Saatchi Gallery in Adelaide: British Art Now

August 16, 2011
Idris Kahn, Every... Prison Type Gasholders

Ever since Sensation hit the headlines in 1997, contemporary British Art has been synonymous with scandal. When the show appeared at the Royal Academy in London, the catalyst was Marcus Harvey’s huge portrait of the murderess, Myra Hindley, made from hundreds of children’s handprints. In Brooklyn, two years later, the flashpoint was Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, with its balls of elephant dung. The Australian part of the tour was cancelled amid a storm of controversy.

Harvey, Hindley Handprints

Twelve years later we finally have our exhibition of new British art, but, with one exception, it is an entirely different generation that features in The Saatchi Gallery in Adelaide: British Art Now, at the Art Gallery of South Australia. The sole relic of the glory days of the YBAs (‘Young British Artists’) is Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1999), hailed in the catalogue as “a cultural icon of the twentieth century”.

Rather a big call, that. ‘One of the cultural curiosities of the twentieth century’ might have been a better description. For while it is fascinating to lay eyes on the infamous bed, with its filthy sheets, soiled undies, empty vodka bottles, used condom, and other bio-hazardous material, the interest is voyeuristic not aesthetic. It’s comical to imagine an installation team extracting the bed from a crate and arranging each bit of detritus in exactly the right place.

Tracey Emin, My bed

Regardless of whatever outrage the bed caused when it was shown at the Tate Gallery in 1991, it is now a celebrity souvenir. As such it is representative of the institutional acceptance of the YBAs, which proved to be their triumph and their downfall. The YBAs enjoyed a parasitical relationship with the media, in which notoriety opened the door to fame and fortune. The real art was in the marketing, while the work itself often seemed like nothing but a means to an end.

Most of the original first wave of YBAs came from working class backgrounds and by the beginning of the 90s were still living as impoverished Bohemians. Within a few years the British Council had got behind this supposedly radical group and was sending exhibitions all over the world. Damien Hirst was well on the way to being a millionaire, and many others were enjoying the fruits of success. The art may have been crude, vulgar and sensationalist, but it put Britain back on the map. Furthermore, it sold for increasingly high prices, and in the days of Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia that was an unequivocal sign of quality.

Long before the contemporary art boom sent prices into the stratosphere, the advertising tycoon, Charles Saatchi, was already a key player. Saatchi hoovered up many of the major works of the YBAs and exhibited them in his private gallery, which for the past three years has been located in a magnificent building near Sloane Square.

Eventually people began to see that Saatchi was not just a collector, but a wheeler-dealer who acquired works cheaply and sold them for large profits. Few pieces in the Sensation exhibition still remain in Saatchi’s hands. Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, for instance, may now be seen in David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde was acquired for £50,000 in 1991, and sold to the American hedge fund billionaire, Steve Cohen, in 2004, for US $8 million (some say US $12 million).

To buy and sell is any collector’s prerogative, but Saatchi had become so powerful that his transactions had a seismic influence on artists’ careers. In recent years his relations with institutions such as the Tate have cooled, even though he announced last year that the gallery and a large part of the collection would be gifted to the nation.

There was no hesitation from the new director of the AGSA, Nick Mitzevich, who has welcomed the Saatchi Gallery with open arms. This is allegedly the biggest touring show ever to arrive in Adelaide. It is certainly the most generous display ever granted to a temporary show, as a large part of the gallery’s permanent collection has been taken down to make way for the Saatchi works. The transformation is startling when one recalls how crowded these galleries were under earlier directors. Mitzevich has stamped his authority on the AGSA in bold, almost brazen fashion, making it a showcase for the contemporary art that is his personal passion.

If he is shrewd, he will restore those historical galleries at the end of the show, but with a smaller selection of works that may be rotated more often. The Australian galleries have already been refurbished and rehung, and look all the better for it.

It is of no concern to Mitzevich whether Saatchi is a dealer or a philanthropist. Nigel Hurst, the CEO of the Saatchi Gallery is right to describe this as a “meeting of hearts and minds.” This is exactly the kind of show that Mitzevich wanted, and he has seized this opportunity to give the AGSA a shake-up.

It is an index of his success that the exhibition has generated extremely positive responses from staff and audiences. Adelaide has long been the most hide-bound and under-resourced of the state galleries, and the Saatchi show must be taken as a statement of intent: it cannot and will not remain that way.

As for the exhibition itself, it is a classic example of an event that is much more than the sum of its parts. If one were to examine this collection piece by piece, it is hardly more than a college graduate show. There is little that is strikingly original, and few works that do not invite some obvious criticism. The art is invested with an exaggerated glamour by the sheer space it occupies, even if individual works do not sustain much attention.

The catalogue continues this process. With its stylish, red rubber cover it is bound to become a collectors’ item, although there is nothing much to read apart from one terrible typo (“Arnaud” for “Artaud”, twice), and a piece of creative writing by Patricia Ellis that provides a up-to-the-minute lexicon of British slang.

What struck me most forcibly about the art is how clumsy it is alongside the work being made by emerging Chinese artists. The British artists have neither the skill base nor the capacity to hire technicians to pull off more ambitious pieces. Instead, the grunge aesthetic is alive and well, along with various forms of homeless abstraction, and a range of cute but inconsequential gimmicks. Above all, there is nothing to shock or offend – a far cry from the creations of Damien Hirst or the Chapman Brothers.

Of the 42 artists in this show, perhaps the most engaging contributions are three large pictures by Idris Khan, which take a series of photographs by the German duo, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and digitally superimpose them to create images that have the delicacy of charcoal drawings and an extraordinary optical vibration.

Idris Kahn, Every... Bernd And hilla Becher...

Another work with a strong presence is a sculpture by Alexander Hoda called Pile Up, in which the vague shapes of animals, chains and bits of debris struggle to escape from a hulking, black, amorphous mass. Viewers will probably also pause in front of Spartacus Chetwynd’s grotesque figures: The Lizard, The Stick Insect and The Mole, made as costumes for a performance based – improbably – on Joy Adamson’s Born Free.

Alexander Hoda, Pile Up

Tessa Farmer’s vitrine filled with insects and tiny figures made from the reassembled carcasses of other insects is impressive, if only for the time and patience it must have required. Scott King’s Pink Cher, which inserts the singer’s face into Alberto Korda’s famous photo of Che Guevara is an amusing one-liner.

Tessa Farmer, Swarm (detail)

It’s hard to walk past the 18th century genre scenes that Sigrid Holmwood repaints in hand-made pigments, but it’s equally hard to love these lurid concoctions. Even less appealing was a crumpled mass of cling film, baby oil and paint by Karla Black, sprawled across the floor of an entire room.

For Charles Saatchi, this collection is a speculation. If two or three of these artists go on to be international superstars, he will have justified his investment. For the rest of us, it is a glimpse into the current state of British art that should be deeply reassuring for anyone who imagines that Australian work is somehow inferior to that being made in places such as London or New York. While it may look as though Adelaide is rolling out the red carpet for the country we once called “home”, what we are really seeing is the antidote to the Cultural Cringe.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 6, 2011

Saatchi Gallery in Adelaide: British Art Now
Art Gallery of South Australia,
Adelaide, July 30 – 23 October 23, 2011
John McDonald travelled to Adelaide courtesy of the South Australian Tourism Commission