The first breakthrough in the transformation of the South Bank of the Thames came in 1951 with the Festival of Britain, which established this stretch of riverside as a public space, and brought in its aftermath the Festival Hall, the National Film Theatre and, on the other side of Giles Gilbert Scott’s Waterloo Bridge, the new National Theatre. The next came in 1977, with the foundation of the Coin Street Action Group when, reacting against a decline in public housing and the proliferation of office blocks, the inhabitants of the area to the east of the South Bank Centre began to organise to defend their homes. In 1984, with support from Ken Livingstone and the GLC, they fought off the property developers, founded housing co-operatives and opened up the area around what are now Bernie Spain Gardens and the converted Oxo Tower Wharf, thus lengthening the Thames Path, so that eventually there would be pedestrian access all the way to Blackfriars Bridge and beyond, to the new Globe Theatre and now, of course, to the old Bankside Power Station – also the work of Giles Gilbert Scott – or Tate Modern. After my second trip to this astonishingly successful museum, I walked back across the slightly swaying Millennium Bridge towards St Paul’s and, looking back towards Bankside, I began to think about the life and work of Hagop Sandaldjian.

Sandaldjian was born in Alexandria in 1931. His family, who came from Armenia, resettled in Yerevan in 1948, and he embarked on a career as a violinist there, leaving for Moscow to study in the Conservatory and eventually writing an innovative dissertation on the teaching and playing of the viola, based on ergonomic theory. In the 1970s he was introduced to the art of the microminiature by a fellow Armenian violinist. The two agreed to exchange information – the ergonomics of violin performance for the art of making miniatures, almost unimaginably tiny. Eventually Sandaldjian became the great master of the craft. As Ralph Rugoff explains in The Eye of the Needle (1996), an enthralling study of Sandaldjian’s work, his microminiatures ‘were fashioned from slivers of human hair and motes of dust and glue’. Peering through a 120-power microscope, he carved and painted sculptures measurable in microns and millimetres; his Pope John Paul II

holds a cross crafted from a hair divided into sixths, making its width slightly less than the diameter of two red blood cells. His portrait of Little Red Riding Hood, whose diminutive has never been so well-deserved, features a mere speck of a girl lost amid a towering grove of trees in a needle’s eye; only after one’s eyes have grown accustomed to the microscopic detail is it possible to see that she carries a tiny basket in her hand.

In 1980, sensing trouble ahead in Armenia, Sandaldjian gathered up his family and left for Los Angeles. As he left, Soviet customs officials seized his collection of microminiatures (18 in all), arguing that they were a national treasure. Unable to find work in Los Angeles and supported by his wife, who worked first as a seamstress, then as a teacher, he devoted himself once more to his microminiatures. His first exhibition, sponsored by the Armenian Allied Arts Association, was held in 1986 and featured ‘eye-of-a-needle portraits’ of Napoleon, a Spanish dancer, Donald Duck and several other Disney characters, as well as a grain of rice inscribed with verse. The show was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The following year he received a prize from the National Small Works Competition, judged by a curator from the Guggenheim Museum.

In December 1990 an exhibition was planned for the Museum of Jurassic Technology: in effect a retrospective, featuring more than twenty of his works. Sadly, Sandaldjian died just before the show opened, but it led to Rugoff’s comprehensive monograph and to a growing enthusiasm for his work. For a while I wondered whether Rugoff hadn’t invented Sandaldjian, so extraordinary was the story of his life, but the works certainly existed and were visible, through a microscope, in the Museum. I eventually met his family there, while my eight-year-old daughter was marvelling at his masterpiece, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It seems strange that an artist such as Jeff Koons can include a gigantic puppy dog in his repertoire, to massive acclaim, while Sandaldjian’s minute Disney figures are admired only by a tiny group of cognoscenti. After all, as Rugoff points out, the miniature has a long and distinguished history, from the 16th-century peachstone sculptures of the Stations of the Cross by Prosperzia di Rossi and the art of the great Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard to the inevitable growth of nano-technology in our own time.

