Bemused, amused and confused by creativity

3 July 2012

An underlying commonality you can trace back to Archimedes or cavemen

That outstanding historic triumph of our industry, electric light, is in transition. Gradually, and soon all but completely, its most famous manifestation – the incandescent filament lamp – is passing out of use. But, just as that literally brilliant invention failed to wipe out the wax candle, so is the filament bulb defying extinction. Its devotees are hoarding surviving specimens or creating new forms of it. Indeed, an art form is emerging for their exploitation. The ancient craft of the glassblower, a favourite bait for tourists and souvenir hunters, may yet be combined with other preserved skills for the public production of wholly hand-made luminous artefacts in suitably romantic settings. What a charming illustration that would be of the deep spiritual linkage between art, craft and technology – the last of these is, after all, just the scientific study of the other two.

There has been fierce dispute over the invention of the filament lamp: and the American genius, Thomas Alva Edison, is often simplistically awarded most of the credit. But his more significant primacy lies in the integrated industrial production of ‘artificial light’ by what we would call an electrical power generating and distributing system. The lamp is of course a vital part of such a system.

Power stations, as MPS testifies month after month, are much more than lamplighters. The stations’ working lives naturally exceed those of most of the appliances operated by means of their output, but obviously the stations do not last forever. Their power-generating careers’ eventual endings pose problems for those who inherit their obsolete remains. London, UK, has some object lessons for such heirs in other parts of the world.

Two in particular draw attention. One of them, in London’s riverside district of Battersea, has attracted intermittent interest for years, and sometimes on this page. But this strikingly four-chimneyed architectural masterpiece has suffered a remarkable series of failures to win the approval of all concerned for re-use of the site. Some would-be developers have presented ambitious new ideas, incorporating adventurous designs for industrial, commercial and residential complexes. Some of them have embodied novel themes, and some have included power generation and shown respect thereby for the history of the great station they would replace. But its dereliction has continued as successive schemes have languished.

Further along London’s River Thames, away from the scene of all these dashed hopes, and enticingly placed at the capital’s influential and tourist-trapping heart, is the site of the other notable defunct power station: and the story is quite different. Here it is not one of problem-posing retirement cruelly protracted but is instead a tale of transformation. What was a potent contributor to metropolitan electricity supply has become a magnificent art gallery.

At first an offshoot of the Tate Gallery, which flourishes elsewhere in London, it is now established as Tate Modern, reportedly the world’s second-most popular art exhibition after the famous show at the Louvre, Paris, France.

What was the turbine hall of the power station became The Turbine Hall of the gallery, a vast space for objets that perhaps only a few of the old engineers might have appreciated. Now another part of the one-time station, disused for thirty years, consisting of huge oil tanks, is being converted into an extension of Tate Modern. The tanks will make fine new chambers for meetings, discussions, film shows and other activities for Tate Modern visitors. But the accommodation will keep its ‘industrial character’, we are assured, and the suite will be named (as fittingly as was the redone turbine hall), The Oil Tanks. However, I have seen a newspaper reproduction of an artist’s impression of the extension when finished (in time, it is hoped, for London’s Olympic Games) and to my inexpert eye it looks like a chocolate and cream layer cake.

The paradox-laden point I am trying to make, though, is this. Despite the philistinism of many engineers aghast at much ‘modern’ art, and the balancing total blindness of a Tategoing multitude to the beauty of a turbine blade, a mechanism or a functioning engineering feat (say), there is I believe an underlying commonality of apprehension, attitude and philosophy that has, since prehistoric time, recognisably distinguished practitioners of arts, crafts and technology from other streams of humanity. You can trace it back, if you like, to Archimedes exposing a craftsman’s fraud, or to cavemen painting on the walls of their rocky shelters. They were all creatives.

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