Article for Vogue China on contemporary art in China
At Frieze – the largest contemporary art fair in London – this October, there was one party that everyone was trying to get tickets to. Model Lily Cole and rock star Michael Stipe of REM were sipping champagne alongside the world’s most influential art collectors, curators and artists. Damien Hirst, Sam Taylor-Wood and Tracey Emin were just some of the a-list artists that were at the opening of the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey, south London.
Hosting the event was White Cube owner Jay Joplin – the man who represents many of the first generation of Young British Artists (YBAs) who rose to international fame and acclaim in the early 1990s. Damien Hirst, whose famous work of a shark in formaldehyde called ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living’ was one of those who took art from the culture pages to the front pages of national newspapers. He was not alone. YBAs of the 1990s such as Tracey Emin shocked audiences with revealing and personal works documenting her sex life and the violent death of family members, whilst the Chapman Brothers’ works featuring torture and disfigurement was regarded as vulgar and offensive. They were shock artists who put on shows in disused warehouses in a time when the economy was slow and the British art market almost stagnant.
There was however, one man who was buying artwork. Charles Saatchi a millionaire, advertising mogul, had been bringing German and American art to the UK to show, collect and sell until he discovered some young British artists – mainly students at the famous Goldsmith College of Art – who were producing some groundbreaking works of art.
Saatchi invested in shows with them, bought many of their works and became a patron to this group which including photographer and film maker Sarah Lucas, Mark Quinn who would go on to make a sculpture of his head made from his own frozen blood, and Tracey Emin who produced a work of a tent with names of all of her sexual partners embroidered on to it.
Saatchi’s influence took these artists to the forefront of the nations attention when in 1992 his YBA show launched them to stardom. The Saatchi name became synonymous with being able to make or break an artist but it was this reclusive collector who created a new era of art history that will go down in history books for decades to come.
By 1997 the normally conservative Royal Academy – Britain’s most academic art institution – featured the YBAs in a show called ‘Sensation’ lifting the level of celebrity of these artist to that of the Britpop Indie bands of the day like Blur and Oasis.
After nearly half a decade of American dominance in contemporary art, Britain had re-taken the title of world capital of art. Julian Opie became the new Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst the new Jackson Pollack, and Chris Ofili the new Willem de Kooning.
Over the next decade British art continued to dominate global contemporary art fairs but towards the end of the 2000s increasing competition emerged from new markets in the Middle East and Asia who were joining artists from European and American at art fairs from Basel to Miami to Hong Kong.
SINCE the 1980s a good gauge of trends in contemporary art in the UK has been the Turner Prize. Britain’s most prestigious contemporary art prize has often been a cause of contention and the last decade has probably been the most controversial if its history.
In 2001, Martin Creed won with his work, ‘The Lights Going On And Off’ – which consisted of an empty room where the lights simply turned on and off. Fiona Banner’s work ‘Arsewoman In Wonderland’ – a written narrative of a pornographic film printed on a wall, was nominated the following year and transvestite, Grayson Perry’s sexually explicit ceramic works won in 2003. In recent years the winners of the award have generally been more visual and somewhat less risqué, appealing to a broader audience.
Keith Tyson’s Turner Prize winning paintings led a new movement towards less shock-art and more cerebral works, depicting the interconnectedness of humanity and the universe. Mark Wallinger also became a major influence in British contemporary art in the mid 2000s with his videos and instillations works commentating on social class and politics. Wallinger was the first contemporary artist to show work on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth – one of England’s most famous landmarks, and will be working with the 2012 London Special Olympics.
Now again in London there is a new wave of British artists making their name and dozens of avant-garde galleries opening their doors to the next generation of art students and buyers. It was during the economic recession of the early 1990s that the YBAs created a scene and Britain’s art scene is once again rising like an artistic phoenix from the economic flames of today’s financial crisis.
GALLERIES showcasing contemporary art have long been focused around east London’s Shoredich and Hoxton areas. Many YBAs had studios in the region and small galleries sprung up in this area to exhibit some of their works. Tracey Emin first opened a shop in the area with fellow YBA Sarah Lucas in the early 90s and like her, many of the YBAs including Gilbert and George still live in the area. It’s not uncommon to spot many of these artists in the trendy bars and cafes around Brick Lane.
Unlike Beijing’s 798 or New York’s Chelsea art districts London’s East End is not neatly packed in to a few streets but the diversity of venues is vast, ranging from artist run space to major galleries. However the old industrial and warehouse area of east London is interspersed with fine dining restaurants, underground clubs and artistic cafes making the experience an enjoyable day out.
