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March 11 2012

Damien Hirst: 'I still believe art is more powerful than money'

Damien Hirst has gone from mouthy YBA to global brand over the past 25 years – and become the world's richest living artist on the way. Here he talks about money, mortality and his first retrospective in Britain

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When Damien Hirst was looking though his archive recently, in preparation for his forthcoming retrospective at Tate Modern, he came across some film footage of an interview he did with David Bowie in the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 1996. "I'm sitting on a big ashtray talking bollocks," says Hirst, laughing. "At one point, Bowie says, 'So what about a big Tate gallery show, then?' And I say, 'No way. Museums are for dead artists. I'd never show my work in the Tate. You'd never get me in that place.'"

He grins ruefully and shakes his head. "I was watching it and thinking, 'Jesus Christ, how things change.' Suddenly, I'm 46 and I'm having what they call a mid-career retrospective. It doesn't seem right somehow."

We are seated on a sofa beneath a big blue Francis Bacon in an expansive first-floor room in Science Ltd, Hirst's central London HQ. It is a vast building on several storeys, and it contains more contemporary art than many medium-sized galleries. There are pieces by Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Sarah Lucas and, of course, several spin and spot paintings, and steel and glass medicine cabinets by the man himself. Hirst's Prada loafers are on the floor in front of us, but his signature tinted glasses are nowhere to be seen. He looks stockier than the last time I saw him, just over two years ago, and a bit quieter, more reflective. "It's mortality, mate," he says. "My eldest boy, Connor, is 16. A few of my friends have died. I'm getting older. I'm not the mad bastard shouting at the world any more."

But you're only 46, I say; it's not as if the reaper has you in his sights. "I know, I know, but it's more that realisation that you're not young any more. I've always thought, 'I don't want to look back. Ever.' I think I was obsessed with the new. That's changed."

A mid-career retrospective will do that, I say, teasingly. "Maybe," he says. "But I think it's more that when you're young, you're invincible, you're immortal – or at least you think you are. The possibilities are limitless, you're inventing the future. Then you get older and suddenly you have a history. It's fixed. You can't change anything. I find that a bit disturbing, to be honest."

The exhibition in question, simply entitled Damien Hirst, will "be a map of my life as an artist, not a greatest hits". It will include most of the greatest hits, though, as well as some not so well-known early work. "There's the painted boxes and boards that I put in Freeze [the groundbreaking show Hirst curated in 1988], from when I wanted to be the new Kurt Schwitters. And there's stuff from my student days at Goldsmiths – gloss-painted frying pans I hung on the wall. Embarrassing stuff like that."

It was Nick Serota, director of Tate, who also insisted that Hirst show the early work, as well as the first piece from every series he has made ever since. "The first spot painting, the first spin painting, the first vitrine, the first medicine cabinet. They're all in there, for better or worse," says Hirst. He then relates an anecdote that illustrates both his cavalier attitude to his work and the weight the work carries. It concerns an early spot painting, executed by Hirst himself, rather than (as is the case with the 1,500-strong series that followed) one of his production team.

"I showed Nick a photo of it and he wanted it in the show. It's all drips and splats. Terrible, really. When I moved down to Devon, I stuck it outside behind a barn. Millicent [Wilner] from Gagosian came down to visit and she was freaking out: 'Why have you put it there? In the rain! Jesus Christ, Damien!' It was like gold because it was me, but, really, it's shit."

Is he happy it's in the show, now? "I am, yes. It tells part of the story of my last 25 years as an artist. It's important on that level. It says that I didn't just arrive on the planet going 'Fuck you' to everybody, which is what a lot of people seem to think."

The "fuck you" work is there in full force, too, though. There's the famous shark in formaldehyde, entitled with typical Hirstian extravagance The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) and described in the catalogue as "one of the most iconic images of late 20th-century art". There's Mother and Child Divided (1993), a bisected cow and calf suspended in four tanks, and the mythical bestiary that is the collection Beautiful Inside My Head Forever (2008), which includes a zebra, a unicorn and a golden calf.

There are pristine steel and glass cabinets full of neatly arranged pills, and evil-looking black paintings made of thousands of flies congealed in paint. There are spin paintings with and without human skulls at their centre, and spot paintings that move between the vibrant and the purely ambient. There are more flies, live ones, hatched from maggots and feeding off a severed cow's head in a vitrine, and butterflies, pinned and painted and pressed on canvas, and a single white dove suspended in mid-flight above a human skull. Life and death, beauty and ugliness, the sacred and the profane; all the big Hirstian statements that have appalled some critics with their supposed obviousness, but have also dragged conceptualism from the margins of the art world into the mainstream.

Outside Tate Modern will stand Hymn (1999), Hirst's monumental take on a child's educational figure, complete with exposed stomach organs. Inside, in the massive Turbine Hall, flanked by security guards, will sit a relatively tiny piece entitled For the Love of God (2007), the most expensive work of art ever created in terms of its materials: a human skull cast in platinum and encased in diamonds. A modern vanitas piece about death and money, but mostly about money.

"Putting the show together," says Hirst, "was like a big 180-degree turn for me. I'm looking back at all this work and trying to make sense of it. Some of it is great, and some of it is unrealised and didn't make it in there, and some of it is just shit. It's 25 bloody years of work and, of course, I'm proud of it, proud that I put the effort in, but there's also one part of me going, 'How did that happen?'"

How, indeed? It is a question that exercises the minds of his many detractors in the art world: how did a mouthy, working-class lad from Leeds, with hooligan tendencies, become the biggest – and the richest – artist on the planet? (In the Sunday Times Rich List of 2010, Hirst's wealth was estimated at £215m.) The answer is long and complex, and has much to do with the radical shifts in culture that have occurred over the past 25 years or so, both in Britain and the world: the unstoppable rise of art as commodity and the successful artist as a brand; the ascendancy of a post-Thatcher generation of Young British Artists (YBAs) who set out, unapologetically, to make shock-art that also made money; the attendant rise of uber-dealers such as Jay Jopling in London and Larry Gagosian in New York; and the birth of a new kind of gallery culture, in which the blockbuster show rules and merchandising is a lucrative sideline.

At the centre of this ultra-commodified art world stands Damien Hirst, art superstar: the richest, loudest, biggest YBA of all. Except that, no longer young, he seems – at the very moment when his canonisation by the art establishment is complete – to be in a long period of transition. When I last spoke to him, in September 2009, in his vast studio near Stroud, Gloucestershire, it was exactly a year after the astounding success of Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, his record-breaking Sotheby's auction of 2008. Back then, just before the world markets tumbled, Hirst made headlines by bypassing his dealers, Jopling and Gagosian, altogether, and taking more than £111m in sales in two days of often-frenzied bidding. Right on the cusp of the recession, the Sotheby's auction was a pivotal moment for Hirst – a grand farewell, he told me, to the "big work" he had been making for years. He also told me then that conceptualism was "a total dead end" and said: "You spend 20 years celebrating your immortality, and then you realise that's not what it's about."

