Tate Modern + Climate

Martin Creed’s ‘Everything is going to be alright’ seen with visitors & Shard

A planned strand of Climate Museum UK is to run tours of museums or open heritage sites, adding (more, or more pertinent) climate and biosphere content to their stories. These tours might be in collaboration with the museum, or more independent and paid for by those on the tour.

I tried out a possible format and approach yesterday, at Tate Modern, coinciding with the Rise for Climate rally outside it. I set up an Eventbrite page with free tickets, limiting it to a small number of 20 people, and it sold out.

The rally was intended as a creative activism event. An art toolkit offered many tips and templates for the 100s of worldwide rallies, around the symbolism of the sun for renewable energy, and an orange cross for an end to fossil fuels.


I identified myself as guide by wearing Olafur Eliasson’s Little Sun solar light, an artwork/social enterprise supported by Tate Modern as a legacy of The Weather Project, which had filled the Turbine Hall with a strange mirrored sun, and turned it into a kind of beach.

The tour was a 90 minute session, exploring the building and its history, the cityscape, the institution and its interpretation, and a series of artworks as stimuli for conversation. It included two symbolic risings, or mindful climbs up the Blavatnik building and the Boiler House, before joining a third rising – the rally outside.

We began in the Turbine Hall, with an overview about Bankside Power Station and its conversion into Tate Modern:

Tate Modern is iconic for its re-generation of a building from a redundant industrial technology to promote the new future-facing economy of creativity and art. However, the oil industry is still in receipt of massive public subsidy and continues to provide the bulk of our energy, despite this industry being fully aware of the facts of climate catastrophe and its contribution to it. Public spending on Culture (and recreation/sport/media) in the UK is the second lowest in the EU, despite being the 5th (now 6th) largest economy in the world.

Public money – donations in the Turbine Hall

Bankside was generating power from 1891 to 1981. At first, it lit street lamps, and then supplied printing presses in Fleet Street. It’s located on the river to use its water for cooling. (We talked about the location of all four Tates right by tidal waters, that the impacts and imminence of rising sea levels were known while all buildings have been expensively revamped. Yet, very few could foresee quite how quickly the permanent Arctic ice is melting. How are museums like Tate making contingency plans for these impacts?)

The power company had often been fined for creating a smoke nuisance, so later they also used Thames water to filter out the pollution. They used 10 million gallons of water an hour (!) and ended up polluting the river. By the 1930s it was considered inefficient and polluting, and in 1948, after a coal shortage and the nationalisation of the electricity industry, the power station was converted to use oil, the first in Britain. It was redeveloped, and the new building was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, known for designing the red telephone box and Battersea Power Station. Oil was shipped by barge from the Shell Haven refinery. The oil tanks held 4000 tons of oil, now ‘The Tanks’, holding art installations.

Tate display: Poster of Beuys event in Scotland.

In 1973, Britain experienced the oil crisis when Arab countries imposed an oil embargo. This triggered a stock market crash, rising inflation and food prices, and unemployment. It also triggered an interest in sustainability and growing your own food, and the Ecology Party (now Green) was born. The Government meanwhile poured money into North Sea oil rather than the new renewables available. Due to oil prices and its location, Bankside became too expensive, so it was disused. In 1994 Tate announced plans to turn it into an art gallery. In 2006, EDF passed the switch house over to Tate and the new Blavatnik building opened in 2016, the same year they announced the ending of the sponsorship arrangement with oil company BP.

Time and clocks was an undercurrent theme for the tour: How much time do we have? What do we do first? What really matters?

As more was understood about the devastating impacts of climate change, its direct link to fossil fuels, and the  impacts at extraction sites, there was growing protest about oil companies, who in turn used sponsorships as a way to seek Social License to Operate. BP sponsored Tate for 26 years, increasingly challenged by the Art not Oil coalition and particularly by the actions of one of its members, Liberate Tate.

It is very interesting then to consider that the new Switch House building is named for its main donor, Blavatnik, the richest man in Britain. His fortune is built on the oil industry, in part through a joint-venture between BP and a Russian oil company. He gave an extraordinary £50 million towards the largest ever cultural fundraising project in the country, at £266 million.

We passed this list of donors and these weather items in the shop, and entered the Blavatnik building.

The Clock is an artwork by Christian Marclay about time, coming soon
Another theme was stairs upwards; aspiration & rising. These go nowhere but show traces of the original working use of the tanks.

We visited Robert Therrien’s giant Untitled (Table and Four Chairs), in one of the oil tanks.

therrien hyperobject

We stood underneath this and shared how we felt: Small, powerless, like Alice in Wonderland, like a Borrower, subversive, not able to have a seat at the table. We discussed climate change as a hyperobject, unthinkably large and complex, and many ideas about scale and power.