I thought again about Sandaldjian the next time I was inside the Bankside Tate. The first thing that anybody notices on entering the museum is the immense scale of the Turbine Hall, its cathedral-like vastness. Clearly, the architects’ decision to retain the vast interior of Gilbert Scott’s ‘temple of power’, as Gavin Stamp has called it, was absolutely right. From the very start, Herzog and de Meuron proposed that the Turbine Hall should be left more or less intact and the exhibition galleries placed within the adjacent Boiler House. In their early computer graphics, we are told in Power into Art, Karl Sabbagh’s gossipy book on the creation of the museum, the architects ‘showed Rachel Whiteread’s House dwarfed by the proportions of the Turbine Hail’.* In fact, they made the hall even bigger, by taking the floor level down to the basement, so that the public would descend a vast ramp on entering it. The effect, of course, was to elevate the roof still further.

Inevitably, an ecclesiastical vocabulary crept into the language of those involved in the planning of the new museum: Sabbagh speaks of the ‘cathedral window’ above the entrance; others talk about the ‘clerestory’. The 325-foot chimney tower – or ‘campanile’, as Stamp calls it – also has an ecclesiastical aspect, particularly since it is situated directly opposite the slightly higher dome of St Paul’s. And Scott himself is best known as the architect of the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool. There is a sense in which any art museum can be seen as a secular temple or spectacular cathedral. Indeed, for the great majority of people, cathedrals and churches have served as places where art is exhibited and admired – stained-glass windows, tomb sculptures, painted altarpieces. Bankside Power Station was a strange mixture of ecclesiastical Gothic and strong elements of Deco or Moderne. Stamp even compares its use of brickwork to such canonical Modernist buildings as Dudok’s project at Hilversum and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House.

It was this Modernist aspect of Scott’s architecture that made possible de Meuron and Herzog’s own neo-Modernist or, better, ‘post-Minimalist’ adaptation of his building, essentially by stacking a set of boxes in the space occupied by the former Boiler House. De Meuron and Herzog had used this device many times before, in conjunction with opaque glass panels and signage. As Victoria Newhouse noted in her 1997 book, Towards a New Museum, they have been extremely critical of architects whom they regarded as having imposed their own architectural vision on the art museums they designed (the list includes Gehry, Hollein, Nouvel, Stirling and Venturi-Scott Brown). ‘The two Swiss,’ Newhouse observed, ‘are convinced that artists have keener perceptive abilities than architects’ and, in consequence, have frequently worked with artists as advisers. She also commented on the importance of such Minimalist artists as Donald Judd and Agnes Martin as influences on Herzog and de Meuron, citing their clearly neo-Minimalist building for the Goetz collection of arte povera and abstract monochromes.

Donald Judd was also put forward as a model by Nicholas Serota in his Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture, published earlier this year as Experience or Interpretation: The Dilemma of Museums of Modern Art. Serota invoked Carl Andre (whom he had exhibited and written on while still at the Whitechapel Gallery, in 1978), Richard Serra (whose Circuit of 1972 he succinctly characterises as ‘four equal plates standing in the corners of a square room’) and, most significantly, the museum built by Donald Judd to house his own massive works at Marfa, Texas. ‘At Marfa,’ Serota noted,

he took a range of disused military buildings and with removals of sparing economy and finely judged additions designed by himself, he created space in which to show his own work extensively and the work of others in selected installations. As installations they are exemplary ... and from this example, lessons have been learned with regard for the need in museums for places of prolonged concentration and contemplation.

Here, with my affection for the microminiatures of Hagop Sandaldjian, I part company with Serota. The photograph alongside his encomium to Judd shows an enormous hall, a former artillery shed, filled with lines of large, shiny, identical cubes. The importance of Minimalism as an art movement – and hence of Judd as one of its leading figures – is undeniable art-historically, but from a purely aesthetic point of view opinions can clearly differ, on grounds of scale and size, or on questions to do with purity and clean edges and shiny surfaces, or because of a disenchantment with the monotony and imperiousness of the grid, with its serried ranks so reminiscent of the parade ground, the march past of the modules. As David Batchelor notes in his excellent and generally sympathetic book on Minimalism, ‘in much of this work the traditions of studio craft gave way to something more like small-scale industrial production’ – usually executed, in fact, by someone else following an artist’s blueprint, rather than the artist himself – in reaction against the exhaustion, as they saw it, of a tradition of painting based on the gesture or the touch.