Since then, he has been relatively quiet on the creative (if not the commercial) front, working mainly on his own paintings: that is, canvases on which he, and he alone, applies the paint. Many of them, including a series made after the suicide of his friend Angus Fairhurst in March 2008, were completed in a room in Claridge's that his good friend Paddy McKillen (co-owner of the hotel) loaned him rent-free, in return for some paintings that now decorate the Connaught, another of McKillen's London hotels. An exhibition of that work, No Love Lost, opened at the Wallace Collection in London in October 2009 to uniformly murderous reviews, the late art critic Tom Lubbock comparing Hirst to "a not very promising first-year art student".

Undaunted, Hirst has continued to paint, and when I travelled down to his country home in deepest Devon a few weeks ago, he showed me briefly around his garden shed, where a paint-splattered stuffed bear stood sentinel over a group of partially completed canvases, featuring brightly coloured parrots in lush landscapes and a single big painting of a human head in a wash of what you might call Bacon blue. A few stuffed parrots stood on perches in the centre of the cluttered room, bright yellow and green, as if staring at their painted selves. "When all else fails," Hirst quipped, "get yourself a few dead parrots." It all seemed a long way from a giant blue shark in a tank of formaldehyde. "I've spent a long time avoiding painting and dealing with it from a distance," he said. "But as I get older I'm more comfortable with it."

The house in Devon, where Hirst currently lives with his wife, Maia Norman, and their three children, is one of several properties he owns. He also has a stately home, Toddington Manor, in Gloucestershire, that will one day house a collection of his own work. Near Stroud, he has another house with a vast studio attached, where, not that long ago, many of his 150-strong team of assistants laboured over his serial works: the spot paintings, spin paintings, cabinets and vitrines. He has a houseboat in Chelsea, a house in Thailand, where he spent Christmas, and another in Mexico, although he hasn't been there for a while because "it's a bit wild west out there at the moment".

In London, as well as Science, his organisational hub, he also owns a big chunk of Newport Street in Lambeth, which is currently being turned into a new gallery that will open in 2014 and house his extensive collection of contemporary art by the likes of Bacon, Koons, Murakami, Richard Prince, Sarah Lucas and even Banksy – "We do these collaborations with my spots. I got one from him recently and he'd written all over it in big black letters: Sorry, The Lifestyle You Ordered Is Out of Stock."

Over lunch in Hirst's quayside restaurant in Ilfracombe, beneath a pristine glass cabinet full of pills, I ask him if it was always his motivation to be the biggest, the most successful? "I always wanted to be bigger, but not biggest. Even as a kid in drawing class, I had real ambition. I wanted to be the best in the class but there was always some other feller who was better; so I thought, 'It can't be about being the best, it has to be about the drawing itself, what you do with it.' That's kind of stuck with me. Being best is a false goal, you have to measure success on your own terms."

With Damien Hirst, though, it aways seems to come down to three things: art, ambition and money, though not necessarily in that order. For that reason, as curator Ann Gallagher asserts in her catalogue introduction to the Tate Modern show: "Like no other artist of his generation, Damien Hirst has permeated the cultural consciousness of our times." What that says about us – and about Hirst – is a matter of some debate. Writing recently in the New Yorker on the simultaneous exhibition of all Hirst's 1,500 signature spot paintings in all 11 Gagosian galleries dotted around the globe, the American art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote: "Hirst will go down in history as a particularly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth. That's not Old Master status, but it's immortality of a sort."

Schjeldahl's critical hauteur is not untypical. The bigger Hirst has become, the more he has become an object of scorn to some serious art critics, a symptom of all that is wrong with contemporary art – and the rampant, market-led capitalism that drives it – as well as an easy target for the flak directed at conceptual art in general. "His work," writes Gallagher, measuredly, "is characterised by its directness as well as its ambition; it is both deadpan and affecting, and it provokes awe and outrage in equal measure."

That, one senses, is exactly how Hirst – mellower these days, but still a northern prole with attitude to burn – likes it. Is there a little part of him that still rejoices in the notion that he is, at heart, a working-class lad who is somehow sticking it to the toffs of the art world? "All of me, I'd say," he replies, cackling. "I mean, I don't fit, do I? I can play the game, but I don't really fit. But you get older and you realise that rebellion doesn't really matter to the market. I kind of learned that early on and I've never forgotten it." How early on? "Well, I remember in about 1989, when I was still an outsider and all my mates were having shows and I wasn't, and it really bugged me. As I was making the fly piece, I was thinking: 'I'm gonna show you. I'm gonna kill you with this one, knock you down dead, and change the world.' And I showed it to a few galleries and they all just turned round and went 'Marvellous, darling.' It didn't have the effect I wanted. It had the opposite effect. I was gutted, in a way."

As a young teenager, Damien Hirst wanted most of all to be a punk, but, as he now puts it, "I was just too young and not angry enough." He remembers his mother melting his one Sex Pistols record to fashion it into a plant holder, and he remembers sneaking out, aged 12 or 13, with his "punk clothes" hidden in a bag, then changing into them when he was out of sight of his house. "I think that attitude crept into my art somehow. I was always looking for ways to sneak stuff into the art world and make it explode in their faces. I was an infiltrator."

Growing up in Leeds, Hirst was a handful for his mother, Mary Brennan, who worked in the local Citizens' Advice Bureau. His punk phase came just after the man he thought was his father walked out on the family when Hirst was 12. He also went through a brief shoplifting phase – he was arrested twice – before he was finally accepted on his second application to study an art foundation course at Jacob Kramer College in Leeds.

As a teenager, he made regular visits to Leeds University's Anatomy Museum to practise drawing, and it was there he found inspiration for his first piece of shock art: a photograph mounted on a steel frame called With Dead Head, first exhibited in 1991, in which his 16-year-old self poses, grinning, beside the severed head of a middle-aged man which sits on a mortuary table. It set the scene, if not the tone, for much of what was to follow.

Hirst moved to London in the mid-1980s, and for a time worked on building sites, before being accepted to Goldsmiths in 1986. There, under the tutelage of the artist Michael Craig-Martin, he realised that for the time being, at least, painting was over and that, in contemporary art, the idea was the be all and end all.

"When I arrived there, I was this angry young painter looking at all the conceptual work being made there and dismissing it as pure crap," he says, laughing. "But I got seduced by it. Initially, I was finding pieces of wood, banging them together, and slapping the paint on. It was Rauschenberg, de Kooning and a bit of Schwitters. It had been done to death and they told me so. I went back up to Leeds and I thought, 'OK, I've got to deal with the world I live in – advertising, TV, media. I need to communicate the here and now.' I realised that you couldn't use the tools of yesterday to communicate today's world. Basically, that was the big light that went on in my head."

The rest is art history, though it took a while to be made. You could even say that Hirst the entrepreneur arrived in the public eye before Hirst the artist, when he curated Freeze, a three-part group show of his contemporaries, including Angus Fairhurst, Gary Hume, Michael Landy, Sarah Lucas and Mat Collishaw. It was held in a disused warehouse in London's Docklands in the summer of 1988. The space – and the ambition – was influenced by Charles Saatchi's big gallery in Boundary Road in north London, which opened in the mid-1980s, and initially showed work by pioneering American conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, both of whom influenced Hirst.

