Pickling the Nineties

The new Saatchi Gallery preserves the near past in formaldehyde.

Josie Appleton

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The Young British Artists (YBAs) burst on the scene in 1988, with the show Freeze in London’s Docklands. This showed the work of Goldsmiths College art graduates, and was masterminded by one Damien Hirst.

Fifteen years on, the YBAs’ premier sponsor and promoter, ad-man Charles Saatchi, has opened a gallery showing their work in the old County Hall in central London, just down the river from Nicholas Serota’s Tate Modern, the old power station.

Now that the scandal surrounding the YBAs has died down, this provides an opportunity to see this movement in perspective. And County Hall, which has had a series occupants since the Greater London Council (GLC) was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1986, is an interesting place to show them. The wood-panelled rooms, complete with stopped clocks, fix the works as museum pieces, as products of a particular time and place.

It is appropriate that the old council chamber, once a hothouse of Labour militancy, should contain Hirst. Because if the abolition of the GLC helps to mark the closure of the left-right political conflict in 1980s Britain, the YBAs are an icon of the post-political 1990s.

Brit Art, which dominated the arts scene for a decade, has come under attack from all sides. Many argued that Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde and Tracey Emin’s bed relied on their ability to shock, rather than their representation of skill or thought. While traditional British painters like Lucian Freud had built their careers over a long period, steadily developing skills and insights, the YBAs hit the front-pages in their early twenties, and showed little interest in artistic development.

As Rosie Millard put it in The Tastemakers: UK Art Now, the YBAs went for ‘headlining, instantly recognisable work, sexy galleries, high-profile events’ (1). The artists themselves became a kind of brand – and they branched out into food (Hirst set up a restaurant), advertising (Emin advertised gin) and commercial goods.

Dinos Chapman, who with his brother Jake produced a range of up-market ties, told Millard: ‘Yeah we have a brand. The image on this tie, this double-skull image, that is the Chapman Industry logo. We use it on t-shirts and prints, and it is instantly recognisable.’ The YBAs were seen as Saatchi’s latest product, that he advertised to the public just as he had tried to sell them Silk Cut and Thatcherism a few years before.

And Brit Art’s themes – its preoccupation with death, sex and gritty degradation – came under attack from different groups. Some criticised Brit Art for being dehumanising and self-obsessed. Right-wing traditionalists accused it of being crude and immoral, of undermining public values for the sake of it. Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition, originally shown at London’s Royal Academy in 1997, sparked furore when it went to New York a couple of years later. A picture of the ‘Holy Virgin Mary’ that involved elephant dung caused particular offence.

It is true that Brit Art expresses the crises in traditional art, politics and morality. But in this respect the YBAs are more messengers than puppeteers – they reflected a change, rather than caused it. Christianity lost its hold on the British people long before Chris Ofili stuck elephant dung on his picture of the Virgin Mary.

And it is questionable whether Brit Art’s doomladen preoccupations mean that it has no value. As is to be expected, the works in the Saatchi Gallery are of variable quality. On some occasions, the morbid and narcissistic tendencies of the artists make their work aesthetically as well as politically or morally unappealing.

But at their best, Hirst and co show the 1990s zeitgeist with a certain honesty. And it is for this reason that some of their work still holds a power and an interest.

The YBAs spurned traditional modes of artistic representation. Rather than re-presenting life in a picture or sculpture, which reconstructs an object from the point of view of the artist, they presented it directly. Their work has a raw immediacy, where death, sex and intimacy are projected into the gallery space just as they are.

Brit Art deals with the traditional themes of art. But while Titian painted Christ’s body being laid in the coffin – which reconstructed an image of death replete with colour and meaning – Hirst gives us dead animals.

He shows us a tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde, and calls it The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). If death cannot be conceived of by the living mind, how could anyone paint a painting about it? A Thousand Years (1990) contains maggots feeding on a cow’s head, that metamorphose into flies and are killed by an ‘electrocutor’. Also in the Saatchi Gallery is Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad (1997), a scaled-down replica of his father’s corpse, which has legs prickled with Mueck’s own hair.

And traditionally the inner life was dealt with in self-portraits, where the artist’s gaze revealed his personality. But YBA Mark Quinn creates Self (1991): a model of his head made out of his own frozen blood. ‘I am the shape of my head and the blood it contains’, seems to be the message of Self. Quinn shows his self directly, without obvious social mediation or meaning. Likewise, Tracey Emin does not try to translate her four-days-in-bed-on-a-downer into artistic form – she just shows us the bed, with its wreckage of soiled underwear, Vodka bottles and tissues.

The question of altered perception, meanwhile, has been a major preoccupation of modern art. Cubist art, for example, creates an image that shows the world as fragmented into its different angles of view. By contrast, in 20:50, a room in the Saatchi Gallery filled with oil, Richard Wilson actually alters our perception. This piece makes the sky and the ceiling appear in the floor – and as you walk along the descending walkway it seems as if you are sinking down into it.

