretical re-engagement with ideas of site-specificity; secondly the birth of the international mega-museums and the attendant fostering of a globalized art community; and lastly the New Labour government’s imperatives to promote a civic-enabling culture. Working through wider accounts by the likes of Claire Bishop and Hal Foster, this paper seeks to establish the specifics of the Turbine Hall series, and ask how its particular tensions can illuminate contemporary notions of the British public.