Simon Baker on the New Tate Modern

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“This is going to be an interesting test for me,” quips Simon Baker, curator of photography at Tate, whose crowded rooms we are striding through at a fair old clip, one Friday in May.
His long-limbed form, immaculately swept hair and Pre-Raphaelite beard weave between the lunchtime crowds of rucksacks and buggies with a practiced ease as we head in search of the photographs dispersed throughout levels two and four of Tate Modern, as part of the recent change.
I say recent, but he and the rest of the curatorial team have been working on the revised configuration since October: “It feels like we’ve been installing for ever,” he says. “It’s been one room after another and I don’t know if I even remember where we put everything.” Coy as this sounds, it is not surprising.
Ever since he took up his post, almost seven years ago, he and Frances Morris (then a leading member of the collections team, and now director of Tate Modern) agreed that photography should be fully reintegrated back into the history of art.
“There are no photography galleries at Tate,” says Baker. “There never will be. You’ll find photography spread all over the building, in the same rooms as paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations.”
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We arrive at a display of around 80 works by the Japanese photographer Yutaka Takanashi, one of Baker’s several post-war Japanese acquisitions of recent years. He visits the country annually, and last year was presented with an award from the Photographic Society of Japan for being a brilliant ambassador for the nation’s photography, about which he is his usual bashful self.
“I accepted it by saying, ‘I don’t speak Japanese, I don’t read Japanese. I’m just an outsider, looking in, seeing things I find interesting.’ I can’t take all the credit – I speak to many experts to make my decisions.”
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While Baker is busy using his mobile phone to take pictures of a light bulb that has blown above one of the displays, I circle in on the Takanashis. They are two interlinked series that describe the photographer’s intentionally fragmentary impressions of Tokyo, in grainy and disorienting fashion.
As if to demonstrate the museum’s new policy of integration, all the while I’m dimly and sometimes uncomfortably aware of having to sift between the noise generated by two displays in the adjoining rooms; namely, Cildo Meireles’ tower of radios and a mock instructional video from Hito Steyerl, which delivers advice on how to become invisible.
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Together they intertwine bleep, synth and spoken word in such a way that it is impossible to separate one from the other. “Every time I come up here I want to turn those two down,” says Baker, striding to my side, “but then I think, maybe it suits the photographs. Maybe Takanashi would quite like it.”
All three pieces are part of Media and Networks, one of four new displays (the others are Materials and Objects, In the Studio and Artist and Society) that aim to dispose of the chronological blueprint we are all familiar with, in which one movement feeds into another and influences the next, in favour of something which considers a pan-global approach, with many more female artists – both of which, Tate believes, have traditionally been woefully overlooked.
Takanashi’s works were originally presented as a photobook in the early 1970s (it is considered one of the greatest examples of the genre and period), two examples of which are displayed in a central vitrine, but the meat of the exhibit comes via a series of prints on the walls, in a configuration Takanshi chose himself. This is another of Baker’s ideas. “I’ve tried to encourage all of the living photographers we acquire from to install their works in the way they want them. We make a record of it, and these works will only ever be shown in that sequence.”
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Baker has also chosen to collect and display fewer photographers, but in larger and sometimes complete series. The Takanashis are a good example, but the policy is also in evidence in a room showing 28 early pieces by Guy Bourdin, which were acquired last year from his son. Dating from the early, pre-fashion period of his career, they are unique contact prints from a glass plate camera, and display the artist’s fingerprints and tiny printing blemishes around the edges.
Baker finds them extraordinary: “They are so visceral; so exciting,” he enthuses. “The person who introduced them to me tried to make me guess who had made them. I got nowhere near Bourdin, but now I look at them and I can see the beginnings of his later, more familiar work.”
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In acquiring works, Baker and his team are keen to see other museums as colleagues rather than competitors. “You have this crazy situation in Manhattan,” he tells me, “where there are thousands of photographs by Lee Friedlander, because three of their museums have collected him. And not one of them has any on display. A lot of our thinking is about what we shouldn’t have.
