10 FEBRUARY 2001, Page 45

Too many questions

Martin Gayford

Last May, Tate Modern opened with a tremendous fanfare and a colossal party. Since then it has exceeded every expectation for visitor numbers. Of all the millennium projects — admittedly, an uncompetitive field — this is the one that has been the most spectacular success. So it's not surprising that disaster has finally struck. Nemesis, suitably enough, has taken

the form of the — one hopes — last institutional marking of the change of date, which is also the first major exhibition to be mounted in the new gallery. It is a vast, lumbering, unfocused pantechnicon of a show entitled Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis.

Century City considers nine cities at differing points during the last hundred years. Some are thoroughly familiar: Cubist Paris, Freudian Vienna, revolutionary Moscow. Some are pretty well terra incognita, in both time and space, to most of us: Rio de Janeiro 1955-1969, Lagos 1955-1970. One, New York, is unavoidable in any consideration of the 20th century but considered at a point (1969-1974) that baffles comprehension. Why, then, the silliest part of what Martin Arnis has aptly dubbed the joke decade?

But then the whole affair sets you off like a curious four-year-old on a loop of questions. Why those cities? Why then? Why nine? Answers come there not exactly none, but they are not very satisfactory ones, Nine cities might have been the maximum number they thought they could cram into the echoing halls of Tate Modern. If so, they overestimated, as London 1990-2001 (a bit of a case of rushing to judgment anyway) has overflowed to a sort of Portakabin on the entrance ramp.

It seems possible that the nine cities might have been vaguely intended to cover the ten decades of the century, perhaps missing out the wars. But, no, there is massive emphasis on the period around the Sixties — Lagos, New York, Rio, Tokyo 1967-1973 — thus giving the whole show a slight feeling of hippy nostalgia. Meanwhile, lengthy, highly creative epochs are missed out altogether (nothing between 1930 and 1955).

The catalogue frankly admits that it would have been possible to plump for many other times and places, while failing to give a coherent account of why the Tate has ended up with just these. Though this isn't exactly said, presumably the aim was to be global and, urn. inclusive. There just had to be somewhere South American, East Asian, African, Indian and so on.

A few years ago a reference book on global culture was published that ran into similar problems. Reviewers complained that a movement among certain North American tribes called the Ghost Dance was given more space than the poems of, I think it was, Lord Byron. The problem was not that the latter is self-evidently more important than the former, but that there is no rational method of comparison. Furthermore, it is unlikely that anyone who wanted to find out about either would consult a book that tried to deal with both.

It's the same with Century City. There is absolutely no reason not to mount an exhibition about, say, Tokyo 1967-1973. It may well have been a most interesting era (though there's nothing much in this display to suggest that it was). The point is that you wouldn't want to encounter it like this, in an exhibition this enormous, confusing and inconsequential.

Another drawback is the way time is sliced up. It is arbitrary, to say the least, to deal with Paris just between 1905 and 1915. Paris was a cultural centre of the greatest importance more or less continuously from the 19th century until the 1950s. New York was of great importance in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties. The individual sections, organised by different curators, are highly variable. The best — Moscow, Paris, Rio and Vienna — are those which concentrate on visible, exhibitable art. This is another of the problems of the exhibition. The press release gushes on about places in which 'the energy of the modern metropolis peaked to produce a cultural explosion in which art, architecture, cinema, dance, fashion, music, and theatre flourished in dynamic and radical interchange'. The trouble is that some of those are a lot more easy to show than others. And some are downright distracting.

Thus, from speakers somewhere in most of the sections, suitable music leaks out. So one looks at a nice display of Cubist collages to the accompaniment of music composed for the Ballets Russes (one of the points the show is supposed to make is that these cities were 'transnational', so it's no good complaining that the Ballets Russes were Russian). Bossa Nova seeps round the corner into a diverting room of op and geometric abstract art from Rio (not terribly good, most of it, and in some cases heavily influenced by Frank Stella, but jolly).

The effect of this — not confined to Centut), City — is to pre-package the experience of visiting the exhibition in the way that a filmed documentary is pre-packaged. The exhibits become illustrations to some, probably simplified thesis, with mood music attached. It puts one off, which is a pity, because some of the exhibits are well worth looking at. The Moscow section has some excellent paintings by Malevich, and sculptures by Tatlin. The Viennese rooms contain a splendid array of drawings and paintings by Egon Schiele, Richard Gerstl, and Oskar Kokoschka. But even these — the best in the show — contain various bits of slightly theme-parky window-dressing such as the couch from Sigmund Freud's consulting-room.

The rooms next door devoted to New York in the early Seventies are, in contrast, an utter mess. Now, you might think that a fair reflection of Manhattan in those years, but even then far more was going on than this suggests — the abstract art of Brice Marden and Carl Andre, for example. Similarly, London 1990-2000 completely fails to convey the diversity and excitement of what's been going on (no Chapman brothers, no Marc Quinn, for example).

The basic mistake perhaps was to try to make an exhibition about something as nebulous as the buzz of excitement that seems to emanate from certain places at a certain time. This sort of thing is best left to commissioning editors who are prone to fulminate that somewhere or other is hot, hot, hot. Century City displays the faults — didacticism, muddle and visual clumsiness — for which the new displays of the collection were criticised last May. But it's much worse. If Tate Modern carries on like this, the fizz of success and the crowds will soon desert it.