One of the most prestigious galleries in the East End area is the Whitechapel Gallery. First opened in 1901 it has held exhibitions of artists including Picasso in the 1930s, Mark Rothko in the 1960s and Lucian Freud in the 1990s. After a recent expansion the gallery reopened in 2009 to be one of the most influential and exciting spaces in East London for contemporary art. In Spring 2012, British conceptual artist Gillian Wearing will be holding a major show at Whitechapel Gallery showing her video and photographic works.
For new rising stars try the gallery Store where artists including Bedwyr Williams and Ryan Gander, who has been gaining a lot of attention for his photographic and instillation works can be found. Seven Seven and the artist-run Ama Enterprises are also spaces to find works from emerging young talent. Also Turner Prize-winner Wolfgang Tillman’s gallery Between Bridges is a great unknown treasure that has established a reputation for championing some of the best artists overlooked by the more commercial galleries.
Victoria Miro is one of the more established galleries showing well-known artists such as Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Tal R and Grayson Perry, whilst the Hoxton branch ofWhite Cube is where some of the household names like Damien Hirst can be found.The Approach Gallery is a great space to check out some of the major players with Gary Webb, Rezi van Lankveld and the excellent paintings by Michael Raedecker often on show. And Herald Street Gallery shows many young trendy artists such as video artists Oliver Payne and Nick Relph. It is Maureen Paley Gallery, which is credited with pioneering the East End art scene and she represents some of the more established British artists including Rebecca Warren, Gillian Wearing, Woflgang Tillmans and Paul Noble. All worth checking out.
IF the once-edgy East End has now become the established commercial art zone of London the galleries south of the river are taking on the mantel of ‘avant-garde’ and forging a way ahead for the new wave of YBAs.
The Hayward Gallery, on the South Bank, opened in the late 1960s but in recent years has changed its focus to a more contemporary feel, having shown a retrospective of American painter Ed Ruscha and Dan Flavin’s light installations as well as a major show of British sculptor Anthony Gormley in the last recent three years. Next year David Shrigley will be showing his sculpture, animation and drawings that are famous for being morbidly humorous in what will certainly be a highlight of the year.
Elsewhere on the South Bank, the Tate Modern opened in an old power station in 2000 as sister venue to Tate Britain to become the UK’s main centre for global contemporary art. As well as the major permanent collection, the Tate Modern is famous for showing vast instillation works by some of the worlds most famous artists including Anish Kapoor, Louise Bourgeois and Ai Weiwei. Damien Hirst will hold a major show from April to September 2012 here.
These major national institutions along with the rapid gentrification of the poorer south London area have seen a number of smaller galleries open up – especially in the borough of Bermondsey. The Poussin Gallery features many modern British abstract artists including Willard Boepple, Alan Davie and Robin Greenwood.
Elsewhere along the Bermondsey strip is Delfina Gallery and Café where artists including Keith Tyson, Michael Raedecker and Mark Wallinger all previously had studios and many works by these and other younger artists can be seen on the walls of the trendy café.
However, Bermondsey was firmly put on the art map in the middle of October by the opening of the third branch of White Cube – now the largest art gallery in Europe. The space designed by Casper Mueller Kneer Architects is 5,440 square meters and features three major exhibition spaces, making it one of the most important commercial galleries in the country.
AS well as the East and South art districts of London, many smaller private galleries dealing with a wide range of art can be found in the heart of the city, with London’s Bond Street being home to older and classical works and Chelsea housing a number of independent art spaces. Also in Chelsea is the Saatchi Gallery. One of the UK’s most important galleries, it shows a diverse range of contemporary art from around the world that has included a major show of contemporary Chinese art in 2008, Middle Eastern art in 2009 and Indian art in 2010.
Britain’s National Portrait Gallery is also packed with painted and photographic portraits by some of the biggest names in art and fashion including Lucian Freud the fashion photographer David Bailey. Interspersed between ancient Egyptian mummies and roman sculpture is the British Museum that also shows works by contemporary artists and is currently showing a major exhibition of Grayson Perry’s works until February 2012.
Excellent schools such as Goldsmiths and St Martins continue to produce exceptional talent and many of these and other established artists will be exhibiting in China in 2012 as part of the UK Now project to showcase contemporary culture in cities around China.
So for those who never managed to get a ticket to the White Cube opening, fear not, there continued expansion of Britain’s contemporary art scene means that the next celebrity filled opening is just around the corner.