There’s no point us pursuing 19th century photography, because the V&A holdings are some of the best in the world. And it wouldn’t make sense for us to spend a million pounds on a Man Ray, when the Pompidou has 3000 of them. Having said that, a lot of it is about Tate starting its collection so late – we have to be much more grounded in terms of our aspirations. We can’t ask our supporters to stump up the $600,000 a single Alfred Stieglitz print was selling for at last year’s Frieze Masters, when we could acquire a whole collection of Latin American modernist photography for a similar price.”
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Since Baker arrived at Tate in 2009, the museum’s collection of photographs has quadrupled in size, from around 1000 to some 4000 objects. The works are kept either (in the case of large pieces) at the Tate Store in Southwark, or in the cold store at Tate Britain, behind the print room, where anyone can make an appointment to see them. However the portion on public display at any one time remains necessarily in the few hundreds.
Which brings me to Tate Modern’s new extension: the 10-storey, truncated, twisting, perforated pyramid that opened to the public earlier this month. Immediately to the south of the main gallery and on the site of the switch house which once served the original power station, it will increase Tate’s display space by a whopping 60 percent. Does the new building have a different feel? “It’s a very different kind of space,” replies Baker. “It has these large, high-ceiling rooms so that we can show very big sculptures and installations, but it’s also much more about the visitor experience. I think it will allow Tate Modern to breathe.”
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Although details of what will be shown in the ‘Switch House’ (the original building is now known as the ‘Boiler House’) remained under wraps when we met [can this now be revealed?], ‘I can tell you we are starting off by showing things that have been acquired since Tate Modern opened,’ says Baker, ‘so visitors can really see the collection shifting – new geographies, more performance, more photographs, more women’.
With photography’s assured prominence, does he feel his responsibilities have changed? “I used to feel – certainly at the beginning – that I was like a spy from the photography world who constantly had to agitate for photographs. I was the outsider, inside. I don’t feel that at all any more. Nobody at Tate needs telling that we should be showing more photography. Last year we had photography shows at Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives. Photography has permeated Tate’s DNA. It’s leaking out of Tate in all kinds of great directions.”
He may have won his argument, but Baker remains full of plans. “I want to make more photobooks available via Turning The Pages [a software platform for displaying rare books]. I want somebody in photography doing a Turbine Hall commission, and I think at some point in the next few years we’ll do a major retrospective for a living British photographer at Tate Britain – that’s been my dream since I started here.”
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This week he has been busy on the catalogue texts for the November exhibition of Elton John’s collection, as well as figures for Tate’s annual report, due out in a couple of weeks, “and I always seem to be working on the display programme because vintage works have to be replaced between six and nine months”. He keeps Fridays free for shows and visits – this afternoon he’s off to see Lisa Oppenheim at The Approach gallery, and Bettina von Zwehl in her studio. At least half of his time, though, is spent on collecting. Ideas for acquisitions are fed to the directors at bi-weekly meetings. “That’s the beginning of a long process that considers appropriateness for the collection, value for money and so on. If it gets through there it goes to Nick [Serota, Tate’s director] and then the trustees. Then we have to raise money, often both here and abroad.”
Currently his collecting interests lie in South East Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, “which has turned out to be really fascinating… We also have the beginnings of a really great collection of British photography – we have made major acquisitions of Don McCullin, Chris Killip, Jem Southam, and we are looking at how best we can represent people such as Chris Steele-Perkins and Martin Parr. I’d like to make sure that every year we acquire something significant from that generation.”
On our way out, Baker takes me to the curatorial offices. Behind a row of bright pink, red and orange filing cabinets we come to the tidiest workstation I have ever seen, presumably thanks to the note asking hot-deskers to “be respectful”, which he has blue-tacked to the wall. Above a photo of JG Ballard’s desk (“because he was a great writer, really special”), my eyes can’t help but widen at a framed poster hung at eye level. “Working really hard/Doing really well” it reads. Catching my face an amused Baker tells me he bought it from some art students who set up a fake company making motivational merchandise: “I recognise it looks rather immodest to the casual visitor,” he says. It might, yes, but on reflection it’s also true. His hard work has been the nation’s gain.
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