Heather Neill finds out what London's newest treasure house has in store for schools.
It would be easy to write a whole article on the sensual pleasures of consuming a delicious dark chocolate tartlet while drinking in one of the most spectacular panoramas in London: a sweep of the Thames which takes in St Paul's and the new Millennium Bridge. The view from the top of the newly opened Tate Modern, the converted Bankside power station on the Thames in Southwark, is certainly worthy of its own panegyric. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's industrial hulk has been transformed into a modern-art cathedral by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, but it is neither solemn nor in any sense inaccessible. It is intended to be a meeting place, a resource for London and its visitors. And it is free. Besides, the building itself demands a response - simply exploring its ingenious levels and spaces would make a rewarding visit.
Let us go back, down from the seventh floor to the entrance. As you walk down the slope, past the shop and see above you Louise Bourgeois's vast metal spider, you are struck by the extraordinary space and light of what was once the turbine room. Statistics don't mean much in the circumstances, but this 30ft arachnid with its net of marble eggs, "Maman", is as big as a small house and represents the vulnerability and possessiveness of motherhood. Beyond that are three towers, also by the 88-year-old Bourgeois, as tall as factory chimneys, two cylindrical, one squared off, labelled "I Do", "I Undo" and "I Re-do", representing good and bad motherhood and the possibility of reconciliation. Climb to the top of each spiral staircase, and find new perspectives, both of yourself (in huge, angled mirrors) and of the space below.
New perspectives are everywhere. To the left of the turbine hall, level upon level provides views of this main space and the people inside it, a moving artwork. And at each stage there are galleries. But not on the ground floor. In this prime space, next to the Bourgeois installations - the first new commissions in a five-year pound;1.25 million sponsorship by Unilever - are the education rooms.
The Clore centre for education is a light, open space, "definitely not hidden away in the basement" as the Tate's head of education, Toby Jackson, says. "Groups will be met at the door by a freelance educator-artist - we want there to be a friendly atmosphere - and they can have a picnic. There are two studios and an art lab where they can experience art-making, and the Clore study room, where, at the moment, students of any age can drop in to use computers, audio and visual resources."
The plan this term is for the galley to "learn how to use the building" with local Southwark schools. From September, a firmer schedule will be in place but, of course, groups are welcome to make informal visits at any time. Learning Link, a professional development programme that encourages teachers to learn to use the gallery's resources before they bring groups of pupils, is already under way. Eventually this training may be part of an accredited gallery education qualification.
Toby Jackson is anxious that teachers other than art specialists will recognise Tate Modern as a wonderful resource. "You don't need to know a lot of history or theory to engage with art, but it grows out of the cultural soup and, when you have seen it, we can challenge with historical and social ideas."
The gallery's international collection, from the 20th and 21st centuries, is arranged in a manner which might be regarded as challenging in itself. Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, and Lars Nittve, director of Tate Modern, have eschewed chronology in favour of themes. But, as Nittve points out, the themes are in fact traditional ones, first investigated by the French Academy in the 17th-century - landscape, still life, the nude and historical subjects. They have been reinterpreted so that landscape includes the environment and matter brought into the gallery, the nude encompasses the body and action, and history is taken to mean memory and personal history as well as great events.
A few examples: HistoryMemorySociety offers 13 rooms with titles such as "Manifestos" (where each work represents an example of a 20th-century avant-garde movement) and "Modern Art in Conflict", which includes Gaudier-Brzeska's beautiful and violent bronze sculpture "Bird Swallowing a Fish", and images of war and disgust with human nature. An entire room is given over to Naum Gabo, the pioneer of abstract sculpture. As well as his beautiful bronze "Heads", there is a kinetic construction which the visitor sets in motion by pressing a button to make a simple "Standing Wave". In another room, Picasso's familiar but always moving "Weeping Woman" appears next to other items - print and film as well as paintings - associated with the Spanish Civil War.
The special exhibition on level 4 until December, funded by the Arts Council of England, is Between Cinema and a Hard Place. It includes all kinds of surprises - slides, photographs, installations made of lights and mirrors and the rather disturbing corridors of Ilya Kabakov's 1990 "Labyrinth: my mother's album". Don't lose any Year 7s in there. Young visitors may well be difficult to prise out of this most exciting and welcoming building.
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