Despite being a student show, Freeze became the most talked-about art event of the year in London, attracting the attention of both Saatchi and Serota. "It amuses me that so many people think what happened was calculated and cleverly manipulated," Craig-Martin said later, "whereas in fact it was a combination of youthful bravado, innocence, fortunate timing, good luck and, of course, good work."

By the time he left Goldsmiths, Hirst was already making spot paintings and medicine cabinets, both in highly formalised series, and made with the help of a small team of assistants. In 1991, he had his first solo show, In and Out of Love, in a disused shop in central London. His creative imagination had taken another leap. Visitors entered a room in which live butterflies fluttered around, having hatched from canvases embedded with pupae. In another room, dead butterflies were arranged on white canvases placed around a white table with four overflowing ashtrays. All the Hirstian themes were already in place: life and death, beauty and horror, as well as the sense of spectacle that would become the defining aspect of his work.

At a Serpentine gallery show that same year, Hirst met Jay Jopling, who would soon become his dealer. Things moved even faster after that. For a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, Hirst referred in the catalogue to a work in progress that had been commissioned by Charles Saatchi. Entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of a Living Person, it comprised a 14ft-long tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. It did not appear in the Saatchi Gallery until 1992, but when it did, it radically changed the world of contemporary art – and the course of Damien Hirst's life.

Having been bought by Saatchi for £50,000, the shark in the formaldehyde-filled vitrine became an icon of contemporary art of the 1990s and perhaps the defining work of what would come to be known as the YBA movement. ("£50,000 For Fish Without Chips" ran a headline in the Sun at the time.) In 2004, the work was sold to an American collector, Steven A Cohen, for a reputed $8m. In 2006, the original shark, having deteriorated, was replaced at Hirst's insistence by a new formaldehyde-injected one, which was then loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is that shark that visitors to the Tate Modern show will see. (Both Hirst and Cohen seem unfazed by the big art-historical question of whether a replacement can ever have the import of the original art work. Only time will answer that one.)

"It's what Jeff Koons once referred to as a high-maintenance piece of art," says Hirst, when I ask him about the practicalities of owning a shark in a tank. "The formaldehyde works are guaranteed for 200 years. I would like it to always look as fresh as the day I made it, so part of the contract is: if the glass breaks, we mend it; if the tank gets dirty, we clean it; if the shark rots, we find you a new shark." At 22 tons, it must be a bugger to transport, though? "Not really. The tank and the shark travel separately. Then you clean it and set it up, add the formaldehyde. Basically," he says, without irony, "it's just a big aquarium with a dead fish in it."

Since the shark first swam into the public consciousness in 1992, it has, as Hirst once admitted to me, "been hard to see the art for the dollar signs". His astonishing earning power came to a head with the Sotheby's auction in September 2008, when total sales were 10 times higher than the previous record for work by a single artist. By then, he already held the record for the most money paid in auction for a single work of art by a living European artist, the emir of Qatar having paid £9m the previous year for Lullaby Spring, a steel cabinet containing 6,136 neatly arranged pills.

"Money is massive," says Hirst, when I remind him of the above quote. "I don't think it should ever be the goal, but I had no money as a kid and so I was maybe a bit more motivated than the rest. I used to argue with Angus [Fairhurst] and Sarah [Lucas] about that all the time when we were starting out and struggling. They'd say: 'You're obsessed' and I'd be like, 'It's important.' See, if you don't care about it, often you don't deal with it, then it screws you. I do believe art is more powerful than money, though. I still believe that. And if I ever find out money's more important, I'll knock it on the head."

For all that, Damien Hirst has become for many the epitome of the artist as businessman, entrepreneur and global brand. It is quite a transformation, given that in the wild years of the 1990s, when the YBAs held their own in the drinking, tooting and necking pills stakes with Noel and Liam and the rest of the Britpop crew, Hirst was the loudest, drunkest and, some would say, most objectionable lad of the lot. His bills at the Groucho club, sent monthly to his home address, were legendary, as was his tendency to go out for a drink on a Friday night and get home in the early hours of Sunday morning. He has not touched a drink – nor popped a pill, nor snorted a line – in five years. Does he miss the good old, bad old days?

"Nah. I've done it, man," he says, shaking his head and reaching for a Diet Coke. "I had a beautiful 10 years and then, suddenly, it started to hurt. I couldn't handle the hangovers: waking up in the sticky filth of the Colony Room on the floor; sweating my way though meetings at White Cube; going to meet Larry [Gagosian] on the Anadin, the Nurofen, the Berocca and the Vicks nasal spray, looking like an alcoholic tramp. It wasn't good. I just woke up one day and thought: 'That's it. It's over.' Haven't touched a drop since."

We talk about Louise Bourgeois, whom Hirst visited before her death last year, and I mention her belief that happy people could not make great art. Is he happy? He laughs. "Making art, good art, is always a struggle. It can make you happy when you pull it off. There's no better feeling. It's beauteous. But it's always about hard work and inspiration and sweat and good ideas. I don't believe it's about God-given genius, but I do believe somehow in the magic of art even though I don't want to. I believe in science. I want clear answers." He pauses for a moment. "I want to make art, create objects that will have meaning for ever. It's a big ambition, universal truth, but somebody's gotta do it."

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern, London SE1 to 9 Sep, sponsored by the Qatar Museums Authority. Observer readers can buy two tickets for the price of one: the offer is valid on full-price tickets only and must be booked before 4 April. Visit tate.org.uk and quote promotional code OBS241


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January 17 2012

Gary Hume: the half-an-hour a day man

It's going to be a big year for Gary Hume. Not bad going for an artist whose creative bursts don't last long.

Gary Hume is walking around the basement gallery of White Cube's Mason's Yard branch, where some limestone sculptures are rearing up from the floor: they look like giant worms, with painted mounds jutting out on either side. On the walls are pictures of what look like birds with blue bodies and bright red beaks, painted with Hume's usual gloss paint on smooth aluminium surfaces, as shiny as sweets. These are the artist's "paradise paintings", part of his new London show The Indifferent Owl. And it's a very particular paradise.

"These are pubescent girls, naked," says Hume. "These are their legs and that's their pussies and they're all leaping across the landscape. I wanted to make some strange paradise where that was possible." Suddenly those worms look very phallic. Hume ponders their appearance. "They are quite sexual. There's a plant in America called milkweed. Their pods spew open and all this white stuff comes out." Yet the sculptures are birds, too – reaching from their nests to their mothers. "They're overwhelmingly ugly and needy and then they transform."

Hume says his work comes from his desire for "beauty and life and sex and little moments". Upstairs, pictures of blackberries, leaves and breasts hang on the walls; another room contains paintings made in five minutes: intense, draining bursts of creativity. "I'm probably creative for half an hour a day," he says. "The rest of the time I'm just doing what's necessary to make that creativity visible."

