London's Tate Modern

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Flag of United Kingdom  , London, City of,
Friday, April 20, 2012

April 20, 2012

We hit the museums during our first day in London. No wasting time! We saw three exhibitions at the Tate Modern, those of Yayoi Kusama and Damien Hirst. I loved it. Reading about Yayoi Kusama, then seeing her work, makes a huge difference. I got to see her Infinity Nets series up close, and the mark-making that she does is quite remarkable: blobs of white paint dabbed on in a U-shape were repeated thousands of times over on canvases that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. I also liked her installations, particularly the one installation which looked as if hundreds of plump white octopus arms were snaking out of boxes. Her work certainly has a hallucinatory quality. Her mirror room—a three dimensional infinity room -- was amazing: you could see coloured lights stretching into the distance, bouncing and reflecting from the hundreds of mirrors she had placed strategically in a small space.

Damien Hirst's exhibition was equally remarkable (and more popular, judging by the crush of people). On display were his formaldehyde shark, bisected cow and calf, and fishes – the faint stink of formaldehyde made the exhibition seem slightly like being in lab. What I most enjoyed were his butterfly windows: he took the wings of exotic butterflies, and arranged them within a black stained-glass window frame, so that the entire installation looked like a medieval stained glass window triptych. If you’re not rendered squeamish by the sight of thousands of dismembered butterflies, then it’s worth looking at. I was also delighted by his installation work where he had gently attached live butterfly pupae to white canvases displayed in a single room, then allowed the pupae to mature into live butterflies. As a viewer, you walked into a room of hundreds of butterflies flitting around (and snacking on fruit and flowers left for them), and walls of white canvases punctuated by delicate, shell-like, translucent, empty pupae. The butterfly, of course, is the symbol of the soul, and of the resurrection.

One butterfly – a yellow, white, and black speckled creature – landed on my jacket and refused to budge for a few minutes. I think it’ll bring me good luck during this trip.

The trek to the Tate Modern entailed a long walk across a busy bridge from Blackfriars’ station, which (in turn) required us to hop on and off two different metro lines. On our way to the Tate Modern, I was so intent on figuring out how to get to the destination that I stepped into traffic without looking to my left and nearly got run over by a car. It took about an hour and a pot of Earl Grey tea at the Tate Modern café before I calmed down sufficiently to see the exhibits. This would have been one short trip if I had been hit by a car! I reminded myself that I really didn’t need to rush, especially on foot.

The metro, or the London Tube, is worthy of mention, because descending into the London Tube system seems a bit like viewing an archeological dig. The station closest to our hotel had tile work that dated back to the 1950s, and exposed brick work in the tunnels appeared to have been installed in the late 1800s. The bowels of the City, indeed…

This was the first full day in London, and we spent almost all of it at the Tate Modern. One would think that strolling through a museum isn’t very tiring. But we were concentrating so hard on absorbing the meaning and profundity of these contemporary works that both my mother and I were exhausted by three o’clock in the afternoon. (My father, who has an amazing amount of energy, could go on for another few hours). Furthermore, the Tate Modern was crammed with visitors, which made it difficult for us to spend some time in contemplation in front of the more startling exhibits. I felt like I was at the carnival fairgrounds at PNE—that’s how busy it was. (Museum-going in Canada, by contrast, is a genteel and mostly solitary affair, entailing a leisurely walk through an almost silent space that is full of paintings and empty of visitors.) I think I’ve been altered by living in a small (by international standards) Canadian city for the past ten years. I’m no longer used to large, noisy crowds, and had to escape to the Tate Modern gardens along the River Thames for some relief.

I must confess, I was jetlagged from the flight yesterday, and wasn’t the best museum-goer today; I didn’t say very much to my mother, who seemed enthralled by Damien Hirst, and I wanted to go home by four o’clock. I hope to recover from the jet lag quickly. We’re determined to see the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum before we leave London. I hope to be in better shape for those visits.

The hotel we’re at, the National Royal Hotel, is swarming with young tourists that speak Spanish and French. A cute New Zealander struck up a conversation with me while I was trying to use the free wifi on the ground floor. He says that all the Contiki tours start from the Royal National – that explains the swarms! He was a mechanical engineer and had finagled a year off from work to go travelling. After his forty-six day Contiki tour through Europe, he plans to head to Norway to visit his "mate" and find a job. This was his first time in London, and he seemed exhausted and bemused – New Zealand is a little backwater compared to this city, I think. I didn’t catch his name, which was a pity, because he was cute. I think that’s how it is when one travels alone; people aren’t intimidated by the fact that I’m part of a group, so they’re more willing to talk.

Tomorrow we’re visiting a family friend near the outskirts of London for lunch. If the lunch doesn’t take the entire day, then we plan to visit a flea market in the afternoon. I hope we’ll have time to have some English tea and crumpets.
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