Magazine article The Spectator

Too Much Questions

Magazine article The Spectator

Too Much Questions

Article excerpt

Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis

(Tate Modern, till 29 April)

Last May, Tate Modem opened with a tremendous fanfare and a colossal party. Since then it has exceeded every expectation for visitor numbers. Of all the millennium projects - admittedly, an uncompetitive field - this is the one that has been the most spectacular success. So it's not surprising that disaster has finally struck. Nemesis, suitably enough, has taken the form of the - one hopes - last institutional marking of the change of date, which is also the first major exhibition to be mounted in the new gallery. It is a vast, lumbering, unfocused pantechnicon of a show entitled Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis.

Century City considers nine cities at differing points during the last hundred years. Some are thoroughly familiar: Cubist Paris, Freudian Vienna, revolutionary Moscow. Some are pretty well terra incognita, in both time and space, to most of us: Rio de Janeiro 1955-1969, Lagos 1955-1970. One, New York, is unavoidable in any consideration of the 20th century but considered at a point (1969-1974) that baffles comprehension. Why, then, the silliest part of what Martin Amis has aptly dubbed the joke decade?

But then the whole affair sets you off like a curious four-year-old on a loop of questions. Why those cities? Why then? Why nine? Answers come there not exactly none, but they are not very satisfactory ones. Nine cities might have been the maximum number they thought they could cram into the echoing halls of Tate Modern. If so, they overestimated, as London 1990-2001 (a bit of a case of rushing to judgment anyway) has overflowed to a sort of Portakabin on the entrance ramp.

It seems possible that the nine cities might have been vaguely intended to cover the ten decades of the century, perhaps missing out the wars. But, no, there is massive emphasis on the period around the Sixties - Lagos, New York, Rio, Tokyo 1967-1973 - thus giving the whole show a slight feeling of hippy nostalgia. Meanwhile, lengthy, highly creative epochs are missed out altogether (nothing between 1930 and 1955).

The catalogue frankly admits that it would have been possible to plump for many other times and places, while failing to give a coherent account of why the Tate has ended up with just these. Though this isn't exactly said, presumably the aim was to be global and, um, inclusive. There just had to be somewhere South American, East Asian, African, Indian and so on.

A few years ago a reference book on global culture was published that ran into similar problems. Reviewers complained that a movement among certain North American tribes called the Ghost Dance was given more space than the poems of, I think it was, Lord Byron. The problem was not that the latter is self-evidently more important than the former, but that there is no rational method of comparison. Furthermore, it is unlikely that anyone who wanted to find out about either would consult a book that tried to deal with both.

It's the same with Century City. There is absolutely no reason not to mount an exhibition about, say, Tokyo 1967-1973. It may well have been a most interesting era (though there's nothing much in this display to suggest that it was). The point is that you wouldn't want to encounter it like this, in an exhibition this enormous, confusing and inconsequential. …

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