Tate Modern and Billy Elliot

Solution to Arti’s Cryptic Challenge #1:  London… don’t mind the gap.

When time is short, you must select and forego.  The Tate Modern has long been on my ‘must-see’ list yet unfulfilled.  So for the short stay I had in London, I chose this one above all else.  Five years ago, my then 15 year-0ld son went to visit and wrote in his email back to me: ‘Tate Modern is brilliant.’  This time I got to see it first hand.

If a museum of modern art can wow a teenager, there must be something in there that links the gap.  And was I disappointed?  Yes and no.  No because it was brilliant indeed, both the conceptual design, architecture and the exhibits.  And yes, because I was so preoccupied with the directions getting there from our hotel that I forgot my camera.  No excuse for that, I know.  And what makes it worse, the museum allows photography even of its exhibits.  In my utter disappointment, my now 20 year-old said to me calmly, ‘you just have to make do.’  That I did with my iPhone.

The Tate Modern was converted into a modern art museum from an obsolete power plant on the south bank of the River Thames.  The idea itself is brilliant. What better use of a derelict power station along the beautiful Thames?  Used to be a gloomy stretch of land by the river bank, now the whole area, the Southbank, is revitalized and is home to many London attractions, including the Shakespeare Globe Theatre, the Millennium Bridge, The London Eye, theatres and green, open space.

And thanks to Wikipedia Commons, I found the following photos.  The Tate Modern viewed from the Millennium Bridge.

The Tate Modern was designed by the Swedish architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the 2001 winner of the Pritzker Prize, the ‘Nobel Prize’ of architecture.  Their concept of maintaining the industrial motif and juxtaposing it with the artistic is ingenious.  Furthermore, they have turned the massive industrial space into a people space.  The main entryway is named The Turbine Hall, allowing people to fill the massive vacuum that was once associated with a power plant. The huge area also makes display of larger pieces of exhibits possible.  Now they are doing it again, yet another redesigning, an even more amazing remodelling and addition, all for the 2012 Olympics Summer Games in London.

Two streams of thoughts constantly ran through my mind during this trip.  One was the dichotomy of ‘High Art’ and ‘Public Art’, ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’.  Does such a rift still exist?  All the galleries and museums I visited were all flooded with people.  It was hard to take a picture without any heads caught in the frame.  So every photo I took was immediate.  I had to wait for people to move away and snap the moment quickly.  In the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, I saw families with young children, many pushing baby carriages, kids doing cartwheels on the huge floor space.

Is it still ‘high art’ if the exhibits are free to the public, a destination for family outing?  As a rock concert ticket can cost hundreds of dollars… now does that re-define the ‘high’ in culture?  Is it still ‘high art’ if people can get in free, as with the Tate Modern collection, enjoy what they see, gasp at the possibilities, or be bewildered by a notion conveyed through an artwork?  Do we need to ‘understand’ art in order to enjoy it?  Maybe we should just allow the object of art to speak for itself, and thereby, linking the gaps between us.

Here are a few exhibits I took with my iPhone.  Please do click on the link of each piece to see the good photos at the Tate Modern website and an explanation.  I was gratified to see works from some of my favourite artists in their original.

Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvadore Dali, the work that changed Freud’s original negative view of Surrealist art.  In the painting, you’re supposed to see Narcissus on a pedestal in the background, then kneeling by the fatal pond, and lastly transformed into a flower… and what a self-absorbed egghead he was:


Man with a Newspaper (1928) by René Magritte (1898-1967), under the section ‘Poetry and Dream’.  These are supposedly four different perspectives … mmm … , but hey, this is Magritte speaking.  His dead pan surrealist style is regarded as a subtle form of social critique.


