When the celebrated British art collector Charles Saatchi opened the doors of his eponymous new London gallery on Apr. 17 last month, it was done with an artfully controlled blaze of publicity. The Saatchi Gallery is located in the former County Hall on the South side of the Thames, an inspired choice of venue that overlooks the Houses of Parliament and the heart of tourist London. A classically proportioned Edwardian building dating from 1933, County Hall couldn't be more unlike his former gallery, a raw industrial space in a leafy suburb of North London (where Saatchi has been showing his collection since 1985), in its spirit, layout or perhaps more significantly in the audience he appears to be targeting.
Saatchi's 40,000-square-foot new museum is literally in the shadow of a giant Ferris wheel, the "London Eye," which creates a carnival atmosphere in that section of the riverside -- a mood, critics have suggested, that is only amplified once you step inside the doors. Here, an unsuspecting tourist will find no shortage of the macabre and bizarre. Sharks and sheep in formaldehyde, a pig cut in two, hundreds of mice on a pole, a portrait of a woman with fried eggs on her breasts. The opening even boasted a mass disrobing.
For someone who claims to shun publicity -- he didn't attend his own opening -- Saatchi is unusually well known to a broad public. And indeed, despite his reputation for being press-shy (as his well-oiled press machine regularly reminds us), his constant, attention-seeking antics, each new cleverly planted nugget, make it increasingly hard to view the Saatchi collection with anything close to objectivity. Even for the most casual observer this is not an ordinary art collection. It's impossible to avoid considering the motives of Saatchi himself as part of the overall experience.
For many, this is a veritable freak show -- one now worth an estimated 50 million -- in large part due to the yBas, a group of young British artists who fought a frenzied fight for attention in the late 1980s and '90s. It was a conflagration that Saatchi, advertising man to the core, had an instinct for uncovering and promoting.
A visitor to the new Saatchi Gallery first encounters a neon work by Tim Noble and Sue Webster right at the entrance to the museum. Called Toxic Schizophrenia (1997), the work is made up of 516 light bulbs depicting a typical 1950s biker tattoo. To the left lies a replica of a homeless person huddled in a sleeping bag. Made of painted bronze by Gavin Turk, this work is titled Nomad (2003). Homeless people are a typical sight in most urban areas of Britain, and Turk seems to be shifting his work from self-mythology -- he is known for pieces that fetishize his own signature -- to a search for the nihilistic poetry of the ordinary.
A tourist could be forgiven for wondering why Saatchi, whose fortune has been estimated at 120 million, might want to live with the image of a homeless person -- especially while coughing up the entry fee of 8.50 (about $13.50).
Also available is a book, 100: The Work that Changed British Art (Jonathan Cape/Saatchi Gallery), priced at 20 ($32), which contains an essay by Saatchi that is well worth the price. Here he describes the work as "headbuttingly impossible to ignore" and the attitude of the artists as "get off your easel, you've pulled" [won]. He goes on to use phases like "full-on, check-this-out force" to describe what attracted him to the work being made in Britain in the '90s. This, as well as the other text by Patricia Ellis ("oozing with sticky chocolate box sweetness, Hirst's untitled is like a big gushy valentine from a psychotic boyfriend"), couldn't have been improved on by the scriptwriters of an Austin Powers movie.
Once inside the gallery, one finds the first work by Damien Hirst, Some Comfort Gained from Acceptance of Inherent Lies in Everything (1996). This consists of 12 tanks, each containing a vertically sliced portion of a cow immersed in formaldehyde. The work extends across the room, so it's possible to walk between each tank, examining the internal organs. One then goes through a corridor hung with Hiroshi Sugimoto's ornately framed, black and white photos of wax models of the six wives of Henry VIII. These somber works fit in well with the solid municipal interior.
The main gallery contains what one British tabloid described as the "greatest hits" of the yBas -- in other words, most of Saatchi's major acquisitions of British art from the '90s. Quite familiar to art professionals and even casual followers of the culture wars, the work was part of the "Sensation" show that opened in London in the fall of 1997 before moving on to Berlin and New York. It includes seminal pieces by Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Chris Ofili, Marc Quinn, Jenny Saville and Gavin Turk. It's all the usual suspects, and it's good to see them again.
Like the Sugimoto photographs, most of the pictorial works are framed in ornate molding, emphasizing a certain institutional pomp. The frames both give this work a sense of maturity and inspire a certain cynicism -- one cannot help but think of Saatchi as a "brand manager" who is now taking his "product" into its next stage of development.
But there is one star of the show, and that's Damien Hirst. The museum's first exhibition was billed as a small mid-career retrospective of Hirst's work (it's on view till Aug. 31, 2003). Here is the rather tattered tiger shark in a formaldehyde solution, titled Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). Iconic in the truest sense, the work now seems central to any survey of contemporary art. The installation features a great many other sculptures with animals, including a single lamb Away from the Flock (1994) and a pig cut in two in separate moving vitrines, titled This Little Piggy Went to Market, This Little Piggy Stayed at Home (1996).
Representing Hirst's work on canvas are Argininosuccinic Acid (1995), a spot painting in household gloss paint, and an untitled butterfly painting from 1996. The latest two acquisitions from Hirst are Love Lost (2000), a kind of giant fish tank containing a desk, computer equipment and many fish, and Hymn (1999), a giant bronze sculpture of a man based on an anatomical toy, both of which were seen in New York at the Gagosian Gallery. Hymn presides over the room but gives the unfortunate sense that Hirst's sensibility is increasingly tending towards grandiloquent gestures. Between 1991 and 1996, Hirst's central themes of life, death, love and loss were explored with elegance and wit, if not economy.
Moving from the central hall are institutional corridors leading into small meeting rooms, each with an Edwardian fireplace with a clock (and with each clock displaying a different time). In one room is Richard Wilson's 20:50, a site-specific work from the Boundary Road warehouse that was reconfigured for the new space. Consisting of used sump oil in a shaped steel reservoir that follows the outline of the room, the piece perfectly reflects the ceiling to viewers who walk down a central passage into the middle of the piece.
The primary criticism of the new Saatchi Gallery is that its arrival comes too late. The art it contains has all been seen before. Works like "The Shark" and "The Bed" are so well known in the U.K. that they take their place as London tourist attractions along with Trafalgar Square and St. Paul's Cathedral. The difficulty in Britain is making the distinction between art and notoriety. So few people, so many newspapers.
In hindsight, it's easy to understand what drew Saatchi to this particular group of artists. The visual punch, the quick one-liner, the lowbrow take could all be the product of an advertising agency. Similarly, the absence of any video work in the collection seems to suggest that the idea that contemplation over time should be part of the contemporary art experience is completely over his head.
One suspects that Saatchi perceives himself as a kind of magus, someone whose primary motive is control. It seems quite possible that his pleasure comes from the manipulation of taste, the general public and art community. Tracey Emin is a case in point. We are led to believe that her notorious "bed" has a room to itself in Saatchi's Eaton Square mansion, complete with tubes of KY jelly, used underwear and the like, elevated to the level of fine art and enjoyed by the collector in the privacy of his home. A case of too much information.
Saatchi has vast resources to draw upon for his new museum and it is no secret that only a fraction of the works in his collection will be on show at any one time. The Saatchi Gallery is located between Tate Modern and Tate Britain, two parts of a single institution that has acknowledged weaknesses in its acquisition strategy during the 1990s and has as a result has a poor portfolio of British art from this period.
The press has commented on both the politics of the new museum, with Saatchi being cast as a competitor and even conqueror of the Tate, and with the history of the space itself. Contextually speaking, the new museum represents an unusual convergence of even larger political and cultural motifs. The Saatchi building was formerly the home of the Greater London Council, a leading and vocal opponent of former Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whose right wing policies were promoted by Saatchi's advertising agency in the 1980s.
In 1986, Thatcher managed to close the GLC down by act of Parliament -- but not with the help of her number one henchman, Nigel Lawson, the father of Nigella, Saatchi's current partner in romance. To this unlikely plot, add our romantic anti-hero, a Baghdad-born art collector and self-made multimillionaire, and it could easily be turned into the kind of novel's that Thatcher's former party chairman, Jeffrey Archer, writes from his prison cell.