Tate Britain and Tate Liverpool have both opened new permanent collection displays this summer. A Walk Through British Art at Tate Britain is described as a ‘true’ chronological hang, with works displayed in literal date order rather than by historical school. There has been much discussion about the new approach, but one thing is for certain, this is an explicitly linear and temporal mode of display.

The new display at Tate Liverpool, on the other hand, is explicitly spatial and non-linear.  As the publicity describes it, it’s ‘a fresh way of viewing and understanding artworks through correspondences rather than chronological narrative.’

constallations overview

You get this just from the name – Constellations.  We’re dealing with space here – with webs of interconnected points rather than linear trajectories, with accumulations rather than order, with the scattering of meaning in the spaces between things.

115 pieces of 20th century art are displayed in nine ‘constellations’; groups of works ‘orbiting’ around one ‘trigger’ artwork – a revolutionary piece that the others in the group respond to, conceptually or thematically. For example Picasso’s Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle of 1914 speaks to sculptural work by Naum Gabo from the 30s and conceptual work by Victor Burgin from the 90s, through ideas of fragmentation and multiple viewpoints.  Although chronologically separate, the pieces seem to inhabit the same bit of aesthetic space.

constellations detail

I’d visited Tate Liverpool to find examples of audience voice and multi-layered interpretation, but I didn’t find any of that in Constellations. It’s a very stripped back affair; the interpretation feels controlled… not controlling, but a careful economy of words. The exhibition may be the choices and voices of the curators, but there is plenty of space for subjective responses.

The graphic word clouds that accompany each constellation really facilitate this. Referencing their digital counterparts (shifting and evolving; words becoming bigger or smaller depending on usage), as a viewer you sense that these are words for you to choose from, to tag the works as you see fit, or to use as starting points or your own tags.

But the exhibition still functions as a lesson in art history – this is a Tate gallery afterall! The nine trigger art works alone provide a crash course in the major concerns of 20th century art. For me, the spatial mode jolted me out of my chronological mindset, prompting me to make my own connections between art and artists. Of course, I’m a certain sort of viewer, with access to a certain amount of art historical knowledge… what Bennett (after Bourdieu) describes as the ‘politics of the invisible’; meaning available only to those who already have ‘the aesthete’s eye’.  And maybe there’s no getting away from this entirely.

But nonetheless, Tate Liverpool’s constellations are designed to help the viewer understand such art historical staples as ‘Abstraction’ ‘Performativity’ or ‘Ready made’ – to bring to the surface concepts that are frequently and cryptically used in text panels and catalogues. Maybe this is a good primer then for Tate Britain, where the new chronological hang and absence of any interpretation labels certainly suggest to me that the politics of the invisible are in full flow…


In December 2013 I wrote a follow up to this post for the Interpretations Matters project, which you can read here.