Full circle

When I arose today, Sam was already up, barely having slept from the night before. With a musical and meals to get to, he slipped away, while I took a more leisurely start to the day. After a quick breakfast, I headed down to Bankside, a gentrified strip along the Thames that was once industrial. It is famously home to Shakespeare's Globe and Tate Modern, but my first stop was The Shard.

I hadn't seen any news of its construction back when I was in Australia, but somehow they've managed to build the tallest skyscraper in Europe without much hubbub. It's a rather magnificent glass pyramid, with blunted ends at the peak; not entirely dissimilar to a Mass Relay, actually. I didn't bother investigating to see if you can get to the top, as from what I'd briefly read I think they are still outfitting the interior. Pretty cool, though.

I wandered further along the banks towards the Globe, pausing to use the Wi-Fi momentarily (they have pretty great coverage all across London - you can be fairly confident that if the intersection you're on doesn't have it, the next one will). After a bite of lunch, I made my way to my destination: Tate Modern. There was a nice degree of circularity to the museum visit, as way back in Florence we had crammed in many galleries and exhibitions to escape the heat. It is my last full day in Europe, after all, and the first day of autumn. It all comes full circle.

I'd visited Tate Modern when I was in London about four years ago. They took a huge building that used to be a power plant and made it a massive museum space, and has a particularly striking foyer that is six storeys tall and entirely open. Each year, they have a showpiece exhibit in this Turbine Room - when I was there last time, it was a large metallic container you could enter, but other years the floor has been covered in seeds, or dominated by huge metallic spiders, or had a three storey spiral slippery dip installed. This time it got abstract.

There was an artist on the ground corralling visitors into joining him in activities. When I entered, a huge mass of people was running from one end of the huge space to the other, dodging other visitors and weaving up the long ramp to the entrance. It was like a giant beep test. Then, they started playing intricate keep away games, where they all had to try and stay behind someone else's back, resulting in bursts of shifting activity where people would dart away in reaction to others' movements. There was no real announcement or signage about it, and it was fascinating watching people wonder what was happening and then get drafted into the stream of participants.

The place is currently, like much of Bankside, undergoing further development. Since I last visited, I think they had opened a new space, called The Tanks. These underground rooms formed the basement of an adjoining block, which they now own and are busily converting into what will be a striking, angular, modern companion to the old power plant. They've clearly finished phase one and opened up these crypts, with the higher levels of construction still ongoing.

For fifteen weeks, The Tanks are home to a revolving display of unique exhibitions. Every few days, they get broken down and replaced with something else. They were quite diverse in media, from a film about a public art stunt featuring grandmothers talking at tables in a pattern, to an aural experience where two projectors flashed at each other in a smoke-filled room and their black and white images were translated into tones. There was a cavernous tomb dominated by the display of vaguely erotic films, and one more that was the standout.

The last room had actually been split in two. In the first, a dark, low room played a video of a old woman narrating her life in, I think, Korea. There was a glass window that showed through to the other side of the room, a vastly larger space. You had to exit the small room and re-enter through another door, at which point you see how small the little box your were in really is. The larger part of the room was filled with a few screens showing dreamy imagery, ambient music, and glittering displays you cautiously stumbled your way to in the darkness. It was meant to evoke the contrast between the aspiration or dream, and the reality. Through the glass window you could see out to what you had hoped for, and in at what it was really was. It was hypnotic.

Afterwards, I went upstairs to the permanent collections. Both The Tanks and the collections are free to view - only the temporary exhibits require purchasing a ticket. I was disappointed to discover that the first level I visited hadn't changed since I had been several years ago, and I sped through it with familiarity. Further up, though, there were lots of new things. Displays on surrealism, cubism and other radical sculptural movements. Huge dangling aluminium, large trees carved out of wooden logs, copper baths. I absorbed the melange of fascinating works.

They were offering an exhibit on Damien Hirst, who I had a little familiarity with but couldn't remember how. There had been huge queues all day for tickets with delayed entry, and I'd put it off, but on the way down I noticed that they were selling tickets for immediate admission. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the front they could only sell me for an hour later. I wavered, but bought it and went to sit outside in the park with a water view. When 6:30pm rolled around, I headed back inside.

It was worth it. I immediately recognised Hirst's work, most famous of which is probably his huge tanks of animals in formaldehyde, like a giant shark or a cow cut in half. He had, unusually, a medical background, and I think someone in his family was a pharmacist or doctor too. It permeates his art, with dot paintings named after chemical compounds, and large displays of pills arranged in gleaming silver cabinets.

The exhibition told a story, from his earliest work to his latest. It started with a photo of him smiling, but terrified, next to a severed head in an autopsy room. It showed his first attempts at the coloured dot paintings, though his animal preservation phase. There was another famous work that featured a severed cow's head in a sealed tank with flies. The flies ate, mated, laid eggs, died, and the life cycles continued. There was a bug zapper with a huge pile of carcasses, but otherwise there was no interference. Then there were works with butterflies, including a humid room covered in canvasses with larvae that had hatched into real butterflies, which ate fruit and perched on the walls and on the visitors.

In the final series, which he produced and then sold all at auction, rather than through galleries, it was almost like a culmination of all his work. The room sparkled with gold and diamonds. There were dot paintings made on gold film. A black sheep in formaldehyde to complement the white one he made fifteen years earlier. Instead of pills in metal display cabinets, it was thirty thousand diamonds in a gold cabinet. Large circular tesseracts comprised of butterfly figures. A huge, black lumpy circle wall sculpture made out of dead flies. And finally, a white and beige dot painting, like a quiet coda, and a white dove in preservative, wings open, looking upwards. It was, again, like coming full circle. He had taken everything he'd done in his entire career to that point, mixed it up, and reworked it in a triumphant celebration. Fantastic.

I was heading towards Chinatown for dinner but couldn't remember exactly which stop on the Underground was best. As it turned out, I'd gone a little far, but chose to walk back past Piccadilly Circus. What a stroke of luck. As I came up to the square, I noticed all the streets were closed off, and people were milling around looking up. From the buildings surrounding the square, wires had been strung, and soon people were sliding along in harnesses, miming actions. A few had suitcases and pretended to be tossing something out of it into the crowd. Another walked upside-down underneath the wire, and later two people fought upside-down three storeys up. A woman in a dress twirled and fluttered in midair. It was all very surreal, and from the spotlights and cameras, probably for an ad or film. I'll be interested to see what emerges.

That was my final real day in Europe. It's a bit weird to think that after all the planning, the huge itinerary, the fourteen countries, we only have two places left: Canada, and Japan. Now, admittedly, we have roughly three and a half weeks left, so it's not exactly all over, but we're in the home stretch. Most of the trip is behind us. Canada in particular will be rather laid back, with a week on either coast, which should lend itself to relaxation. Japan has a bit more movement, as we're visiting a few different places, but at least we'll be in the right time zone when we do. So that's it. Thanks, Europe. I've learnt a lot about you, and a lot about myself.