Cildo Meirelles’ installation “Babel” (2001) is the kind of artwork that you “cannot not” notice. Firstly, because “Babel” is a large-scale sculpture installation made of hundreds of analogue radios. Secondly, if you love music as much as I do you will be instantly drawn into it; the noise and sounds being transmitted by the installation will also attract you closer to the object so you can listen to the sounds coming from the radios. Finally, “Babel” is being used – something I noticed quite recently – in Tate’s advertising campaigns. When you walk towards the Gallery from Millennium bridge, for example, you will see the banners featuring “Babel”. This artwork is also on the cover of Tate Modern Handbook revised edition 2016, which was published after the opening of the museum’s extension in 2016.
Once closer to the installation, you will soon realise that you cannot actually comprehend the sounds coming from the thousands of radios: there are over a hundred of them tuned to different stations and adjusted to a minimum volume. Meireles has referred to his work as a “tower of incomprehension”. It is a manifestation of the biblical story “Tower of Babel”. According to the Book of Genesis, people on Earth used to speak the same language, until they decided to build a tower tall enough to reach the heavens. God, however, felt offended by this attempt, and published the people by making them to speak different tongues. The inability to communicate among themselves caused division and conflicts.
As Meireles himself explains: “Babel began in 1990 on Canal Street, in New York. There were eleven years of notes before I finally realised the work in 2001, in Helsinki, at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. Upon observing the quantity and diversity of radios and all the different types of sound objects that were sold around Canal Street, I thought of making a work with radios. Radios are interesting because they are physically similar and at the same time each radio is unique”. (Quoted in Tate Modern 2008, p.168.)
Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1948, Meireles was the first Brazilian artist to have a full retrospective by Tate, which happened in 2008 . Babel was purchased jointly by Tate, London (with the assistance of the Latin American Acquisitions Committee) and the D.Daskalopoulos Collection, 2013, as a promised gift to Tate.
According to Tate’s curator Tanya Barson (May, 2011), this artwork is also related to and influenced by the writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), who has being an ongoing influence in the work of Cildo Meireles.
“In his story ‘The Library of Babel’, originally published in 1941, Borges described a universe in the form of a vast or conceptually complete library that has its centre everywhere and its limits nowhere. This corresponds to Meireles’s interest in expanded notions of space and of infinity, in an excess of perceivable information and the processes of cognition.” Tanya Barson (May, 2011)
Babel can be seen at Tate Modern, Room 6, Boiler House building.
Guy Brett (ed.), Cildo Meireles, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2008, pp.14–5, 57, 168, 170–3, 183, reproduced pp.6, 169.
Guy Brett (ed.), Cildo Meireles, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2008, p. 168