it’s 1984 — or somewhere close. You’re Winston Smith — or someone similarly insignificant. You’re on your way to work — or maybe not at all. The Ministry of Truth looms before you — or some similarly stark stack of brick which rises resolutely into the churning grey of a rainy London skyline. You realize the associations are both strange and unfair, and the closest thing to “Big Brother is watching” is a glass wall on the final floor declaring “Art changes, we change.” But then you think — maybe that’s the purpose of the ominous stack of brick, the smooth slant of the wide entrance way, or the towering white walls which await you inside. At the Tate Modern, there are no distractions from truth.
You begin with an African Adventure. You’ve never been to South Africa, you’ve never met Jane Alexander, and your entire basis for conceptualizing apartheid comes from a confusing encounter with J.M.Coetzee’s Disgrace and a backpacker on the train to Rome. Yet you find yourself leaning too much weight on ropes which separate you from a sprawling red earthen floor. The human beings who stand upon it could be animals, their faces concealed within canine masks, their fingers too long and too spindly. Three suited men stand on TNT boxes. A bride - so tiny she could be a child - sits rigid in a straight-backed chair. Her yellowing lace wedding gown grazes the uneven, ruddy earth. Overalls pulled down to his waist, a headless figure stands taller and more alone on a corner patch of earth. You get the sense he could almost escape but for a series of spidery iron beams which wrap themselves around his waist and tie him to iron scythes and miniaturized factory machinery. Monstrous chandeliers hang overheard, a reminder that excess and extravagance bears witness to all of it.
You turn a corner to be greeted by darkness. A runway of flickering screens presents factory life, a history which begins with the Industrial Revolution, traverses colonialism, bears witness to unionization, veers into revolution and culminates in IT personnel. A silhouette blocks your view and you’re irritated even though you weren’t paying much attention. Two children in fluffy toques stare wide-eyed at the grainy images you hadn’t cared to follow. One child’s clumsy palms graze the back of your legs, still blessedly ignorant to the rules of adulthood. It’s the curse of being human to find our surroundings uninspiring, but when is it that we teach ourselves to find the present so underwhelming?
Now it’s four walls of olive green and nine canvases of deep maroon and you. You’re silent together as people poke their heads in but hastily move on. Not much to see here. The maroon lines grow darker the longer you sit. You’re looking for the bottom of it all but there doesn’t appear to be a bottom to it all so you just keep looking. Thoughts trickle in and you let them run their course. They fizzle out, having been assigned no importance. Soon you’re alone again in the warmest, loveliest of ways with nine canvases of maroon. You leave after a while, feeling full.
The Ministry of Truth has closed for the day. You may reassume your identity and move freely into the world, but please be reminded there is more to life than distracting yourself from it.