Hume graduated from Goldsmiths college in 1988, his work appearing in the seminal show Freeze that same year. Organised by his fellow students Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst, it launched the YBAs. The Indifferent Owl collects together Hume's work of the past two years, while a touring retrospective show, Flashback, staged by the Arts Council Collection, kicks off at Leeds Gallery next month. "I'm not as well known as I ought to be," jokes the man who, by 2001, had been Turner-nominated and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, "and I'd like to be well-known for absolutely everything. I'm aware my work's going to be very visible this year, and it'll be depressing if nobody cares."

The show's title comes from Hume hearing an owl hooting outside his home in upstate New York, where he lives for part of the year with his wife, the artist Georgie Hopton. He went for a walk in the woods the following morning, where he saw a deflated party balloon. "The owl had watched it, with this fantastic swivelling head, and was indifferent to this part of human joy that has been let go and is over."

Hume says it reminded him of himself: knowing that he should be concerned about the world's problems, but ultimately only really caring about his painting. "Obviously, I have a sense of empathy, but what I'm offering up has no saviour quality. I don't make political work. I don't make work that criticises the state. I make as human work as I can."

I wonder what he thinks of Cameron. "I don't give a damn." Really? "I don't! I don't vote. I voted Labour once, in that moment of euphoria. I know that if people only made a voice for change then change will happen, but I'm not that person. I'm painting pictures." One of five children, and brought up by his mum, an NHS surgery manager, Hume says he would never have been able to afford the £9,000-a-year fees today's students have to pay. "I was on a full grant and I still ended up with huge debts because it's expensive to make art. Which is terrible – because art school's meant to be for people who are wrong. You should go because you're broken. You shouldn't be going there because it's a professional choice and your parents can afford it. The disenfranchised should be going to art school – not the franchised."

Although he was once inspired by magazines and popular culture, and has painted the likes of Michael Jackson and Patsy Kensit, becoming middle-aged has changed things. "If I go out to a bar, people think I'm a minicab driver come to pick someone up. It's just not my world."

Curiously, The Indifferent Owl includes a portrait of French poet Rimbaud; it's one of Hume's few pictures of men. "Generally speaking I can't see the point," he says. "Partly because I don't fancy them. I have an erotic gaze on women but I don't have an erotic gaze on a man. Sex is important in my work. There's got to be a sexual drive in it." Rimbaud ceased writing poetry in his early 20s. But Hume, it seems, is here to stay. One of the pleasures of being an artist, he says, "is you never have to stop."


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October 13 2011

July 09 2011

Charles Saatchi

Charles Saatchi has remade the British art market three times, most famously by championing young British artists such as Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. But was he lucky or did he have true vision? And more importantly can he do it again?

I am probably the only person who can truly say that Charles Saatchi saved my life. During the holidays in 1986 I worked as a gallery assistant in Charles's Boundary Road gallery in northwest London, during the installation of the Richard Serra and Anselm Kiefer exhibition. I got to drill the holes for hooks in the back of the wooden supports of Kiefer paintings. It was nerve-wracking – one false move and there could be a hole in a £1m masterpiece. At the end of every day I swept the gallery clean of the straw that had fallen off these visceral, apocalyptic landscapes, where paint was mixed with earth, grass and photographs.

I was 19 and earned £80 a week. Cranes were used to position Richard Serra's sculptures in which 1-ton slabs or rolls of rusting steel and lead leaned against each other. These works are quite possibly the most important sculptures of the past 50 years, with their dramatic but abstracted sense of danger, built on the simplest arrangements of materials – leaning, propping and balancing .They could also be lethal: one technician had already been killed installing a Serra in America, and the artist himself had spent months in a wheelchair after another accident.

One day Charles came on a lightning tour of the gallery to see how the installation was going. I and a few "riggers" were holding upright one of the four slabs of One Ton Prop (House of Cards) which leant against each other. As Charles indicated some instant changes he wanted to the position of another work, the head of the installation team motioned the rest of his team to come over. For a moment I was faced with the prospect of holding a ton of lead on my own. "Don't let that young man hold that all by himself," Charles said. I remember a number of stronger men rushing to my assistance. That was Charles –  impatient, controlling but also thoughtful towards his serfs. Like an emperor.

As I read The History of the Saatchi Gallery, a magnificent new cloth-and-leather-bound volume reminiscent of an original edition of Macaulay's History of England, I was overcome with melancholy. Charles Saatchi's achievement derives from an imperial character – single-minded, visionary, decisive, bold but also capricious, hot-tempered, hubristic, with a short attention span and a certain vulnerability, that emerges in turns as shyness and defensiveness. Once, he was invincible, but now that times have changed the empire appears too large and undefined. While the court poets still compose panegyrics beyond the walls of his palace, his power is fading. But it's not too late. Charles can save his empire, but he will have to change his ways.

Saatchi almost never gives interviews. He didn't even appear in his own recent TV series, School of Saatchi, on BBC2. When he does talk it's light and unrevealing – as in his 2009 book My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic – so he has to be written about from a distance. The result is that his reputation is still shrouded in the myths of the 1990s, when Charles was the only collector in town. He was the puppet master of contemporary artists. He made and broke reputations with his cheque book. The legend is that he ruined the career of the Italian neo-expressionist figurative painter Sandro Chia by peremptorily selling all the work he owned by him – something he denies. But there's more to the history of the Saatchi Gallery than that.

As far as the book is concerned, there's precious little history in The History of the Saatchi Gallery. The essays are thin, as if most of the stuff's been censored out. But the true story of the Saatchi gallery is epic. There's the first wife who pulled the strings – it was Doris Saatchi who set Charles off on his collecting passion. There are moments when friends fall out over fame and money – like the time when Charles threatened to dump a large number of his Damien Hirsts, including the shark, on the market, so that Hirst and his gallery were cornered into buying them back for millions of pounds more than they had sold them for. There's meddling from rival princes – Saatchi had huge rows with the landlord of County Hall about what he was allowed to show where. There is the overnight accumulation of fortunes, as when Charles sold work for millions of pounds' profit at auction; and there's a climactic come-uppance – but we'll come back to that.

It's a shame Saatchi is not more forthcoming on these controversies, because they do not threaten his achievement. Behind these personal dramas Saatchi changed contemporary cultural history, three times. Between 1985 and 1992 he bought and exhibited Europe and America's leading contemporary artists, from Bruce Nauman and Cindy Sherman to Philip Guston and Sigmar Polke. All these artists already had huge reputations abroad. Charles was certainly not making any of their names. He was an importer, but that is no criticism: no other collector was doing it in Britain. London was nowhere near being a centre for contemporary art like Paris, New York or Berlin; Charles was one of the people who began to change all that.

Then, in the 1990s, he had an altogether more single-handed success. He became the patron of young artists including Tracey Emin, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas and Hirst. He bought their work early on from Hirst's Freeze show in 1988, and then from the fledgling galleries of Jay Jopling, Karsten Schubert and others.