This makes a big break with the past. Since early human history, art has been about representing aspects of life experience in a different form. In his 1962 book Short History of Culture, anthropologist Jack Lindsay explains how the dance form is a reconstruction of the hunt: the dance is, he says, ‘the essential hunt’; it is ‘the living hunt on a level of comparatively liberated functioning’. The dancers move to rhythm, mime, and develop the story of the hunt, in a realm that has works on different principles to the hunt itself.

In his new book The Eclipse of Art, cultural commentator Julian Spalding argues that conceptual art’s sidelining of creativity means that it is no longer art in the true sense (2). He argues that the presentation of cows or beds in art galleries is an impoverished form of expression. Artists, he says, can only really express their emotions or viewpoint by actually painting or sculpting material into a new form – rather than cutting up or putting together real objects.

Spalding’s criticisms are trenchant and convincing – and his call to reinvigorate a more creative kind of art is an inspiring and valuable one. But Brit Art’s methods are not just a perversion of artistic creativity: they also get at something real about today, which is that we find it difficult to endow death, intimacy or sex with a greater meaning or significance. Brit Art, in a sense, invented a new kind of expression for a new kind of zeitgeist.

Death was previously seen in terms of religious belief in heaven and hell, or noble sacrifice for political or moral causes. It is this framework of meaning that allowed the Aztecs to sculpt the ‘lord of death’, and Titian to paint the corpse of Christ. Today, we have few ways to understand death, other than as an endpoint. It is perhaps for this reason that Hirst simply shows us the brute fact.

In the past, when there was an element of mystique and morality around sexual issues, the representation of sex tended to be tied up with love, the family and procreation. Today, when sex is much more out in the open, there is a matter-of-factness about its representation: it is seen as a physical activity, without too much emotion or significance. It is this matter-of-factness that YBA Sarah Lucas shows in Au Natural, an installation of a soiled mattress with two melons, a bucket, a cucumber and two oranges. Two people in bed are reduced to their genitalia.

Brit Art gives off a sense of coolness, a feeling of suspension. The exhibition catalogue at Hirst’s 1988 show Freeze described one of the exhibits as ‘dedicated to a moment of impact, a preserved now, a freeze-frame’. Hirst’s sheep and shark are held in fluid, preserved in a state of complete tranquillity; Quinn’s blood that once rushed around his body, is frozen solid. Brit Art has little sense of the pulse of life, of struggle or criticism.

This is perhaps an expression of the ‘end of history’ that was announced at the time these young artists came of age. The ceasing of conflict over political and social questions meant that more aspects of life had to be accepted, rather than criticised or changed. There was a fatalistic sense of things becoming frozen, of there being ‘no alternative’ to what is already there.

So in spite of all the hype and commercialism that surrounded the YBAs, they are interesting today as reflections of their times. The Saatchi Collection in County Hall is like a microcosm of the 1980s and early 1990s. The council chamber that once rang with political fury in the 1980s is now occupied with the cool, matter-of-fact statements about the brutality of life and death that followed.

While both the exhibits and the building feel like museum pieces, it is questionable whether the art will be able to transcend the time that produced it – in the way that, for example, we can still wonder at Raphael’s oil paintings hundreds of years later. For a start, the collection is beginning to deteriorate now, only a few years after its creation. Hirst’s community of maggots and flies is already on its last legs; the shark is starting to look dog-eared; the innards have slipped on the bisected cow and calf.

This ageing is not surprising in a collection that was supposed to be about the ‘preserved now’. Because, of course, it is impossible to really preserve the ‘now’, or suspend the flux of life – change carries on regardless, even if it only appears as organic degeneration. The only solution is to carry on producing that immediacy again and again – replacing the fruit on the bed, replenishing the community of maggots, filling another room with oil.

It is telling that Saatchi has now gone back to his first batch of artists – the wave of the early 1990s seems not to have been replaced, as the late 90s slipped into the twenty-first century. A couple of years ago, Saatchi tried to launch off a new art movement called ‘New Neurotic Realism’, but this never left the ground. Brit Art has been difficult to match or repeat.

Perhaps this is because it reflected a new moment – a moment of the suspension of political struggle, and sense of life being reduced to its brute facts – that it is difficult to develop or move on from. And maybe today’s young British artists need to un-Freeze art, and let the shark out of the tank. They might even decide to paint the thing.

Josie Appleton is coordinating the spiked debate Culture and difference, in association with decibel, Arts Council England’s initiative to develop and support culturally diverse arts.

See the Saatchi Gallery at County Hall

(1) The Tastemakers: UK Art Now, Rosie Millard , 2001. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(2) The Eclipse of Art: Tackling the Crisis in Art Today, Julian Spalding, 2003

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