Swiss bankers sponsor Tate Modern displays

    Juxtaposition of arte povera (Penone, Merz, Pistoletto), antiform (Bruce Naumann, Eva Hesse) and UBS is strange irony

    As I wandered around the latest batch of new displays at Tate Modern, sponsored by the Swiss banking giant UBS, I should have been thinking about art. Much of this new arrangement is, after all, devoted to arte povera, the fascinating 1970s Italian movement that made such a virtue of humble materials and unglamorous artistic moods. Sackcloth and timber are the materials that spring to mind when I think of arte povera. Rope and rags. Baskets and light bulbs.

    Arte povera – “poor art” – was an art taste that appeared to embrace the humble, the austere, the necessary. Conspicuous consumption was its enemy.

    So, as I said, as I moved from Marisa Merz’s sad little pair of home-made arte povera shoes (knitted from old fishing line and shaped, so sweetly, to fit her tiny feet), to Michelangelo Pistoletto’s iconic Venus of the Rags (a full-size garden-centre Venus, burying her head in a pile of jumble-sale clothes), I should have been puzzling over the art. Instead, I kept thinking about money. And wondering why, how, for what and for how long is UBS sponsoring these displays?

    Last year, in June, a former UBS banker called Bradley Birkenfeld spilt the beans on his former employers during a multimillion-dollar tax-evasion case in Florida, brought by the American justice department. According to Birkenfeld’s testimony to the federal court, UBS had helped its extra-rich American clients to dodge taxes by organising offshore banking for them in Panama and the Virgin Islands. Subsequent court estimates claimed that UBS had been holding about $20 billion of undeclared American assets, and that managing these funds had brought in $200m in fees. President-elect Barack Obama branded them “tax cheats”.

    It was all pretty interesting. But not nearly as interesting as Birkenfeld’s description of how UBS went about meeting and grooming its billionaires. Much of the most profitable work was done at art fairs and sporting events that UBS happened to be sponsoring. These huge art gatherings, such as the Basel art fair and Art Basel Miami Beach, provided excellent conditions for wining and dining “high-net-worth clients”. Teams of Swiss bankers were flown to America disguised as tourists and, according to Birkenfeld, would use the prestigious art events sponsored by UBS to identify wealthy art-lovers to whom they could offer their creative wealth management. In one particularly outrageous admission, Birkenfeld remembered smuggling a favoured client’s diamonds into America, hidden in a toothpaste tube.

    All this was going on in America before the crash. Not for one second am I suggesting that anything similar happened in Britain. The new displays at Tate Modern, sponsored by UBS, are not, thank God, anything like as vulgar as Art Basel Miami Beach. Neither is it particularly relevant that the Tate has a regrettable record in choosing sponsors. Remember the disastrous involvement in the Turner Prize of Drexel Burnham Lambert, pioneers of the junk bond and guilty party in the most costly insider-trading scandal in American financial history? Then there was the United Technologies Corporation, erstwhile builder of the cruise missile. The Tate certainly knows how to pick ’em.

    My reason for dwelling on the recent history of UBS, however, is an art reason, not a fiscal one: a plain case of incompatibility. Surely having this particular organisation sponsor arte povera amounts to having a bit of a laugh? Surely the austere aesthetics showcased and celebrated in the latest rehang of Tate Modern are, at heart, against everything international offshore banking and high-net-worth-client-seeking stand for? Surely arte povera was an art movement mounted in opposition to the likes of UBS?

    The fun begins here with a sign informing you that you are entering the Energy and Process wing. What the hell constitutes “energy and process”? The rule in these UBS displays is for the opening room to feature a standoff between two emblematic works from the Tate collection that attempt to encapsulate the journey ahead. In this instance, a tottering steel sculpture by Richard Serra goes mano a mano with a wonderful suprematist painting by Kasimir Malevich. The Malevich abstraction, featuring a colourful assortment of geometric shapes floating on a white background, combines the bright excitement of a kaleidoscope with the telling sparseness of a constellation. The forces keeping the geo metry in place here feel thoroughly sophisticated, as if they lie beyond the outer reaches of our scientific understanding.

    Then there’s Serra – who is to Malevich what a rusty old sledgehammer is to the Cern particle accelerator. Serra’s Trip Hammer consists of two weighty slabs of steel, one balanced on top of the other, which feel as if they are about to topple over and crush you. Yes, it works as art. But it would also work as a Siberian man-trap.

    It’s a good beginning. Energy and Process makes little sense as a theme when written down, but evoked in art, it points to an interest in elemental forces, a return to basics, a creativity shorn of showiness. That was, indeed, the journey that art took at the tail end of the 1960s, as the reaction set in to pop art, which was too flashy, and to minimalism, which was too sleek. Imagine a gang of monks taking over Selfridges. Out with the Warhols and in with the sackcloth.

    Was there ever a more matt-looking art movement than arte povera? At the centre of the display, in the biggest gallery, the leading lights of the movement fully express their passion for weak-tea browns and downbeat blacks. Giuseppe Penone patiently carves away the soft wood from industrial lengths of timber, leaving behind the hard, knotty stuff that eventually forms the skeleton of a secret tree. Mario Merz weaves a chimney out of basket caning and has someone cook meat inside it, so that the smell carries.

    I had not realised before what a strong sham anistic element there was to these manoeuvres. The sense prevails that any materials, however humble, could be ­magicked into art by an artist’s touch. Barry Flanagan exhibits a twisted length of thick rope that lies there, spookily, like a fossilised phallus. Robert Morris creates an evil black waterfall from cuts of industrial felt, tumbling from a wall. Curiously, the world leader at the time in the shamanistic transformation of humble materials – Joseph Beuys – is not actually included. His spirit, however, seems to rule this roost.

    The Tate display does a good job of proving that these tendencies were fully international. While Penone, Merz and Pistoletto were defining arte povera in Italy, in America a parallel art movement called, uncomfortably, antiform was following an equally beige path. Bruce Nauman, with his knobbly fibreglass casts leant against walls, produced some of the least glamorous art ever to come out of America. And you can still feel the period pains emanating from Eva Hesse’s row of papier-mâché breasts, with ropes hanging from their nipples.

    Women artists are prominent exhibitors here. In 1974, Ana Mendieta, the Cuban self-harmist, made a creepy film in which she stripped naked, poured blood all over her -self, then rolled around in a heap of white feathers before standing up again, blooded and feathered. Yvonne Rainer, an equally obscure American, shows a grainily filmed ballet in which a naked man and woman dance slowly around the living room with a giant balloon.

    Also included in the new displays is a series of artist’s rooms gifted to the Tate by Anthony d’Offay, the mysterious 1980s mega-dealer. These d’Offay contributions are superb. The best is an absurdly dramatic room in which Anselm Kiefer, the most Wagnerian of German symbolists, has included a full-sized, uprooted palm tree at the centre of an apocalyptic display devoted to the Easter festival of Palm Sunday. Easter is supposed to be a time of rebirth and regeneration. But not for Kiefer. Surrounding his dead palm tree with a set of profoundly glum wall pictures, seemingly made from cracked slabs of Middle Eastern desert, he gives us an Easter vision that is parched, lifeless, mutated and way beyond hope. His portrayal of the Virgin Mary, for instance, consists of a filthy nightshirt hovering above the serrated edges of a medieval chastity belt. A Christian feast has become a global endgame.