And here are a few other interesting works. Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz’s ‘Anti-form’ sculpture which she created during the 1960’s Soviet-occupation of Warsaw, another example of the freeing effect of art and the social statement they subtly convey:

Untitled sculpture with wood and wool by Jannis Kounellis, homage to Jackson Pollock’s drip painting:


I like this work of open books, but don’t remember the artist or the name of it.  With the fast emergence of eBooks, this work could soon become an antique artifact:


The second event I chose was to see ‘Billy Elliot The Musical’.  I liked the movie a lot, appreciating the depth of conflicts which touch on the same dichotomy: ‘High Culture’ and ‘Mass Culture’, and the seeming incompatibility of art and life.  A miner’s son in a blue collar neighbourhood is attracted to the beauty of the ballet, and the freeing energy of dance.

The conflict persists starkly as the political backdrop of the miners’ strike turns ugly in the 1984-85 years. While their livelihood is at stake, and as the miners determine to pose the fiercest strike action against the Thatcher government, where does ballet come in?  It sounds trivial and even surreal to think of ballet compared to the major battles raging in the country. But this is also a conflict between the individual and the masses, the individual and, yes, even the family.

Billy’s new-found love and immense talent ultimately melt the heart of his macho father and older brother, and soon those in the mining community.  He is given the chance to audition for the National Ballet School, with the local miners raising funds to support his cause.

The movie allows more in-depth exploration of internal conflicts while as a musical, the focus has shifted to the dance performance, the music, and for crowd appeal, some Monty Python style romp com, mellow-dramatic scenes, and many exaggerated, stereotypical expressions and language choices. I’m afraid it looks like a contrived way to bring the ‘high’ down to the ‘common’ level.  Elton John’s music while lively, seems lacking in variety and depth compared to his other works and those in the Andrew Lloyld Webber tradition.

Performed on the London stage since 2005 and still going strong, ‘Billy Elliot the Musical’ is directed by Stephen Daldry, lyrics and book by Lee Hall.  It has won both the Lawrence Olivier Awards in England and the Tony Awards in the US.  It went on Broadway in 2008, and on the main stages in several other countries.  The night I went the role Billy Elliot was performed by 12 year-0ld Rhys Yeomans, and he was marvellous, both as actor and dancer.  He practically carried the whole show on his young shoulders, singing, acting, and dancing in superb style, energy, and versatility.  The role of Michael, Billy’s friend, was done animatedly by another 12-year-old, Reece Barrett. The boys’ performance were the main attractions for me.

In the middle of the show however, the performance was interrupted by a technical difficulty.  It was no minor glitch.  We had to wait in our seat for around 15 minutes before performance resumed.  Now that had discounted some of my enjoyment.  And when the show started again, a scene was skipped.  But overall, it was quite an experience at the Victoria Theatre in London.  A good choice I still think considering the limited time I had in London.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

6 thoughts on “Tate Modern and Billy Elliot”

  1. Welcome home! I’m looking forward to your reflections and postings on what you saw.

    Working backward, you’ve reminded me that there was a terrific article about Billy Elliot in The New Yorker magazine that I kept for ages, intending to follow up with an entry about it. Now, I don’t know where it is, but now I’ll have to search it out.

    I had no idea it had become a musical. From what I remember of the New Yorker article, I’m a little surprised – but as you say, there are “accomodations” that can be made which increase audience appeal.

    I love the Magritte, and the “books” collage. Actually, I’m rather fond of the Pollack-inspired piece, too. I took on the e-readers vs books issue in my latest – I’m becoming less and less convinced the e-readers are going to wash away our printed books. Of course, I may not live long enough to see the final resolution of that little matter!

    As for high-brow and low-brow, high-art and mass market… The concept of “high art” seems to me a little old fashioned, rooted in the assumption that good art was for the rich, and poor folk couldn’t recognize good art if it hit them in the head. They were meant to make do with grandma’s pencil sketches or Elvis on black velvet.

    I could be completely wrong about this, because I tend not to keep up – but it seems to me that wider exposure to art has made wider appreciation for all sorts of art possible. And, changing view on what it means to “appreciate art” have moved us from the days when you “dressed up” to go to a museum and pretended to be “upper class”.

    Houston museums have done a wonderful job of making their art and exhibits accessible – not in the sense of “dumbing them down” or becoming tacky in their marketing, but in the sense of doing a much better job of presenting and contextualizing their treasures.

