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A history of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall commissions

A history of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall commissions

The Tate Modern's iconic Turbine Hall has seen many unforgettable art installations in the last 23 years. We look back at some of our favourites

The Tate Modern’s iconic Turbine Hall has been home to some unforgettable art installations over the years. Sponsored by Unilever from 2000 to 2012, and now sponsored by Hyundai since 2015, the Turbine Hall Commission has revolutionised contemporary art.

The Turbine Hall is 26 metres high with an area of 3,000 square metres. This creates quite the playground for artists to let their imagination run wild, as they transform this vast space with huge sculptures and installations.

On February 22 the Tate Modern and Hyundai Motor announced the next commission—Hyundai Commission: El Anatsui. El Anatsui is a Ghanaian sculptor best known for his bottle-top installations. These consist of bottle-tops and aluminium pieces sewn together with copper wire to create tapestries. 

"The Turbine Hall creates quite the playground for artists to let their imagination run wild"

He combines traditional African techniques and imagery with Western abstraction to raise questions about ethnic identity. In a 2015 interview with ART News, he said, “I saw the bottle caps as relating to the history of Africa in the sense that when the earliest group of Europeans came to trade, they brought along rum originally from the West Indies that then went to Europe and finally to Africa as three legs of the triangular trip.”

Exactly what El Anatsui intends to do with the space won’t be known until the very day it’s unveiled. While we wait (and imagine what he might create), we take a look back at some of the most iconic installations the Turbine Hall has hosted. 

The Unilever Series, 2000-2012

When the Turbine Hall Commission began in 2000, it was sponsored by Unilever and known as The Unilever Series. The £4.41 million sponsorship resulted in 13 commissioned pieces, including the following iconic works. 

Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003–2004

Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003-2004

The Unilever Series: Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project. Photo: © Tate (Marcus Leith and Andrew Dunkley)

Perhaps one of the most iconic commissions, Olafur Eliasson’s sun reportedly attracted over two million people during its six-month display, many of whom were repeat visitors. 

Eliasson cited the British love of talking about the weather as his inspiration for the project. The sun was created using a semicircle of light reflected in a mirror. The floor of the hall had to be scoured for any rogue items that might also be reflected—rubbish, coat hangers, and signs.

The project really captured people’s imagination, with crowds flocking to see both the sun and their own reflections in the mirror above. It even become a site of protest: when President Bush visited London in November 2003, protestors took to the floor of the Tate Modern and arranged their bodies to spell out, “Bush go home.”

Carsten Höller, Test Site, 2006–2007

The Unilever Series: Carsten Höller: Test Site. Photo: Tate © (Marcus Leith and Andrew Dunkley)

The Unilever Series: Carsten Höller: Test Site. Photo: Tate © (Marcus Leith and Andrew Dunkley)

Carsten Höller’s Test Site built on the German artist’s longstanding interest in slides. His slide works began in 1998, but the Turbine Hall commission presented him with an opportunity to increase the scale of this work. 

With his background in biology, Höller’s art is known for being experiment-like in its staging, often taking an interactive form and creating altered states of perception for its participants. Test Site consisted of five slides, the longest of which was 55.5 metres long. Visitors were invited to slide down them, experiencing the simultaneous excitement and anxiety of sliding.

Mirosław Bałka, How It Is, 2009–2010

The Unilever Series: Miroslaw Balka: How It Is. Photo: Tate (Marcus Leith and Andrew Dunkley)

The Unilever Series: Miroslaw Balka: How It Is. Photo: Tate (Marcus Leith and Andrew Dunkley)

Sculptor Mirosław Bałka responded to the Turbine Hall space by creating a giant steel structure 13 metres high and 30 metres long, raised up by two-metre stilts. Visitors could wander underneath it, or walk up a ramp and enter the dark void of its interior. 

"Like many of the Turbine Hall commissions, it was not just a piece of art but an immersive experience"

Much of Bałka’s work explores themes of historical trauma, such as the memory of the Second World War. How It Is was no exception, evoking the imagery of the Ghetto in Warsaw or of the trucks which took Jewish people to concentration camps. 

Like many of the Turbine Hall commissions, it was not just a piece of art but an immersive experience. As Pragya Agarwal described it for Elephant, “Entering the darkness of How It Is, you have to put complete trust in the artwork.”

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010–2011

The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds, 2010. Photo: © Tate (Marcus Leith and Andrew Dunkley)

The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds, 2010. Photo: © Tate (Marcus Leith and Andrew Dunkley) 

In contrast with the Turbine Hall’s industrial space, Ai Weiwei’s installation consisted of 100 million handcrafts sunflower seeds produced by specialists in workshops in Jingdezhen, China. 

Of the installation, curator Juliet Bingham said, “The precious nature of the material, the effort of production and the narrative and personal content create a powerful commentary on the human conditionEach piece is a part of the whole, a commentary on the relationship between the individual and the masses. 

“The work continues to pose challenging questions: What does it mean to be an individual in today's society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future?”

Hyundai, 2015 to present

From 2015, the Tate has collaborated with Hyundai on the Turbine Hall Commission. 

Anicka Yi, In Love With The World, 2021–2022

Hyundai Commission: Anicka Yi: In Love With The World, 2021. Photo: © Tate (Joe Humphrys)

Hyundai Commission: Anicka Yi: In Love With The World, 2021. Photo: © Tate (Joe Humphrys)

Anicka Yi’s In Love With The World created a new ecosystem in the Turbine Hall. Viewing the space as an aquarium, she created mechanical organisms called aerobes to inhabit it. Inspired by ocean lifeforms and mushrooms, the aerobes drifted around the hall, at times nesting in a designated area to recharge.

"Anicka Yi’s In Love With The World created a new ecosystem in the Turbine Hall"

The aerobes were accompanied by “scentscapes”. These changed each week and were designed by Yi to incorporate scents associated with specific times in the history of Bankside—for example, spices thought to repel the plague in the 14th century. 

Through her installation, Yi asked viewers to consider our conception of intelligence and imagine the place that machines could take in the world. 

Cecilia Vicuña, Brain Forest Quipu, 2021–2022

Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuna: Brain Forest Quipu, 2022. Photo: © Tate (Sonal Bakrania)

Hyundai Commission: Cecilia Vicuna: Brain Forest Quipu, 2022. Photo: © Tate (Sonal Bakrania)

Quipu are an Andean form of pre-written communication, in which stories are recorded through the tying of knots. Inspired by this history, Chilean artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña created two sculptures hanging from the ceiling, weaving together a range of organic materials. 

Some of the items that were used in the sculptures were collected from the banks of the Thames by women from local Latin American communities. Vicuña also worked with a Colombian composer, Richard Gallo, to create a soundscape that incorporated Indigenous music from around the world. 

Of the installation, Vicuña said, “The earth is a brain forest, and the quipu embraces all its interconnections.”

Cover image: The Unilever Series Carsten Höller Test Site. Photo: © Tate (Oliver Leith)

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