Exhibition: Global Cities
Tate Modern, Turbine Hall
20 June – 27 August
It comes as a welcome surprise that a show as profoundly vacuous as Global Cities should expose its superficiality in various and complex ways.
Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall is undoubtedly a difficult space to fill sensibly with anything other than a giant turbine. Putting a one-storey scaffolding structure at one far end, however, shows a remarkable lack of ambition. In what follows I’ll ignore the ‘official’ art work on display, which is at times entertaining, pleasing or intriguing, but in the context of this show has the character of an afterthought, remembered dutifully and without enthusiasm.
Global Cities is a revamped (or rehashed) exhibition that had previously been on show at Venice’s 10th International Architecture Exhibition. The ostensible subject are ten ‘global cities’: the architecture of which they consist and the forms of life that they support. On the lower level exhibits are divided according to five themes (size, speed, form, density, diversity), much as King Lear might be analysed in terms of family, power, madness, eye-gouging etc. The exhibits as such are photographs and videos shown on makeshift walls and cubicles, but above all the chunks of text, statistics and graphs that are liberally stuck on any available surface. The star of the show ought by all rights be the statistician. On the upper level is a thin corridor, from which five or so larger platforms jut out. There are a number of objects on display there, but very few statistics, which is disappointing.
If we ignore the character of the sentences in which our statistician’s work is embedded (vapid platitudes dressed up as scientifically informed, activism-inducing aphorisms), we are still left with a central problem. Why, after the invention of moveable type, of the book, the pamphlet and magazine, after computer screens and screens of all sorts, did the curators think that walls, make-shift or otherwise, might still be useful media for the transmission of print? I won’t venture an answer, but I will note that the exhibition would have looked very nice as a pop-up book.
That unanswered question remains central, if in a round-about way.
Although Global Cities is in general criminally anodyne given its subject matter, there is a low-level insinuation of politics in many of the aphorisms: 20% of Johannesburg households have no income, we read. In the context of the Tate Modern, however, the effect of such discrete figures and percentages, stripped bare of any scholarly apparatus, is unlikely to be to promote activism, solidarity, militancy etc. Rather, it is to produce a sense of passing shock and wonder that we might remember having felt once before, when being told how many double decker buses you would have to pile on top of each other to reach the moon. We feel a slow-witted, open-mouthed sense of incredulity, before we shuffle on to the next dispassionate amusement. And this is, in fact, what happens. I found myself not alone in walking from one statistic to the next, from photograph to bar chart, number to percentage, reading the explanatory texts, at that same slow pace to which we are used to navigating galleries, as if I were looking at works of art.
What has persisted despite the various transformations of visual art during the last 100-odd years is a bodily memory of the gallery and its objects that manifests itself in certain kinds of behaviour and not in others. Perhaps Walter Benjamin’s aura and flâneur are alive and well. Or, less flippantly, perhaps art produces forms of understanding that are hostile to the kinds of knowledge that statistics provide; hostile, in fact, to many of the bureaucratic planning and development schemes that have dominated cities (Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates falls awkwardly between the two).
We return to our unanswered question. If the curators’ intention had been to produce a show that revealed this ‘gallery effect’ even on information, facts, textual material, then their curatorial decisions may have been surprising but successful. If rather, as I suspect, their intention had been to create argument and action around central urban issues that affect us, then they will have largely failed. At any rate, they would have done better to give away copies of Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums or subscriptions to Urban Studies, say, to have created reading groups and presented all-day lectures, or invited urban geographers to analyse and criticize the current state of cities and future projects to transform them.
There were one or two other things that were interesting about the show, but I’ll leave it at that.