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Issue 54, March 2001

Century City

Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis
Tate Modern
Admission £8.50
1 February-29 April 2001
Reviewed by Manny Thain

TATE MODERN'S first special exhibition is ambitious: a tour of nine great cities - Moscow, Vienna, Lagos, New York, Tokyo, Rio, Paris, London and Mumbai/Bombay - each captured at very specific moments. This is an opportunity to see and hear how art and culture interact with their human and natural environments, under the stimuli of revolution, national independence, social and economic upheaval, as well as counter-revolution and dictatorship.

The first city is revolutionary Moscow (1916-30). An energy rush. The old order has been overthrown. Everything's new. Lenin looms large, leaning forward, addressing the crowd, Russian newspapers in the background. Buildings are constructed. Goods delivered. Electricity supplied.

Yet something is wrong. In one poster, Joseph Stalin peers over Lenin's shoulder. An ominous shadow. In another, Stalin is with Marx, Engels and Lenin. Looking closer, the posters date from 1930 onwards. Should they be here, in the first surge of revolution? This was a time of immense optimism. A workers' state was being created. Stalin was unknown to the vast majority of people and had played a negligible role in the revolutionary movement. It's not that art has to be presented chronologically. But this exhibition is rooted in time and place. By 1930 Stalin had all but consolidated his grip on power.

There are, nonetheless, some wonderful exhibits. The avant-garde was redefining culture and its role in society. Dsiga Vertov's film, Man With a Movie Camera, celebrates the speed and dynamism of the modern city. Aleksandr Vesnin's model for the Leningrad Pravda building (1924) is here. Although never built, the idea was to construct it mainly of glass, perhaps to convey the transparency of the new workers' democracy.


The third room has more film and sound, geometric forms and body movement. There are some great posters - from 1925-29 - including Aleksandr Rodchenko's publicity for Eisenstein's film, Battleship Potemkin. Aleksandra Ekster's paintings spiral out, bright and vivid. Forms she applied to theatrical design.

With Stalin in power, artists had to promote his totalitarian regime. Vera Mukhina's, Industrial Worker and Collective-Farm Woman (1938), closes the section - a perfect example of Stalinist 'Socialist Realism'. The end of an era. But we've caught a glimpse of revolutionary dynamism.

Lagos (1955-70) corresponds to Nigeria's independence from British colonial rule, achieved in 1960. Returning Nigerians brought back new musical styles, many of which were originally African based. These blended into highlife music, which lilts irresistibly around the exhibits.

The Mbari Writers' and Artists' Club was established in 1961, 'a theatre in which to do battle' - an attempt to shape a new Nigerian identity. Chinua Achebe was hailed as 'the father of the African novel' after writing, Things Fall Apart, a study of the impact of colonialism, drawing on indigenous narrative styles. The coups of 1966 and the Biafran civil war would force many artists into exile.

New York (1969-74) disappointed, although there are some items of real interest. The creative centre was SoHo, where low rent and cheap materials allowed young artists to work. Questions of power, gender and race came to the fore against a background of the Vietnam war and economic recession. Women artists challenged the predominantly male art establishment.


Vienna (1908-18) is a high point in the exhibition. From 1880-1910, the city's population doubled to over two million. Social deprivation, bad housing and worsening living conditions provoked unrest. Anti-semitism was rife. Vienna was the centre of the Austro-Hungarian empire which collapsed in the first world war.

The extravagant art of the 19th century was at odds with social reality. Rebellious artists stripped things down to their essentials. Dissonant Expressionism explored uncompromising subject matter, including sexuality, echoing Sigmund Freud's revolutionary psychological theories. Freud's (remarkably small) couch is on display.

There are striking paintings by Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. Albin Egger-Lienz went to the front to record life and death in the trenches. Northern France depicts stooping, striding soldiers in browns and greys.

Tokyo (1967-73) is another eye-opener. After the second world war, the population and economy grew rapidly, as did housing shortages and pollution. Marxist economist, Minobe Ryokichi, was elected city governor in 1967. Student protests erupted in 1968, culminating in revolts against the US using Japan for military operations in Asia.

Radical artists rejected mass consumerism. Isozaki Arata, argued for the 'dismantling of architecture'. The Mono-ha and Bikyoto groups opposed traditional art, giving priority to processes such as moving and arranging materials, rather than the physical production of art objects. Akasegawa Genpei printed zero-yen notes in protest at the money system. Paintings by Yamashita Kikuji, an army conscript, exposed the Japanese emperor's collusion in war crimes.


The art in Paris (1905-15) is very familiar. Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and George Braque were in town. Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism were ways of portraying the complexity of modern life. The love of new technology faded, however, with its application to weapons of mass destruction in the first world war.

Immediately entering Rio (1950-64) there's that feeling of optimism and progress. And rhythm. Rio was emerging from its colonial past to become a modern metropolis of 2.5 million inhabitants with a strong cultural identity.

Everything was new: Neoconcretism, Bossa Nova, Cinema Novo. Simple forms and space were emphasised, a collision and collusion between landscape and modern materials. Lygia Clark's sculptures use folded metal sheets and hinges. She wanted people to move them, to participate. Bossa Nova (New Wave) was a sophisticated, accessible combination of jazz, bebop, samba and classical music. It was flexible, allowing musicians to improvise and interact.

Brazilian architects created a unique style, following on from Swiss architect, Le Corbusier. Oscar Niemeyer integrated buildings into surrounding hills. A former landfill site was transformed into what was the largest urban park in the world. Journal do Brasil employed Neoconcretist artists to work on graphic design. This creative flourishing was crushed by the 1964 military coup.

The London (1990-2001) section echoes some of the New York themes: a right-wing government, economic recession and brash young artists doing it for themselves. Shops and warehouses were available as cheap studios and exhibition spaces. Art came out of the mundane.


Bombay/Mumbai (1992-2001) is essential viewing. The title itself reflects the city's confrontation with its colonial past, Mumbai being the revived Marathi language version of the city's name. Atul Dodiya's, Missing I-IV, are paintings on and behind shopfront shutters, an essential backdrop to the communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in 1992-93. Viram Sundaram repeats one image: clusters of nails and a dead man spattered with blood.

In the disturbing video installation, Hamletmachine, Nalini Malani confronts political violence. She collages texts with images and sounds of European and Japanese dictators. Rummana Hussan counterpoises her own fatal illness with the need to heal the divided city. In an eerie room lit red are stretchers and drip bags; rusty knives, scythes, needles and scissors on the walls.

Mumbai is a city of extremes, with Bollywood, the massive Hindi film industry, commentating on the traumatic transition from rural to urban, feudal to capitalist, the localised to globalised.

Century City is, overall, an excellent exhibition, well worth experiencing. But its size and scale make it physically and mentally exhausting. To see it all, and make sense of it, will take all day. The admission price hurts. If you've only got a few hours don't miss Mumbai, Rio, Tokyo and Moscow. Vienna is excellent and Lagos worth finding out about. Especially for Western Europeans, however, the familiarity of Paris, London and New York (to a lesser degree) may make these less crucial.


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