Batchelor ends his book with a brilliant insight, noting that in a number of his works, including The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – better known as his shark – Damien Hirst ‘takes the format of the Minimalist open box, or shallow tray or modular cube, and inserts a kind of human or at least a bodily content in it.’ So Hirst gave the empty box a content, in the literal sense of the word. But, Batchelor observes, the box had never really been empty and to see it as such is ‘to miss the point of Judd’s art’. Yet I sometimes can’t help wondering whether Judd hadn’t found himself trapped between the ‘shark option’, on the one hand, and the ‘nothing there’ option, on the other, a dilemma he attempted to solve by aestheticising his boxes with reflective surfaces and a sheen of colour. Andy Warhol, equally module-obsessed, took a rather different road, using ready-made Brillo boxes as his white cubes, although the Tate, strangely, exhibits just one, curiously displayed in a closet, rather than an ensemble which could be contrasted suggestively with Judd or LeWitt.

One unintended side-effect of the Minimalist use of multiplication was to create the impression that the more boxes there were, the more substantial the work had become. At the same time, the spaces for installation became larger and larger, with Judd’s museum at Marfa the logical conclusion. What implications did this have for the traditional museum? The Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles created a single vast gallery space, which could comfortably contain a whole group of Richard Serra’s enormous steel tilted arcs. The Tate’s response, by contrast, was to stick with the traditional suite of comparatively small galleries, while disrupting the traditional enfilade in favour of a more labyrinthine design, giving the visitor the option of various different pathways, while retaining coherence by assigning each suite of galleries a governing theme, based on the traditional art genres of still life, portraiture, landscape and narrative or ‘history’ painting.

In practice, this has led to a number of problems. First, the rooms tend to be dominated by relatively large works, often large enough to appear very large, even when the room itself is quite big. This emphasis on size stems principally from the artists’ own scaling up of their work, although it also has to do with gaps in the Tate’s own collection (as indicated by the number of loaned works on display), which in turn leads to the exhibition of larger works in order to fill all the available space (particularly since the Tate Modern is only one of a group of four separate Tates). As a result, Tate Modern gives the impression of being dominated by huge installations (and even huge paintings), which can be seen from a distance and from many different angles, and which inevitably marginalise smaller works, whose viewers gather round tightly in a kind of clot.

Large installations are circled round or wandered through and past in a relaxed way, given a series of quick glances from different angles: small ones are peered at much more intently. As a result, the smaller galleries with more works on the walls serve as compression tanks for the public, so to speak, while the large ones with large installations appear like clearings in a forest, invitations to relax, to let your mind drift. The paradox, it seems to me, is that Serota saw Judd’s museum at Marfa as providing a model for museums as places of ‘prolonged concentration and contemplation’. Nobody in Tate Modern, during the three visits I have made, was devoting prolonged concentration and contemplation to the work of Judd or other large-scale installation artists. On the contrary, the most concentrated attention was given to Susan Hiller’s After the Freud Museum, a work which has a gallery all to itself, but which consists of a single shelf-like display cabinet running the length of one wall with a series of small objects, images and written texts displayed within it. Viewers, who can sit down to study the work close up, are engaged in concentrated looking, reading and thinking. The last time I passed it, there were twenty of them.

A similar atmosphere can be felt in the Fluxus room, where again there is a plethora of small objects, books, images, toys and suchlike. My own most concentrated viewing was of Paul Sharits’s two fluxfilms, Dots and Word, which appeared by chance just as I was walking past; they are part of a sequence of films visible on a kind of screen the size of a paperback book. I had never seen these two short films before, although I knew the rest of Sharits’s work well. In general, I noticed, films and videos had a much more attentive audience than other types of work, presumably because they are not simply image or shape-based but time and movement-based. If Jean Tinguely’s huge junkyard machine, Memorial to the Sacred Wind, had been in working order, I am sure it would have had a crowd gathered around it, instead of being dismissed with a quick glance. Even Nan Goldin’s photographs would command more attention if they were projected in a slide-show, the way she used to do.