He showed them in 1992 in his show Young British Artists, from which the YBA term dates. Hirst had a dramatic solo exhibition at the ICA in 1993, and the buzz around these artists persuaded Norman Rosenthal to put on a show at the stuffy old Royal Academy, consisting entirely of their work, called Sensation. The 1997 show was a smash. The column inches became column miles. There was an outcry in the UK over Marcus Harvey's portrait of Myra Hindley made with children's handprints and, when the show travelled to the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1999, an outcry over Chris Ofili's Madonna with elephant dung. Several of these artists now make works that sells for £500,000 upwards in the primary market.

Charles's achievement here was massive in almost every sense. He invented a new movement – something every critic and curator dreams of doing. Just as Apollinaire came up with cubism and Breton with surrealism, Charles coined YBAs. This was not an empty slogan. The YBAs created a new and accessible fusion of pop and conceptualism that had the distinctively British feel of an indie band. Sarah Lucas's melons and cucumbers were crude but uncanny – pub surrealism. Hume's candy coloured abstract paintings looked like ice cream served by an American colourfield painter. Hirst's shark was "Jaws – the art work", with all its sequels, too. The YBAs made art that was simpler, punchier and more fun (but not necessarily more interesting or original) than what had gone before. The YBAs accelerated the trajectory of artistic style towards production line and brand identity.

Saatchi's YBAs changed culture not only in Britain, but abroad. Takashi Murakami, a Japanese Warhol – perhaps the most successful pop artist at the moment, with huge studios in Japan and NYC, and a show currently at Gagosian's Britannia Street gallery – enthusiastically cites Hirst as an influence. So does India's Subodh Gupta, who makes various $1m skulls, wheels and nuclear explosions out of amalgamations of Indian tiffin cookware. The most famous artist of the moment, Ai Weiwei, imprisoned and then released by the Chinese authorities, is another YBA-influenced figure with his huge studios in China, where a team of assistants follow his instructions delivered in mobile phone calls and occasional visits, and where scores of old Chinese earthenware vases half-dipped in random primary colours are arranged in large grids as installations. You can see these works at the Lisson Gallery in London right now.

I wonder where he got that idea from – you could cleverly exhibit a Hirst spot painting with one of these. It's difficult to imagine the art history of the past 30 years being the same without the YBAs. And it's even more difficult to imagine the YBAs without Charles Saatchi.

Having played a central role in inventing a new kind of art, Charles then led the way inventing a new kind of art economy. He was the most famous of the pioneering new breed of "specullector", a fusion of the art collector and dealer/speculator who drove the art boom of the last decade. In the past, art collectors bought art and held on to it for 10 or 20 years, while dealers bought and sold it within a few months. But from the end of the 1990s Saatchi started doing this with his collection of British and other artists in cycles of five years and less. The art market is based on private transactions so it's difficult to know the extent of this activity, but by the mid-2000s it became more visible through the auction rooms.

In the Triumph of Painting (2005), Saatchi put on wonderful exhibitions of paintings by Peter Doig, Martin Kippenberger and others, then a few months later sent the best of the work to be auctioned for a profit. One of his Doigs went for £6m to a secretive Georgian oligarch. The new owner flew it, along with his $100m Picasso, back to Tbilisi – where the airport was closed down to receive this special cargo – and it then disappeared into storage.

Since then, one often has déjà vu when visiting a contemporary art auction preview, as you turns a corner and suddenly find yourself in part of a previous Saatchi show. Today there are handfuls of specullectors, among whose American ranks are the Warhol-obsessed Mugrabi family and collector-commentator Adam Lindemann, while the entire Chinese art market is driven by Chinese specullectors who Charles inspired. He is now overshadowed by impulsive enthusiasts with far more money than himself. And so it has come to be that Saatchi has become the victim of his own success.

Charles once invited me to dinner in Kensington. I knew this was my big chance to find out how he worked. What I really wanted to know was: what was his strike rate? We know nothing about Charles's inventory, and so we know nothing about his success rate. Perhaps he had thousands of works by forgotten artists he couldn't sell languishing in storerooms. Maybe he took a scattergun approach, buying work from, say, 50 artists a year for £5k each, in the hope that five of these artists would become famous and their work would go up in value 10 times over five years, thus breaking even. That wasn't an unreasonable proposition. But every question I asked was batted away with a cheeky grin.

Instead, Charles seemed more interested in getting stuff out of me – he particularly wanted to see the tattoo which the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye had inscribed on my back. That had been my big prank in my TV series Art Safari. Charles, I realised, was still a bit of a schoolboy, who enjoyed winding people up. He liked to say or create art, and then see what reactions people had to it. In his silences I finally understood the secret of YBA phenomenon. It was jerry-built. Charles splashed some cash and built a hype as best as he could, making things up as he went. In the months leading up to the Sensation exhibition some people bitched he'd even had to go on a new buying spree to acquire several "important" works to fill in gaps in the show. But there was no crime in that. He was adaptable, quick-witted and convincing. But he was also a have-a-go merchant.

The problem with Charles's exhibitions over the past 10 years is that they have tried to repeat the YBA story in other parts of the world. Charles would tell us all about the YAAs – young American artists – in his exhibition USA Today – and the YMEAs in Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East, not forgetting the YCAs in The Revolution Continues: New Art From China. Much of the time, Charles was following a few years behind the trend (a whole room full of Zhang Xiaogangs? You can't make up for lost time with quantity, dude). The descriptions were floridly meaningless. In the Triumph of Painting show I tittered over the description of Dirk Skreber's paintings of a car crash, as "empty spiritualism, transfixing the viewer with its awesome and ethereal presence", while Albert Oehlen's complex pictures "occupy a space between representation and abstraction, his forms and textures converging not to create an illusion, but a suggestion of invention". Much of the work looks like it's deliberately made to fit this story. Exciting but somewhat illogical whole-room pieces like rows of praying burqas made from silver foil, and the waxworks of world leaders in motorised wheelchairs in his basement.

Exhibitions today need more complicated thematic stories, and more scholarly descriptions and cataloguing. The age of curating is upon us, but Charles has so far been unwilling to embrace this change, as other London collectors with private foundations – Anita Zabludowicz, David Roberts and Alex Sainsbury – have wisely been doing.  The latest show The Shape of Things to Come exhibits many of the Saatchi flaws. It's the YSAs's – the young sculptural artists – show. Some marvellous work, but far too flashily installed. It's another funfare and fanfare to the future of art from the art world's self-mythologising enigmatic Svengali.

Charles is too withdrawn for the socially networked age we live in. He made a mistake not appearing in his TV series. He's never too far off the pages of the Sunday supplements and celebrity columns, thanks to his wife, Nigella, and is also fabulously connected to Britain's media and political elites. But that's not quite good enough to rule an empire of art in the 21st century. In an age of tweets and blogs, and in which "curating" is the in-word (even DJs are now rechristened music curators), no one buys the mysterious Svengali image any more.

