Charles Saatchi Finally Opens His Museum in London
Martin Gayford on Bloomberg and Waldemar Januszczak in the Times of London reviews the inaugural show of Chinese contemporary art at Charles Saatchi’s new Chelsea museum. The Daily Telegraph has a story and pictures of the building and the art.
Here’s the Times’s Januszczak on the building and show:
It is always difficult to tell from an opening visit what kind of service a new location will provide for the art inside it, but to my eyes, we have here 70,000 sq ft of well-nigh-perfect modern art space. Behind the portentous Duke of York HQ facade, four floors of interconnecting white cubes have been tastefully stacked, illuminated from above by what appears to be a sequence of soft and shrouded roof windows. It’s a beautiful illusion. All the lighting is artificial. But how lofty and airy the galleries appear. Some spaces are spectacular, others modest, as the higgledy-piggledy nature of the original building bequeaths a useful air of variety to the new arrangement. All this is a big architectural improvement on the depressing wooden sarcophagus in which the art struggled so hopelessly in the old Saatchi Gallery on the South Bank.
(The Best Stuff After the Jump)
Unusually for him, Saatchi did not trigger the current enthusiasm for Chinese art. Instead, he jumped noisily onto a rolling band-wagon. The Chinese themselves were the first enthusiasts. Having come into bundles of swag from the Chinese economic miracle, a pushy generation of Chinese wannabes, based originally in Hong Kong, but increasingly hailing from the mainland, set about imitating their western counterparts by buying the local trophy art.
As you go round the show you keep encountering Chairman Mao, popping up everywhere like a proprietorial logo on a range of national goods. [ . . . ] What is being reflected here is not only Mao’s continuing embedment in the Chinese consciousness, but also his iconic visual presence. Long before Warhol turned the chairman into one of pop art’s most striking faces, Mao himself had reduced his own image to a set of catchy visual clichés. I can certainly see why mocking him has become the default mode of Chinese art, and why Chinese collectors so enjoy owning these naughty counters to the Cultural revolution. It’s like teasing the gorilla in a zoo. But Chinese political pop art — Pol Pop? — leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. When someone has been as brutal as Mao was, and murdered as many as he did, giggling about him behind his back seems a flimsy riposte. [ . . . ]
The most celebrated of the new Chinese painters, Zhang Xiaogang, whose prices begin at £1m these days and then soar, is more serious than the political popists, but his work suffers instead from a chronic repetitiveness. Basing his paintings on the family photographs that were banned in Mao’s day — the people had a new family now: China — Zhang churns out melancholy face after melancholy face in a seemingly endless procession of haunted national stares. A thin thread of red joining up all the interchangeable grey figures explains why the entire kitsch series is called Bloodlines.
The other big Chinese auction favourite, Yue Minjun, who paints madly grinning citizens sarkily expressing their happiness at being part of the communist system, could also do with having another idea. At least his paintings have a manic energy to them.
Saatchi, who hangs his own exhibitions, has sensibly split up these over-represented artists so that your journey round the display remains constantly eventful. While none of the painting rises too far above the level of magazine illustration, there are much better efforts to be found among the sculptors. [ . . . ] The main exceptions are Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, a working couple responsible for both the show’s highlights. Upstairs, there’s a horribly realistic fallen angel, well past his pension age, who has crashed to the ground in a scary sprawl of uncared for ancient flesh: what a vivid metaphor for dashed hopes. And down in the Saatchi basement, in the show’s outstanding work, a morgue-load of life-sized old timers in working wheelchairs circles the gallery continuously in a creepy display of geriatric dodgems. Although none of the ancient figures is an actual portrait of a world leader, all of them have something of the world leader about them: Yasser Arafat’s headgear; Fidel Castro’s medals; Archbishop Makarios’s black robes. Are they dead? Are they asleep? It matters not. In this spooky old people’s home for former power-brokers, the endless game of global politics whirrs uselessly on.
It’s a brilliant and utterly pessimistic piece of work.
The Revolution continues at the new Saatchi Gallery (Times of London)