We ascended some stairs

To Helio Oiticica’s ‘Tropicalia, Penetrables‘ installation from 1966-67 which is a very early example of participatory installation art by this major Brazilian artist (who died in 1980). Fittingly, his name Helio means sun. This piece enables the visitor to ‘penetrate’ it, to experience real lived objects, albeit out of a lived context in a gallery.

Walking on the sand

There is sand to walk on, colourful shack buildings, living plants, and a video of two parrots (which were alive in his original version). We talked about photosynthesis, the inclusion of plants in a museum that alter the controlled atmosphere, the poetry of the everyday, the deforestation of the Amazon and the museum-isation of the world.

Spectrum of Brick Lane

With David Batchelor’s stacked light piece, we discussed how he sees the world differently from Helio Oiticica, living in a different urban context. He responds to our environment being largely constructed from metal, plastic and artificial bright light. We talked about colour, and how our experience of colour has changed with technology, and the energetic requirements of a lit up world.

Jenny Holzer Artist Rooms

From here, we entered the Artist Rooms display, to consider how Holzer perceives the contemporary environment as constructed from words or information, which frazzles and disconnects our emotional response to it, and also conditions our thoughts. We sat on one of the marble benches, onto which were etched the words ‘My fear grows more powerful with every second. I am powerful like a second of fear. I am the universe’. This was stimulus for a wonderful discussion about the dissonant and shifting perceptions of time, scale and one’s power, when living daily with a climate-changed world. This led to talk about the role of fear in communicating climate change, and how this translates to education and talking with children. We also touched on Holzer’s work about war, e.g. some words ‘The beginning of the war will be secret’, and whether we are already in a hybrid war waged through information manipulation.

Monika Sosnowska, Pavilion

This piece led to discussion about architecture, Communism, people-power, and collapse. It refers to the artist’s experience in Communist Poland, where architects such as Oskar Hansen expounded about Open Form Theory, a position that defines your relationship to reality, and the idea that people would humanise and evolve a simplistic or brutal environment. Although this ideal still informs participatory art and architecture, the artist felt it didn’t work in her reality, and represents the collapse that she experienced in modernist urban environments. We talked about climate-linked collapse, top-down utopianism, Buckminster Fuller and biomimicry.

Tate Exchange current project

We then began our ‘mindful climb’ – being aware of our bodies as energy convertors – up to the viewing floor. (Most chose to take the lift, but some of us passed Tate Exchange, and remarked that this current project about production indicates how the environment is so often erased – as all the banners are about humans and society).

st pauls
St Pauls cathedral from the viewing platform

At this level, we considered the building as an artwork, the symbolism and function of the single tower opposite the dome of St Pauls. We talked about Canary Wharf, the rash of towers enabled by foreign investment, the role of oil and other natural commodities in fuelling the financial industry. We also talked about St Pauls as a symbol of resilience against fire and the Blitz, and its links with justice campaigners.

After making a symbolic descent in lifts to ‘zero’, thinking of zero carbon…

…we then used escalators to rise up a second time, but only as far as the Artist and Society display, as we were running short on…time. We had been intending to pop into the Weimar Germany display to look at a painting of Krupp’s arms factories, for a reminder about links between oil, arms and viscissitudes of the economy.

Toguo, Purification

We had to stop at this marvellous work by Bartelemy Toguo, an artist from Cameroon. It depicts African people tortured, poisoned and in all manner of ways afflicted by abuses of human rights. The writing on the piece is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Toguo wishes to see a regeneration of culture, a more ecological and just revival. Although the label didn’t reference this, the flowing interaction between blood and green/grey colours relates to his interests in the interconnectedness between life forms, both human and more-than-human. This relates to his concern about deforestation and extraction of raw materials in Africa. We talked about the impacts of climate change on people in the global South, and its links to ecocidal extraction and colonialism.

Writing to Tate, next to Beuys’ blackboards

Our final stop was with Joseph Beuys, looking at his blackboards from his Information Action performed in the Tate in 1972. He had become more involved in Green politics, and art as eco-social sculpture, and he founded a group dedicated to direct democracy through referenda. We touched on how the referendum to leave the EU had perhaps not justified Beuys’ utopian thinking on this, partly due to the interferences of interests of those who want to do away with environmental and human rights and protections. The writing on these blackboards seems incomprehensible so we talked about how we communicate complex ideas such as climate change.

During this action, the audience voted on whether it was anti-democratic for him to keep the microphone. We finished by talking about power, voice and institutions. Had I talked too much? I handed out cards provided by Tate inviting our feedback, and suggested they could write anything, perhaps about how Tate might better reflect that we live in a biosphere, at a time of climate breakdown, and the problematic history of the building.

We then went off to have lunch and to join the rally…to try to speak the truths of climate breakdown and the necessary action we must take to those in power.

Here are some more photos from the day.



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