Last week I WENT to the Royal Academy's graduate show party. The students and teachers were celebrating and between spells on the dancefloor, they told me breathlessly how Saatchi had bought up several of the students' complete shows. He paid full price for some, but bargained others down ruthlessly, I was told, offering 50% or less of the asking price. There was no rhyme or reason to the prices he wanted to pay. The students asked me anxiously: did I think it was bad if Saatchi bought their work? Would he sell it all one day and destroy their careers? My answer: don't be silly, it's great if Charles buys your work. He is no longer the only major collector of new artist's work in this country, so he can't make or break your career on his own. But what a shame Charles's image is stuck in the 1990s.

So what next? It could be that Saatchi's History may soon need one final chapter. His exhibitions have failed to make a big impact, while the gallery, insiders say, is incredibly expensive to run. That is probably why last year he surprised everyone, including his own staff, by announcing he was going to give his museum to the nation. A large number of works of art would be donated for free, but discussions with the Arts Council and Ministry of Culture suggested the taxpayer could end up footing the bill for running the gallery. So, a year on, there is no Tate Saatchi as of yet. Jeremy Hunt is still saying no, albeit in the politest terms: "Ministers expressed their gratitude when Mr Saatchi made his very generous offer. We understand that Mr Saatchi is now considering how he wants to move forward, and we are very happy to facilitate any discussions," a spokesman told Bloomberg last week. Cultural fads come and go, and Charles may be ahead of the curve for the first time in a decade, with his diminishing interest in the expensive sport of writing art history with a cheque book.

But I hope that is not the case. Charles has rewritten cultural history three times already. None of Britain's other collectors have done that – or have an ounce of his musketeer-like panache. He just needs to hire a few curators and reinvent his acquisitions strategy. Then perhaps he could change the art world again.

The History of the Saatchi Gallery is published by Booth-Clibborn Editions, £85


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May 28 2011

Sarah Lucas: A country life

The Young British Artists have grown up, headed for the fields and found fresh inspiration. The results will be on show at Suffolk's Aldeburgh festival

Sarah Lucas can be a little sketchy on details from her past, but she remembers with absolute clarity the day – about 10 years ago – when it sank in that she had bought a farmhouse in deepest Suffolk. "We got the keys and I stood there thinking, 'What the hell are we actually going to do here? Are we just going to sit about drinking tea? I couldn't envisage it at all.'"

A significant pull for the 48-year-old, the bawdiest and most ideological of the Young British Artists, was that the house had been owned by Benjamin Britten, a new passion for Lucas, and slowly she realised there was more to life here than hot beverages. She found a pub where beer was drawn from the barrel and which didn't have "music or machines". She started to be inspired by the huge skies, the rhythms of rural life, and then, four years ago, she decided to decamp to the country. "I'd lived in London my whole life, so it was like coming out of the end of a tunnel," she says. "It's very magical somehow."

Lucas, it turns out, was not the only YBA to be growing tired of east London warehouses. Painter Gary Hume now has a studio in Suffolk and they have been joined by another Goldsmiths student, Abigail Lane, who Tracey Emin said "could show the contents of her fridge and it would be fantastic". Photographer Juergen Teller, more commonly found shooting Marc Jacobs ad campaigns, has a weekend place down the road with his wife, gallerist Sadie Coles.

With Lucas's artist boyfriend, Julian Simmons, they are a tight-knit bunch and they started talking about pulling together a group show. Lane was put in charge of logistics and it was mooted that they could crash the Aldeburgh festival, the summer jamboree Britten established in 1948. The result is Snap, which features the work of 12 contemporary artists, all of whom have ties with East Anglia.

Not all of the work, which includes sculpture, photography and sound installations, explicitly relates to the area, but the spirit of Constable and his haywains does appear to be rubbing off. Lucas has recently swapped her cigarettes and beer cans for flint blades and bark, while Teller, best known for his stark portraiture, has produced a book of Suffolk scenes and landscapes that will be given away to 1,000 visitors.

This generosity underpins the whole show and Lane is determined it should not be elitist – there is pointedly an "open day" instead of a "private view" and local Aspall Cyder will be served, not champagne. "I want the farmers to come in and complain, but actually get a bit drunk with someone who's come up from London," she says. "That's how it should be."

Snap runs from 10-26 June at the Aldeburgh festival (aldeburgh.co.uk). An edition of 12 large-format prints is available from paulstolper.com


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May 27 2011

The Saturday interview: Sarah Lucas

Sarah Lucas was the wildest of the Young British artists, partying hard and making art that was provocative and at times genuinely shocking. Then as Emin and Hirst went stratospheric, she slipped off to Suffolk, where she's been ever since ...

It is surprising to find someone whose most well-known work is so urban – kebabs, fried eggs, dirty public toilets, grimy, paint-splattered walls, burned-out cars; so saturated with the sense of the London she grew up in – tucked away down a long country lane, behind a Baptist church in Suffolk. Even the local cab drivers seem to have a hard time finding the house, and so Sarah Lucas waits outside in the sunshine, barefoot, in a torn blue dress, dust caught in her unbrushed hair.

Inside, the main room is long and low. Twowalls are made of glass, so the place is full of fields and sky and light. On the large dining table, surrounded by mismatched wooden chairs, sits half a glass of wine covered in clingfilm. There's a wood-burning stove, and bits of sculpture everywhere – a couple of large marrows sculpted in brass, another of concrete; a skull with gold-tipped teeth (like Lucas's own, they flash when she smiles); a pair of pert round breasts, perched like jellies atop shelves of music; small casts of her boyfriend Julian Simmons's penis, made for her show Penetralia, which opened in 2008; a big painting by Raymond Pettibon; huge red platform shoes and black fetish boots that she will cast in concrete and show in Krems, Austria in July; a general, seaside sense of driftwood and flotsam.

Lucas curls herself onto the large leather sofa and lights the first of a succession of rollups. She is nearly 50, but there is something girlish about her still – the angular kind of girl who will run through fields barefoot, who thinks nothing of getting her hands dirty (Lucas's fingers are stubby, workman-like); a grownup, slightly more masculine version of Sissy Spacek in Terrence Malick's Badlands. She talks directly, and thoughtfully, giving the sense, even when she has clearly had to explain a similar point before, of thinking it through again. Sometimes she makes direct eye-contact; more often she dips her head and hides behind her hair, or concentrates on her rollups, but she answers every question.

In the garden, a raised swimming pool glints in the sun (Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, who built the house as a bolthole, believed in the curative properties of a cold plunge every morning), and her new work, destined for the Aldeburgh festival next month, hangs in the glass-walled studio – literally hangs: the new pieces are mobiles, assemblages of buckets and plastic chairs and bulbous breasts and her trademark stuffed tights, "Bunnies", as she calls them, conjuring up a silent "playboy": certainly they have a playboy bunny's disturbing sexual passivity, sliding down chairs, ending in floppy pointed tips — no way of running away on those.