    We have a good number of strollers and cart-wheeling kids in our museums, too, and I say “Hooray!” As long as the enthusiasm doesn’t interfere with someone else’s appreciation, it does its part to open people up to even more art.


    No, I don’t think eBooks would totally replace real books either. Unlike Hugo’s prediction as you’ve posted, architectures are still here, co-existing with the printed words, for centuries. BTW, Notre Dame was flooded with people the last time I checked, about a week ago, and so’s Hugo’s resting place, the Pantheon.

    Regarding ‘high’ and ‘low’ art/culture, the delineation may not be labelled as such… but we sense it somehow… like ‘literary’ vs. ‘popular’ fiction, Hollywood movies vs. art-house films etc. It’s not so much about SES, but more about style and genre, taste and preferences. But delineations do exist, and rightly so. However, our postmodern world has seen the breakdown of boundaries and the fusion of varieties, bringing out new perspectives in seeing things. Making museums and art galleries more accessible to the ‘common folks’ and families is definitely the right direction to go. And with examples like Billy Elliot, hopefully other art forms as well.



  2. Welcome back. We’ve never visited the Tate Modern during our few times in London. That’s great that your son recommended it :0)


    Glad to be home 🙂



  3. So glad to see you back safe and sound.

    I love that the Tate Modern was created in the power plant. We have a power plant like that in our capitol city, it’s empty, and I hope they will do something wonderful with it. I have photographed it and find it so interesting on the river. I haven’t been to the Tate Modern, though I did go on the London Eye by myself in 2005. I love the Orsay in Paris, also because of how they utilized the train station and created such a beautiful space.

    I guess I had seen ads for Billy Elliot as a musical, and I think it might have come to our university hall. I liked the movie very much.

    Thank you for sharing all this. I can imagine how you felt about the camera, I would have been devastated too. But you did a marvelous job with your camera phone, really!


    Yes, it’s great that they can turn unused, huge industrial venues into cultural centres and people places instead of knocking them down totally. And you know, I’m glad you mentioned the Musee d’Orsay… my favorite still, albeit they don’t allow photography at all in there. I visited it when I was in Paris, as well as the Louvre, which allows cameras with the flash turned off.

    I think I’ll organize my posts according to the cryptic clues. I’ve a lot to sort through and organize first. It will be my pleasure to share. Thanks for your kind words.



  4. Hi Arti,

    I can’t believe I got on here without a tunnel! 🙂 Thanks for reviews! Miss you!


    I’m not sure what you mean exactly… but thanks anyway, it’s my pleasure to write these posts.



  5. Welcome back! Someday I hope to see Tate Modern; very impressed that your son recommended it! (You did a great job with your phone camera, btw.) I’m always happy to see kids in museums–it is such fun to discover what they see as important, and how different that is from what adults believe to be “important.” High and low art of a different sort.
    Thanks as always for your wonderful insights. Can’t wait to read about the rest of your adventures!


    Thanks for your kind words… the wonder of digital editing of my fuzzy photos. It’s been a memorable experience. I’ve been to London several times but this is my first chance of seeing Tate Modern. Its new addition and redesign is going to be more brilliant, but don’t think I’d want to fight the crowds in 2012. 🙂



  6. Can I just say that you have a wonderful blog? I’ve only come here after you commented on mine, but I’m really glad I did:)

    I don’t really understand modern art all that much, but when I first went to Tate Modern, it just amazed me with it’s beauty. I particularly loved the huge exhibition/open space on the ground floor. The architecture, the exhibitions and the sheer size of the museum really made me change my mind and I love just wandering around there. Incidentally I used to live next to Tate Britain which I love to bits, but Tate Modern is almost on a level with it.

    chasing bawa,

    What a privilege it is to be a Londoner! I’d go to the Tate everyday if I lived so close by… and the best part is that it’s free for the perm. collections. You’re right about the Turbine Hall, it’s just awesome in itself. One doesn’t need to ‘understand’ it. I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to see its new design comes 2012.

    You have a marvellous book blog there yourself and coincidentally, we’re in Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge. I’d love to read your take on that. Thanks for your visit and comment!



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