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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Tate’s take on carnival misses the point


We’ve seen Carnival showcased in the Royal Opera House and the Victoria & Albert Museum, so the announcement that masqueraders would be allowed in through the doors of the Tate Modern, on London’s South Bank, caused less of a stir than it might have done a few years ago.

The art gallery resides within the shell of the former Bankside Power Station, and the show, on Saturday 23rd August, took place in the former Turbine Hall. Despite the huge height available in the hall, the space is not quite as convenient for ‘big mas’ as you might expect, because the entrance is rather low.

Up Hill, Down Hall, curated by Claire Tancons, was described as “an indoor carnival”. This was decidedly misleading, even if standing around waiting for something to happen is a familiar part of the Notting Hill experience. Unlike the real thing, there were no jerk chicken stalls, very little colour and the nearest thing to music was a piece called ‘Sonar’ by “sound artists” Dubmorphology. This was a formless mash-up of “steel pan and calypso, reggae and punk with texts relating to the Notting Hill Carnival from Linton Kwesi Johnson to Zadie Smith”. In the Tate’s echoing post-industrial cavern, it became an aural torture of the kind totalitarian regimes employ to extract confessions from political enemies.

Paddington Arts Elimu supplied the Caribbean aspect of the mas, based on its Notting Hill theme of ‘No Black in the Union Jack’. The futuristic-looking shields by Marlon Griffith were said to have been inspired by the 2011 London riots, blurring the lines between masquerader and police officer. They were certainly sinister and threatening enough as they marched in close formation ‘down hall’, but being dark grey in a dark grey hall they desperately needed a burst of contrasting colour. After all, even the riots were not universally bleak: local communities responded to the destruction with astonishing displays of community spirit.

Shields were used, too, in ‘Give and Take’, created by Hew Locke and presented by samba-reggae band Batala. The participants snaked among and around the crowd. They carried images of Notting Hill’s mansions and hit them to create a beat reminiscent of the shield-banging tactics the police used in the 1980s to intimidate demonstrators and rioters. It was a clever device that again turned police into masqueraders and vice versa, simultaneously entertaining and threatening the audience, and providing a neat critique on the gentrification of Notting Hill.

For a while (quite a long while), a myriad of paper ‘helicopters’ fluttered down from the roof, to be scooped up with enthusiasm by small children and earnest arty types. Created by Central St Martin’s art students, they bore snatches of text, illustrations and even QR codes. Quite what this activity – which in the 1960s would surely have qualified as a ‘happening’ ‑ symbolised was anyone’s guess.

As one seasoned observer noted of Griffith’s piece, the presentation was interesting up to a point, but “it never developed into anything”. That comment was true of the whole event, which came and went but led us nowhere. Like ‘Canopy’, comprising orange ropes slung from one end of the hall to the other and supposedly enticing “mass public processional performance”, the presentations lacked sufficient content or purpose to engage the audience. Devoid of direction, they simply existed. Carnival is a lot more complex than that.