Magazine article Art Monthly

Sanctuary

Magazine article Art Monthly

Sanctuary

Article excerpt

When Modernism reigned supreme in all matters aesthetic, museums committed to it were often referred to as 'temples' of art. The term was associated less with paganism than with a broad secularised ecumenism that was nevertheless predicated upon a now much debunked internationalism whose chosen idiom was Modernism. It is probably no accident that in the postmodern era it became more common to hear museums referred to as 'cathedrals' of art, particularly in the triumphalist 80s in which the defeat of communism was seen as a victory for democracy and so-called western, including Christian, values. Today, particularly in the light of the expanding franchise that is 'Guggenheim inc', museums are increasingly compared with multinational corporations.

Poorly funded, with a negligible endowment and an impossible remit--to collect and conserve the best of both British and international modern and contemporary art for the nation--Tate has never conformed entirely with any of these models of temple, cathedral or multinational, being instead a hybrid of all three. For better or worse, it has had to be constantly reinvented every time a new government takes power or policy initiative is launched--sometimes between shows. So it is that Tate Britain has taken on an aspect of the museum-as-cathedral model by offering, at the instigation of Mark Wallinger, symbolic sanctuary to a persecuted man, Brian Haw. He is the lone protester who has kept a vigil at Westminster for six long years, since the days of the campaign against economic sanctions on Iraq. As was widely reported at the time, his accumulated banners, photographs and posters were seized last year by the police under the draconian powers of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) that make it illegal to protest without permission within one kilometre of Parliament Square. This exclusion zone dramatically bisects the Duveen Galleries where Wallinger has installed State Britain, his detailed recreation of those confiscated protest works, on either side of the demarcation line. In one bold gesture, Wallinger has given Haw's protest the protection of art while simultaneously questioning the power of art to be politically effective.

Wallinger's gesture--and Tate's role in commissioning and hosting the work--together constitute an aesthetic balancing act. For Wallinger, the act of remaking the work is an appropriation, with all the negative connotations that term can suggest, but also one of recuperation. In addition it introduces a distance that allows the viewer the time and critical space to respond to it. Perhaps it fulfils the conditions for successful protest art suggested by Chris Townsend in his feature: 'If we are to find a model by which art can comment on, and intervene in, the moment through which we live, it has to be an art that acknowledges, and indeed emerges from, the experience of defeat. It also has to be an art that forgets about the immediate emotion of protest.' Ultimately, however, the work depends utterly on free entry to the museum as a sine qua non. To have had to pay to see State Britain would render it, and Tate, ridiculous.

Since becoming director of Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota has staked a great deal on the issue of free entry, achieved with the support of the then culture secretary, Chris Smith. However, there is no guarantee that the Treasury will continue to indemnify the cost through funding. …

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