Liberate Tate’s Artistic “Gift” to the Environment

Liberate Tate Gift
Liberate Tate, The Gift
Tate Modern Turbine Hall – 7 July 2012
Credit: Immo Klink

The climate is spinning out of control. CO2 emissions are rising faster than expected, ice is shrinking, permafrost is melting, all unabated. It’s especially dispiriting because all of us in the reality-based community know it’s happening and know that international governmental action is necessary. The indispensible Young Turks covered the issue clearly and passionately last week-the video is here.

US public policy is addressing the problem though fracking and “clean coal,” which, it hardly need be said, is unclean. These steps by the government, obviously, worsen the problem rather than work toward improving anything-and that’s the Democrats.

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The UK faces similar dysfunction, their figurative feet stuck in tar (sands). Compounding the problem is the fact that BP generously supports many British national arts institutions, including the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, and the Tate.

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In the face of official inaction, protesters and guerrilla artists have devised a more creative approach to shock the Tate into having to confront its relationship with BP’s dirty hands. The Tate Modern building is a former oil-burning power plant in the center of London, and its show-piece gallery is the vast Turbine Hall, reserved for immense, site-specific contemporary installations. This is where Liberate Tate does its work.

This past summer, Liberate Tate produced a cleverly-conceived action in elegant resonance with the site. In a project called The Gift, 100 members of the group delivered-on foot, by hand-a 16.5 meter, 3,000 pound wind turbine from a Welsh windmill to the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. The artwork is the turbine itself, as well as the “unofficial performance” ceremonially installing it on the floor of Turbine Hall. Integral to the project is the group’s offer of the artwork as a donation to the Tate’s collection. Documentation for The Gift includes a communiqué laying out concerns about the climate and colorfully critiquing the BP-Tate relationship:

Resting on the floor of your museum, it might resemble the bones of a leviathan monster washed up from the salty depths, a suitable metaphor for the deep arctic drilling that BP is profiting from now that the ice is melting. But it is not animal, nor is it dead, it is a living relic from a future that is aching to become the present. It is part of a magic machine, a tool of transformation, a grateful giant.

What we have brought you is the blade of an old wind turbine, sixteen and a half metres long, beautifully sharpened by the weather. It is a blade to cut the unhealthy umbilical cord that connects culture with oil, a blade that reminds us that when crisis comes, when the winds blow strong, the best thing to do is not to build another wall but raise a windmill…

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Although it was quickly removed from the gallery, Liberate Tate succeeded in getting Tate Director Nicholas Serota to consider accepting The Gift into the collection and to present it as a potential acquisition to the museum’s board of trustees. In October, the trustees rejected the donation, even though more than 1,000 people petitioned them to accept it.

In July of 2011, Reverend Billy collaborated with Liberate Tate on a more dramatic, but less object-based, performance in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Rev. Billy and The Church of Earthalujah performed an exorcism to cast BP out of the museum. The video of the exorcism is a barnburner.

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A committed choir of church members surrounded Rev. Billy on the floor of Turbine Hall and anointed him with crude oil (or what looks like oil). His white suit soaked with oil, Rev. Billy and his choir stretched out their arms to exorcize the BP logo on the museum wall. Then the Reverend rubbed his oily face and head all over the sponsorship logo in ecstasy before leading everyone out of the building chanting “Earthalujah”.

Rev. Billy rigorously uses the phrase “British Petroleum” rather than the craven, sunny euphemism “BP”. Taking the word “petroleum” of the company’s name and designing a pretty green flowery logo are sneaky moves by BP, but Rev. Billy is careful to keep focus on the company’s product.

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I can only imagine that an action like this at a US museum-smearing oil on the oil company’s sponsorship logo-would result in arrests and charges of terrorism. Rev. Billy was arrested (not for terrorism, mercifully) during a protest at Lincoln Center in May of 2011 when some other participants merely shined some projections and placed some removable signage on the fa√ßade of the David H. Koch Theater, above Koch’s name, calling out the various ways Koch undermines the public good and the environment. The CFR has covered the David H. Koch Theater before.

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Liberate Tate has not achieved any material success so far in causing the Tate to change its policies or be more selective about its benefactors. But the group’s performances and provocations still stand as more than quixotic. They regularly receive generous press coverage, and, while that’s a disappointingly modest achievement, they’ve been quite successful at keeping the debate alive. Still, media coverage and consciousness raising won’t slow climate change.