Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Preview of the new Saatchi gallery

The new Saatchi gallery opens tomorrow, 9 October, in the old Duke of York's HQ at Chelsea Barracks in central London. Yesterday was press day for journalists and I was invited to go to today's preview. This is not because I am either famous or influential because I am neither but because I am one of the thousands of artists signed up on their website and occasionally I exhibit a piece of work in the 'showdown' competition; I assume that all their artists got an invite.

I have Jacqui Boyd Alden to thank for introducing me to the showdown. Jacqui and I went to the same small art college in Wiltshire back in the late 70s. We overlapped by two years, studied on different courses and would you 'adam and eve it'* we never met! We finally met this year on Facebook. Since Jacqui now lives on a different continent I went to the Saatchi opening for both of us.

I can't say that I have ever been a fan of Charles Saatchi. I've never completely forgiven him for foisting the likes of Damien Hurst on us but if it hadn't been him maybe another art collector would have done. Mr Saatchi is enormously wealthy and it is only the likes of him who could open a new and very large art gallery in the heart of London in the very week that the global money markets are reaching new lows. I set off on my visit at lunch time already feeling slightly jaded and to my great surprise I was completely smitten with the building. No expense appears to have been spared in the conversion from military barracks to modern art gallery. The galleries are well lit and well proportioned and there is an expansive quality as they don't rope off any of the exhibits. It is easy to find your way around from one gallery to another and no one gallery was very busy. My feeling was that the gallery is the work of art and might very well endure for decades to come unlike the previous incarnation at County Hall, which had been the home of the Greater London Council (GLC), on the south bank of the Thames which felt constrained, pokey, dark and unwelcoming.

Now for the art bit. Well I found a lot of the exhibition to be rather 'ho hum' which I sort of expected. Charles Saatchi has kicked off with an exhibition from Chinese artists. It is called The Revolution Continues: New Art from China. The BBC covered the gallery earlier in the week and so I knew I would be seeing a three-dimensional city scape of Western buildings made out of dog chews which looks better in real life than in a photograph. It is called Love It! Bite It! by Liu Wei, 2005-07 and is described as 'a comment on grotesque consumption and greed'. I didn't pick up on that but I liked the objects and was impressed with the skill needed to make them.

These Chinese artists are keen on making very lifelike sculptures of people out of resin. The first one you come across is of a man lying on his front spread eagled on the floor sticking his tongue out and appearing to lick the floor. This was made by Cang Xin in 2006 and is called Communication. This left me unmoved. The next figure lying on the floor in another gallery is called Angel by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, 2008. This is an image of a very old man dressed as an angel and his wings look as though they are made of skin and bone and he appears to have crash landed on the floor; he might be dead. It is so lifelike it is grotesque so that got a reaction out of me! There are a group of nude bodies hanging upside down from chains from the ceiling. This exhibit is called Chinese Offspring by Zhang Dali, 2003-05 and this apparently represents China's immigrant underclass-they hang upside down to reflect their powerlessness. Didn't work for me. Moving on. The final exhibit of lifelike dummies did made me laugh. This is called Old Persons' Home by Sun Yuan and Penjg Yu, 2007. Here are lifesized sculptures of wizened pensioners that sit in electric wheelchairs. They resemble aged world leaders and move slowly around the gallery bumping into each other. Sometimes they have to be pulled apart by a gallery attendant. There was a clip of it on the BBC website which seems to have been taken down which is a shame because you have to see it to believe it.

Apart from these exhibits I found the endless paintings of Mao fairly uninteresting but there were two paintings that caught my imagination. The first one I found mesmerising and is called Seeds by Zhang Huan, 2007. It is a large, subtle, monocrome painting being 250 x 400cms and depicts shadowy people planting seeds in a field. The artist used incense ash, charcoal and resin on canvas to create this atmospheric work. The second painting is a very vigourous monocrome landscape in oil on canvas by Zeng Fanzhi called This land is so rich in beauty 2. After all this stimulation I was ready for some food so made my way towards the door.

Admission is free. The Revolution Continues: New art from China opens 9 October and runs until 18 January 2009.

*Cockney rhyming slang for 'believe'.