The issue of attention is crucial to museum installation: the attention we pay to a work’s subject-matter, to its formal structure, its colour and design, and also to its movement, tempo and duration. Attention, of course, is subjective, but it is also structured by the way the objects of attention are presented and displayed, by the nature of the space in which they are exhibited and by the disposition and character of other works within that space. The Tate Modern, in keeping with the view expressed by Serota in his Walter Neurath Lecture, incorporates a variety of spaces of different dimensions and alignments: the strategy involves grouping works in order to provoke the viewer, on occasion, by ‘unexpected confrontation’ as well as the creation of ‘climatic zones’, juxtaposing works which the curator feels have unexpected affinities, along the lines pioneered, for instance, by Jean-Christophe Ammann at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt. At Tate Modern these confrontations or ‘climatic’ affinities are sometimes spectacularly successful – as in the confrontation of front-view painted nudes by Marlene Dumas with back-view sculptured nudes by Matisse. At other times I was not so sure: there is something ungainly about the juxtaposition of Richard Long’s gigantic Waterfall, which fills the whole of a very large wall, with Monet’s meditative Waterlilies, hung in isolation on the opposite wall. It is a large painting for Monet, but it is dwarfed by Long’s dynamic mural.

Other juxtapositions were obviously missing. A room constructed around the idea of Primitivism, for example, begins with turn-of-the-century magazine illustrations of Africans and documentation of the famous Dakar to Djibouti mission of the 1930s, which serves as an introduction to Cubist, Fauvist and Expressionist reworkings of ‘primitive’ (i.e. pre-contact) art. But there was no reference to ‘European primitive’ and its influence on Asger Jorn or Carl Andre, prominently displayed elsewhere, despite Andre’s own acknowledgment that his work had been crucially influenced, not only by Brancusi, but also by his visits to Avebury and Stonehenge. On reflection, Tate Modern’s nod towards the influence of Africa on modern art only reminded me that what was lacking – throughout the museum – was any significant amount of art from countries outside Western Europe and North America. It is as if the ghost of traditional art history had returned to haunt Tate Modern, as crucial absences in the Tate’s collection suddenly become apparent. (The fact that there is no performance art presumably has to do with the difficulty of finding documentation that would do justice to the work.)

Tate Modern needs to be much more cosmopolitan, with work from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe matching in strength the work by the British-based artists: not only Spencer and Bacon but also Susan Hiller, Tony Cragg, Michael Craig-Martin and Richard Hamilton, with his amazing Northern Ireland triptych of the British soldier on patrol, the Nationalist prisoner in dirty protest and the Orange marcher in his regalia. Museums inevitably play an important role in rewriting art history and reformulating canons of taste. Tate Modern seems at times to be trying to evade or disavow its function as a taste-maker, suggesting that it is simply asking us to trust our own experience, our own response. From overhearing the comments of other viewers, I reached the conclusion that they were looking for three orders of work: the reassuringly familiar, the well-made and ingeniously crafted, and the stunningly enigmatic piece which relies on a single, brilliant feature to captivate the bemused viewer – Tony Cragg’s Britain Seen from the North, for example, was greeted with enthusiasm probably because it was instantly recognisable without being conventionally realistic, consisting of dozens of bits and pieces of discarded plastic with which everybody was familiar but which had never struck anyone as likely materials for a stunning work of art and, finally, because it was brightly coloured like a strip-cartoon version of a stained-glass window.

I began by writing about the microminiature carvings of Hagop Sandaldjian and my doubts about the overblown scale of so much contemporary art, but I’d exempt Louise Bourgeois from my strictures against gigantism. To begin with, the scale of her work is appropriate to the overwhelming scale of the Turbine Hall itself. As we look up at her three giant towers, we feel like tiny toy soldiers or hazelnut princesses. We feel like one of Sandaldjian’s seven dwarves, almost tiny enough to go through the eye of a needle. These works are about scale, in relation to both viewer and building. In the first of the structures, called Do, we are left alone with ourselves after climbing to the top. In the second, Undo, we are confronted in an attic with tiny works of art, not quite Sandaldjian scale, but not too far off either. In the third, Redo, we are invited by the artist to ascend with another person, so that our isolation is undone and everything is returned to the human scale. These ascents were the most memorable experiences of each of my visits to the museum.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences