On her first visit to Charles Saatchi's new gallery in Chelsea, Lucy Farmer is prepared to see works that are shocking, sexual and eerily amusing. She is particularly struck by what can be achieved using silica gel ...
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It has been a three-year wait, but Charles Saatchi is back. After months of delays, the famous art collector's new gallery opened in the stately Duke of York's Headquarters in Chelsea, London in October. This is the third building chosen to be the Saatchi Gallery, with old spaces abandoned in favour of upgrades. Would this one be worth the wait?
Fighting through the foot traffic of Sloane Square, I escape the King's Road and head through the gallery's impressively marked gate. The gallery itself overlooks a swathe of grass, a picture of serenity. The building's entrance is surprisingly staid: imposing columns, rows of Georgian windows. But such clean lines, high ceilings and symmetry make for an ideal gallery space. The interior required drastic renovation--the ceilings, walls and floors were stripped to create white cubes suitable for displaying contemporary art. Presumably the Saatchi team was more cautious with these changes than it had been at its County Hall premises, where a dispute with the landlords led to an acrimonious departure. (Among the landlords' complaints were that Saatchi had comandeered rooms not included in his lease, and that he had offered two-for-one admissions to circumvent a rule on minimum ticket prices.)
Inside, the new gallery feels bracingly like a blank canvas. The combination of white walls, ashen floorboards and stark lighting seems just the right side of dazzling. Only a few works are displayed in each room, lending the expanse of bright space an otherworldly feel. With time, the artworks seem to stretch out and fill this void.
Saatchi has chosen new art from China for his opening exhibition, called "The Revolution Continues". It's a timely choice, as the art world has become increasingly fascinated with Asian art in recent years. It has dominated art fairs such as Art Basel since 2006, and the summer Olympics seem to have piqued an interest in Chinese culture.
The collection naturally reflects Saatchi's taste for the shocking, sexual and eerily amusing. And it remains fascinating to note which up-and-coming artists have earned the Saatchi endorsement. His backing is perhaps the only reliable credit rating left in these uncertain times.
The works are evenly balanced between painting and sculpture, and the overwhelming feeling is one of darkness and conflict. The soulless eyes that gaze out from a series of portraits by Zhang Xiaogang invite a critical look at the culture of family in China. The country's one-child policy, widespread preference for sons and the depressing aura of a Communist upbringing are all conveyed with sinister subtlety. There are also various caricatures of Chairman Mao, whose legacy still provokes a powerful and ambiguous response. Qui Jie's "Portrait of Mao" depicts him as a cat. "Mao" means "cat" in Chinese and is traditionally a blessing in Chinese art, but Jie's drawing is toxic. The cat has a coy look in his eye.
The sculptures are particularly striking. Really, it is amazing what can be achieved with silica gel. Cang Xin's "Communication" is a life-size replica of the artist licking the floor, a still image of something he has performed around the world since 1996. As a shaman, Cang believes that both animate and inanimate objects have a spirit; his three-dimensional self-portrait is so realistic that I could agree.
A harrowing resin work dominates the central room of the exhibition. Zhang Dali's "Chinese Offspring" is a collection of naked humans hanging upside-down from the ceiling, representing the powerlessness of Chinese immigrant workers. Some look anguished, others desolate; all are helpless.
Another large-scale installation is Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's "Old People's Home" (pictured), on the basement floor. The sculpting duo are known for their satirical work, in this case a send-up of world leaders. A group of decrepit men, modelled to look like aged political figureheads, sit slumped in wheelchairs. The chairs slowly creep around the floor, occasionally nudging each other in an eerie game of slow-motion dodgems. Again the human likeness is uncanny, and the resemblances to men such as Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro is both provocative and wickedly funny. As visitors stroll around the floor, noticing the lines of drool and stained uniforms, there are nervous giggles, evil sniggers and outbursts of hilarity.
Saatchi reportedly oversaw all of the hangings and arrangements for the gallery. But he would shudder at being called a curator. He has been condemned for not having a critic's eye, merely a big wallet. But he has never claimed to be a critic. He admits that he just goes by what colours and shapes work together--and why not? It is refreshing to view Saatchi's collection as a simple manifestation of what he likes, what moves him. The new gallery is a beautiful place to look at new art, all from his personal collection. And in a merciful move for those of us with more shallow pockets, admission is free.
Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York's HQ, King's Road, London SW3 4SQ
Picture credit: Jim Linwood (via Flickr)
(Lucy Farmer is an editorial assistant with The Economist and a writer based in London.)