She has said that, making the first Bunny, she got that "'Eureka!' feeling, [where] you want to grab a beer or suddenly laugh, and smoke fags really fast and phone people up and say, you've got to get over here!"; more usually, she says, her experience of making art is an organic, random thing – playing with forms, looking for rightness.

Recently, she has begun to experiment with an evolution of the Bunnies: "Nuds" keep the sense of stuffed flesh-coloured tights, but are larger and more disturbing. She extrudes them from toilet bowls, hangs them from concrete blocks, wraps them round themselves, so they look like intestines, buttocks, breasts. The word comes from a phrase of her mother's, "in the nuddy", meaning naked. "She used to do things like sunbathe naked." She laughs, smoker-husky. "I did have an idea of putting my mum in it somehow. A bit."

Surprisingly, perhaps, for those who assume that, particularly earlier in her career, she always began with an in-your-face feminist statement, her starting point is generally the materials: what she can get in a particular place and time – food, concrete blocks, stockings, human bodies. (Of course, she was also perfectly aware of the feminist content, what it said about the disgusted-attracted-contemptuous male gaze, but she preferred the art to ask the questions, discomfit, not preach.) Or herself – the famous portraits of her sitting, legs splayed, fried eggs covering her breasts, or of her smoking a cigarette into a long ash, scowling in concentration like a female James Dean. Or people very close to her – the man in Still Life (1992), in which a faceless male holds a banana to his crotch – is Gary Hume, then her boyfriend.

Lucas was at the centre of the phenomenon that became the YBAs — showing at Freeze in 1988, in Sensation in 1997, partying hard and recklessly and well, at the Groucho Club, or at the Colony Rooms in Soho, becoming, as the writer Gordon Burn put it, "the most unabashedly all-balls-out, rock'n'roll" of them all.

But it wasn't always like that. Lucas, whose father was a milkman and whose mother, for a while, a part-time gardener and cleaner (she used to accompany her parents to people's houses, ogling at the furniture, the carpets, the coffee percolators), grew up on a council estate in Holloway, north London. When I quote the view that the Sensation show was a kind of coming-of-age for working-class women artists, she folds in on herself, hugging her chest, and denies the generalisation. "Someone like Tracey [Emin] had a background of quite a lot of ups and downs, really, in terms of fortune. [And] her dad was a sort of businessman. Whereas my family – they had absolutely no ambition. It just wasn't there. I remember my mum being absolutely against homework, 'because you're there all day anyway'."

She left school at 16 and at 17 was pregnant: "I suddenly realised," she once said, "if I had a child now, I would be in this environment for the next 16 years and not going anywhere." She had an abortion, and sold her record collection ("I didn't want anything I couldn't put in a suitcase. And I sort of thought I'd bought my freedom in that way") and hitchhiked through Europe, looking, fruitlessly, for an idea of what to do. When she returned her mother was working in a play centre, and got her a job. "I met somebody there who'd been to art college. I didn't know about art college before that. That's when I thought, 'Oh, that's something I could do.'"

But Goldsmith's didn't initially open any doors. "The first wave of people taken up by galleries were all boys. A couple of years later that really changed, but the initial wave was Gary, Angus [Fairhurst, who later became her partner], Matt Collinshaw, Damien [Hirst], Michael Landy." She would go to openings, and fancy dinners, and come back to Hume late at night, drunk and raging at the unfairness of it all. "I had real ego problems. That seems quite harsh, but it did seem like all of my friends were doing quite well apart from me. I used to get really angry about it." Also, it seemed to her the only way to succeed was to have one idea and to do it to death, and, in disillusion, she decided to give up doing art at all. Which seemed to take the pressure off: suddenly she found herself tinkering with the kinds of ideas she has since made her own; her first solo show, Penis Nailed to a Board (1992), made her famous: "I had a great sense of achievement about it, that it was something different. But of course that gets assimilated too, very quickly."

The next year she set up a shop on Bethnal Green Road in East London, with Tracey Emin. They sold decorated key-rings, wire penises, T-shirts emblazoned with "I'm so fucky", or "fucking useless". "It was a certain kind of titillation the shop offered," the critic Matthew Collings has written, "sexual but also hopeless, destructive, foolish, funny, sad." And they built an intense friendship, "dangerous," as Emin once said. "There was electricity . . . Sarah's friends have said that when we were together it was like white noise." They are often still carelessly linked together, even though they see each other very little these days and many would describe Lucas as an anti-Emin: reticent, delicate and nuanced despite the initial shock of some of her work, and, according to quite a few critics, including this paper's Adrian Searle, the better artist; a "sleeper" who has shunned the limelight in favour of concentrating on and deepening the work.

She seems both proud of this difference (she has done very few interviews, over the years, which she says is both deliberate and born of disinterest; she has now lived in Suffolk, where she doesn't read papers or art magazines, for four years) and slightly niggled by it. I ask what the sudden influx of Saatchi cash and fame in the late 90s did to them all. Her response is tangential but revealing. "You know, [Damien] would say, 'You don't put your prices up because you're scared to put your prices up'. He'd scream it at me in top volume, sometimes. I never thought for a moment of doing that – or perhaps I was just sort of defensive about it . . . I mean, I really like the idea that art is not just its value, in the same way that everything else has a value. You might make a concrete sculpture, but it might be better than that brass one" – she points at the marrows – "even if the brass is worth more. That that's not where the value is. So the idea that if you just make something out of diamonds, or something, is so antithetical – it's just vulgar, really. Not that you can't make something out of diamonds, but unless it's more beautiful than the diamonds, it's vulgar.

"But then again, if you look at Damien or Tracey, obviously they were very clear about what their gift was. I think probably both Damien and Tracey really grasped the punk thing. They realised the value of being a brat and that it does actually work. And I don't think I did. I was more . . . proper about it, or something. And so's Sadie [Coles, her friend and dealer]. I can't imagine either of us ever wearing that sort of brattishness.

"If you're only polite – is that being scared of something? I suppose not – or is that thinking you won't get it? And is that being scared?" So he really hit a nerve. "Oh yeah, he did, definitely. But perhaps not as much as it does now, just seeing him and Tracey go so far with it. Whatever you think, they've sort of proved their own point."

A sense, then, that it's not entirely easy to stay true to her own instincts, which in some ways was the real breakthrough of her first show in 1992, and the thing about her work that her admirers tend to point out. The fact that she went back to the way she made things "when I was little, just making things, because I always did, to keep myself company. I think that sort of continues – the making things to keep yourself company." And perhaps to help her through the doubts.

Then, in 2008, her ex-boyfriend Angus Fairhurst hanged himself. Lucas believes that while he had a real darkness ("I remember him saying that when he was a boy he used to lock the dog in the cupboard so it would love him when it came out") a lot of what killed him was the extreme, sudden exposure of their generation, and the inevitable pullings away, into different stratospheres of fame and fortune that followed. Now, while his death is always there, it is particularly present when things aren't going well. "It sort of affects the gremlins, really, that. In the sense that I do have doubts and when I'm putting a show together, and the day goes badly, I'm thinking this is how he must have felt."

