|Same again Saatchi
The New Blood show has no theme or shape, says Adrian Searle. It's just one damn thing after another
Tuesday March 23, 2004
Charles Saatchi had almost completed installing New Blood at his gallery at London's County Hall last week when we met by chance. "Let me write your review for you," he said, enraged. "I'm a cunt, this place is shit, and the artists I show are all fucked. Will that do for you?" I almost wish my views could be expressed with the same vigour, precision and exactitude. It would save a lot of time.
New Blood: Detail from a work by Jonathan Meese
Saatchi had also been arguing with the young dealer who was attempting to put the finishing touches to Francis Upritchards's tableau Save Yourself, a work with a little mummified humanoid who lies on the floor, groaning quietly amidst a patch of prised-up parquet flooring, some of which was piled up like a makeshift little Pharaoh's tomb. This work was last seen in Beck's Futures at the ICA, exactly a year ago. Upritchard is currently in New Zealand, and her gallerist was attempting to arrange the elements of the work in accordance with the artist's diagrams and notes. The recorded groans are supposed to be audible only when one stands very close to the work. Saatchi wanted the sound turned up. The moaning competed with all the shouting, and echoed round the gallery. This was all getting a bit unseemly.
I'd much rather talk about the art than the collector, on whom the media has something of a fixation. He has brought all this attention on himself, not least by opening his high-profile gallery in County Hall last year, and bringing out a book of the collection called Young British Art - The Saatchi Decade. Some private British galleries would be hard put to survive without his purchasing, and some artists would probably be unknown without him. He gets a lot of stick, sometimes even from me, and sometimes from the artists he collects, or fails to collect. He can't win. Part of the reason he gets all this attention in Britain is because there are still those who can't quite believe that a sane individual would collect contemporary art. But there are other reasons.
It is worth saying that he wouldn't matter so much if there were other collectors in this country with as much financial clout as he has. There are many in Europe and the US. Some are extremely serious, collecting in depth and forming coherent collections, while, equally, there are some who make even Saatchi look a model of rectitude. Saatchi buys, he sells, he puts the art he buys - and himself - in the spotlight of the media. He's a self-admitted show-off, more PT Barnum than Svengali. His effect on the British situation is an unavoidable and continuing subject, and one can't ignore the context.
What you can't fault Saatchi for is his enthusiasm for what he does. I suppose the way the works have been installed in New Blood/New Artists/New Acquisitions, to give it its full title, is signal to this same energy and enthusiasm. It all feels a bit manic and bizarre. He wants to give visitors value for money. His approach, by and large, is populist - there's lots to see, and some (although by no means all) of what he buys is a kind of self-explanatory art that doesn't take much mental unpacking. Faddish things, serious things and quiet things, creepy things and over-rated things, good things sometimes. It all ends up the same, and you could almost say the same of the Tate.
Whereas a current exhibition such as State of Play at London's Serpentine Gallery is so understated in its playfulness, so deadpan in manner as to be an unrewarding disappointment (apart from some great gags by David Shrigley), New Blood is crammed to the point of incoherence. The beautiful exhibition (In Search of) The Perfect Lover, currently at Hauser and Wirth on Piccadilly, bringing together drawings by Louise Bourgeois, Marlene Dumas, Paul McCarthy and Raymond Pettibon, is an example of how things can be done; it plays with the connections, the differences in style and intent, the works' inner narratives. This is what makes a good group show. But then, New Blood isn't really an exhibition in that sense, in that it has no theme, no leitmotif, no coherent shape or organisation. It is driven by whatever acquisitive thing compels the collector - one damn thing after another.
Ninety-three things, in fact. Sixty-three of them by 24 "new young artists" - including Upritchard, Liz Neal, Keith Farquhar, Lucy McKenzie (none of whom is exactly new, in the scheme of things), German painter Jonathan Meese (12 substantial paintings and sculptures, including a very large triptych), and of course Stella Vine, who has attracted an enormous amount of publicity for her two smallish paintings here. Saatchi has also enlarged his collection of newspaper cartoons related to works he owns, including a very funny Nicholas Garland take on Vine, which replaces her paranoid Princess Di with a boggle-eyed Tony Blair: "Hi Gordon, can you come over I'm really frightened."
Then there are the "new acquisitions" by much more established artists, some of whom he continues to collect - Paula Rego, Peter Doig, Grayson Perry - and others whom he has not, I think, bought before: Luc Tuymans, Marlene Dumas, the late Martin Kippenberger, and so on. The closest Saatchi gets to helping the works have a conversation is in the room in which Damien Hirst's Away From the Flock - the sheep in the tank - stands before a large Luc Tuymans painting depicting the bars of a birdcage. Empty cage, filled vitrine. OK.
Where the collection at Tate Modern is almost always too crowded with people to see the art properly, so the Saatchi Gallery is too crowded with art. Some side-rooms and converted offices here work well, because the work commands the space and can be seen in isolation: Nobuko Tsuchiya's delicate, agglomerative sculptures, for example, or Dan Brady's Architectural Model 1:50, with its cardboard towers and sub-basements, offices and halls. Installed in County Hall, it makes one think of the compartmentalised labyrinth and Chinese boxes of the setting of Kafka's The Trial, which is what Brady intended. The placement of this work amplifies the metaphor. But this is rare, as Saatchi isn't always so concerned with artist's intentions, nor ever has been. He famously had a furious argument with Richard Serra over his installation of Serra's work. You argue with Serra at your peril.
Some of Saatchi's curating games work well enough - he does have an eye, and a sense of humour (which is sometimes overlooked) - but most of his juxtapositions of different artists' works are happenstance. There is much here that just looks lost, out of place, homeless. The Saatchi Gallery is not a museum, and although we might think that public institutions purchase and display works with a certain sense of responsibility both to the art and the audience, there have been dreadful, truly horrible lapses. The disgraceful Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow is still recovering - if it ever entirely will - from the irresponsible and opinionated directorship of Julian Spalding, a man who also has firm ideas about art and how it should be displayed. So too did Doctor Barnes, of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, whose museum is as fascinating for his craziness as for the Matisses, Van Goghs and cast-iron domestic ironmongery collection.
The Saatchi Gallery is neither a commercial gallery nor a foundation. It isn't, quite, Citizen Kane's Xanadu. If the gallery serves an educational purpose, it is hard to see quite how, except in the most general terms. There's no contextualising, no hard information to be had here on any of the work or on the artists themselves. Patricia Ellis's little descriptive comments on the works, which annotate the wall labels, are a continuing source of hilarity.
In fact, this is a very difficult place to look at art without being sidetracked. What the Saatchi Gallery lacks is grace. There are too many competing values, too much going on. This is what happens when contemporary art becomes akin to a tourist phenomenon; this is, in fact, a general problem for art institutions of all kinds in the 21st century, of which the Saatchi Gallery is an extreme example. Who or what is being catered for here? The art, the audience, the collector's fantasies? Why do we look? We look because want something, perhaps something we will never find. This is why we look again, and probably why Saatchi keeps on buying. Judgments about good and bad might in the end be less interest ing than unravelling our encounters with art, going on this repeated journey. When the shouting is over, maybe that walk will be possible.
· New Blood/New Artists/New Acquisitions is at the Saatchi Gallery, London SE1, from Wednesday until July 4. Details: 020-7928 8195.
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