MartaSzabo said...

Hi Heather, I went looking for your Saatchi story -- had looked it up in advance so knew that you'd be seeing some kind of Chinese art. Really liked reading your descriptions of what you saw. You're the best art reviewer on the planet.

Heather said...

Why thank you! Actually Brian Sewell is my idea of a good art reviewer, very scholarly and very bitchy. He writes for the Evening Standard but I haven't heard about him for a while so I hope he is all right.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review of the Saatchi gallery and I am very jealous! I managed to track down the "old person's home" on the BBC and it bit like seeing remote controlled Dodgems.

I am actually reading a really good book on China (China Road, a journey into the future of a rising power) at the moment by NPR reporter Rob Gifford as he travels along route 312, an east to west road across China.

Just last night I was reading passage about modern Chinese Art. Here is a brief snippet (slightly abridged as well) and it might resonate with some of the images you saw (or not).

'traditional Chinese art said much about the Chinese worldview. While the person of Christ had focused so much of Western art upon the the human form, Chinese art was always more about the landscape- the mountains, the rivers-with human figures often playing just the parts in the natural drama and grandeur of the painting.

As Confucian orthodoxy crumbled and everything traditional came under attack, modern art had enjoyed a brief flowering in the big cities in the heady days of the 1920s and '30s. But then art, like everything else was subjugated to the needs of the new Communist orthodoxy, and art for art's sake went out the window.

In the 1980's, in art as in many areas, China emerged from its Maoist shell and tried to work out where to pick up a thirty -year assault on traditional Chinese culture. The result has been as been a mix of a rewind to establish Chinese forms and a fast-forward to a completely postmodern style, which pushes the boundaries of art even more than Western postmodernism. If traditional Chinese art was too rooted in traditional, modern Chinese art is in danger of being completely deracinated. ............

"So who do you like?" Su asked me.

"Er...Jackson Pollock?" I proffer, screeching in fifty years late to the postmodernism debate.

"Yibab Ba! He's rather average!" he says "how about Dai Mian He Si Te?
Dai Mian He Si Te. He did that thing with the shark!"

"Damien Hirst!" I salvage my credibility

"Right, " he says, "I like him."

"you, Westerners, brought us a new concept of art," Su continues, " This idea of challenging the eyes. Our art used to be all about harmony, like our society. .........Then your artists said, we want to challenge western morality with our art, and they did. And, of course, it caused a storm. Why? Because even though you in the West are free to be atheists and free to be offensive, if you want to, not everyone is. There are still many religious believers. Here, though, there is no religion and no sensibility about that sort of thing. Everything is possible. Now chinese artists are saying, 'we can do this, we're Marxists and atheists, we can do this.' and we can! and we do!"
.................. "We have perfected the modernism that you brought in, and do you know why?" Su lowers his head and raises his eyebrows again, talking like a man who rarely has anyone to listen to his theories. "because life here in China is brutal. So art is just a mirror of life. Life and death, love and hate, sex and violence. People in other countries don't have the pressure to survive that Chinese people have everything. So your art is boring. Here the aim of modern artists is to express themselves. They want to create a kind of political freedom through their art. We can't express our views on a lot of political issues but we can do it through our art." (artist being interviewed was Su Zhongqiu who teaches art at a University in Xi'an

Sorry it was so long winded but I thought you might be interested.

As I have never seen a piece of Damien Hirst work, I feel I cannot comment on it but the one good thing about Him, Tracey Ermin and all the other bright young things, they did bring art back into the public domain and that can't be a bad thing.

Seeing your reviews of different shows you attend, just makes me yearn to be back in the big cosmopolitan world of London again. In a couple of weeks it will be a year since I visited on my own and had a great time, just wandering from one show to the next. It kept me going for a good few months. Somehow I need to get another fix!

Heather said...

Thanks Jacqui,

That was a really interesting post. It's interesting to read about how the Chinese can use art as a means of self expression which they can't do in another way. I hadn't thought of that coming as I do from a culture that can say what the hell it likes whenever it likes.

Well, anyway I'll keep on reviewing until you get back to the UK for another dose of art, art, art.