London’s New Left Bank

Tate Modern: The Handbook

edited by Iwona Blazwick and Simon Wilson
University of California Press, 245 pp., $29.95 (paper)

Representing Britain 1500-2000: 100 Works from Tate Collections

by Martin Myrone
London: Tate Publishing, 144 pp., £9.99 (paper)


The other morning, I stood on the bank of the Thames looking across the river at an unfamiliar part of London, a cityscape not unlike an American downtown—the reclaimed dockland of Canary Wharf. Behind me in the sunlight stood the vast Millennium Dome, open and somewhat empty, though the morning was well advanced. I had already visited several of its “themed zones.” I had been alone in the Work Zone, alone in the Learning Zone and the Faith Zone and the Prayer Room. The Mind Zone and the Body Zone (where spermatozoa dance on film through an overhead vagina) had been sparsely populated, although the Play Zone was already attracting a decent crowd. Now I was alone again, and enjoying my unexpected solitude. When a major exhibition, or “Experience” of this kind, proves something of a flop, it can be stressful for the lone visitor to cope with the desperate jollity of the professional welcomers—men and women dressed up in period clothes, with period senses of humor to match.

In the Learning Zone, I had sat alone through the presentational film. It told the story of a girl who specializes in mocking her teacher whenever she turns her back to the class. Found out and detained after school, she is given by the severe teacher not the punishment she expects but a mysterious seed. She takes the seed home, and that night it grows into an enormous magical tree. It appears that whoever looks at this tree will see his or her aspirations in life fulfilled through education. Not surprisingly, when we consider the tree has grown straight through the roof of her house, the girl ends up more impressed with her teacher (and therefore more receptive to education) than she had been.

At the end of the film, the screen rolled up revealing an “infinite orchard.” Through the orchard wandered a little girl, just like the girl in the film. Then she beckoned to the audience, inviting us all—each and every one of us—to come through to the infinite orchard and see for ourselves. Inevitably, and without any apparent loss of composure, the little girl became aware that I was the only person in the house. She redoubled her beckoning: don’t be shy, she seemed to be saying, come through and see for yourself the benefits of education. Desperate with embarrassment, I surged ahead. This is what the guidebook tells us about the “infinite orchard”:

Surrounded by trees and springy turf, fifty mirrored cubes equipped with computer screens take your image and make you centre-stage in one of a series of adventures. These all show new ways of learning. Above all, our experience shows that learning for life is key.

Learning for life is key. We are living at a time of immense change. We are heading for gridlock. It pays to pray. Sentences of this kind cover the surfaces of the Dome’s zones, pleading for our attention and consideration. Even the gardens are preachy assemblages…

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