There are a couple of weeks until her new show opens. She is happy for me to see the work in her studio, but she makes a point of saying it's a work in progress.Not claiming it's there, or good, or right, but evincing a kind of trust that it might be.


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May 22 2011

Polly Morgan, Sarah Lucas and the rise of the female sculptor

Why do so few women sculptors make it to the top? Laura Barnett on a revealing show that hopes to change that

Polly Morgan has a dead fox in her fridge. It's curled up, muzzle on tail, as if it's just fallen asleep; next to it, in a packet marked "headless", is a pile of decapitated birds. Across the room, a huge deep-freeze is filled with hundreds of other birds – blackbirds, blue tits, sparrows – their heads still intact, their tiny black feet pulled up close against their cold bodies.

Here, in her east London studio and home, is where Morgan makes her art: she and her assistants meticulously store, preserve and then stuff small animals and birds, freezing them forever in positions that can be both beautiful and ghoulish. A vulture looms over one corner of her studio, its wings outstretched; on the opposite wall, dozens of tiny dead chicks scream, open-mouthed, from inside a large, open coffin, its lid removed. "I made that piece after seeing a dead blackbird, crawling with maggots," Morgan tells me. "It made me think about death and decay, and why we are afraid of them."

Morgan, 31, is one of Britain's best known young sculptors. Her original, thought-provoking work has been bought by everyone from Kate Moss and Courtney Love to the German collector Hans Olbricht, who paid around £85,000 for a flying machine driven by 30 harnessed birds. Her first solo show, at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London last year, reportedly made her enough money to buy a house. She is also, self-evidently, female – something that would not be of interest were it not for the fact that Morgan is one of a growing number of talented British female sculptors who, as a group, are still not getting the high-level recognition awarded their male counterparts (among them Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Damien Hirst, Mark Wallinger and Marc Quinn).

Earlier this year, the Royal Academy unveiled its Modern British Sculpture show. Promoted as the first major exhibition in 30 years to examine the development of British sculpture over the 20th century, it contained 119 works by artists including Anthony Caro, Richard Long and Damien Hirst; just 11 women were included. A survey of new sculpture opening at the Saatchi Gallery in London this week features three women and 17 men. This imbalance is reflected elsewhere in the art world: only four women have won the Turner prize since its inception in 1984, and the roster of artists represented by the world's leading contemporary art galleries remains overwhelmingly male.

In sculpture, this disproportion is particularly stark. Several women have made astonishing contributions in this area, from Barbara Hepworth, who has just had a new museum dedicated to her in her native Wakefield, to Elisabeth Frink, Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse. So why are female sculptors still so poorly represented in major shows? Is there something about the medium that appeals more to men? And is the sculpture that women make any different – in its ideas, its execution, the reaction it provokes?

A new exhibition, Women Make Sculpture, at the Pangolin London sculpture gallery, sets out to answer some of these questions. Morgan is one of its featured artists; her piece Communion – in which two small birds hang from a noose inside a bell-jar, dripping two small clots of blood onto a dinner plate – sits on a plinth in the middle of the gallery. There are more established names – Sarah Lucas, a one-time YBA who was the subject of a major solo show at Tate Liverpool in 2005; Alison Wilding, who was nominated for the Turner prize in 1988 and 1992 – as well as younger artists such as Abigail Fallis, whose best-known work, Cock-Eyed Jack, is a pair of framed Union Jack underpants.

It was at Pangolin Editions, a sculpture foundry in Stroud, that the gallery's director, Polly Bielecka, noticed the disjuncture between the quantity and quality of work being made there by women, and what was being shown in mainstream exhibitions. "Lots of artists use the foundry," Bielecka says, "so you get an overview of what's happening in the sculpture world. It became very apparent that there is an amazing wealth of creativity there from women artists, and it is not being celebrated. This show is about saying, 'Wake up everyone, why have you forgotten them?'"

'Some people are shocked'

Mounting an exhibition of work solely by women might seem the obvious way to do this, but it's a choice that can prove problematic. In 2009, for instance, the Pompidou Centre in Paris rehung all its galleries with art by women; not everybody was impressed. "The effect of offering a sampler of the work of 200 women," Germaine Greer wrote in this newspaper, "is to diminish the achievement of all of them."

Many female artists, too, are reluctant to talk about themselves as such. Morgan, Lucas, Wilding and Fallis all tell me they felt some initial reluctance at being featured in an all-women exhibition. "In 1980, I was in an all-woman show of sculpture and painting at the Acme Gallery [in London]," Wilding says. "I thought the gender thing was insignificant, but it actually fostered a lot of interest." Lucas goes further: "I don't think of myself as a 'female artist', and I don't want to think about this show like that, either."

Morgan thinks her gender is irrelevant in terms of the way her work is received – despite the fact that her fascination with taxidermy was described by one interviewer as "unladylike", an adjective that could never be lobbed at a male taxidermist. "I think some people are a bit shocked by the idea of me getting blood and feathers and stuff under my fingernails," Morgan says. "I don't feel that I've been held back by being a woman; it's never even occurred to me that I am a woman making art: I'm just a person making it."

She concedes that her gender has influenced the sort of sculpture she makes. "My work's quite feminine. When men get their hands on taxidermy, they want to do big things – they tackle animals they're afraid of. Take Maurizio Cattelan and his huge horses, or Damien Hirst and the sharks. Women tend to go for the smaller animals, ones that in life perhaps they would have looked after."

The materials involved in making sculpture, especially metals and stone, are often heavy and difficult to manage. Morgan needs help to make some of her larger works; so do many male artists, but few artists can afford an assistant at the start of their career. "I definitely feel restricted sometimes by my strength and size," says Morgan. "When I was doing these huge vultures recently, we had big metal rods that we had to put underneath the wings. There's no way I could have done that on my own."

Fallis had to change the type of sculpture she wanted to make, for similar reasons. She originally wanted to become a blacksmith, making decorative art out of wrought iron, but now works with a range of lighter materials, including papier-mache and cloth. "I realised I didn't have the strength," she says. "I needed to be able to cold-bend steel, and I just couldn't do it. Most forges are still male-dominated, too. I'm not afraid of that sort of environment, but I can imagine some women might be."

The all-male welding world

The pressure of family life is another reason often cited for women who find it difficult to sustain long careers in art. But Fallis doesn't see motherhood as an obstruction to creation. "Becoming a mother was a key decision for me," she says. "Beatrice [her four-year-old daughter] is just as important to me as my sculpture, and the guilt of leaving her to get on with my work will never leave me. But motherhood has also had a positive effect. My new work is about sustainability, and our relationships with the planet and each other – things that, as a mother, I'm much more aware of."

All four agree that there has been a surge in the number of female sculptors coming through, and a shift in the way they are taught. "When I was at college [Goldsmiths, between 1984 and 1987]," Lucas says, "sculpture was definitely seen to be macho. In the welding department, my tutors were all men – people like Richard Wentworth. I had a prevalent sense that people looked at women's art differently. But I don't feel that now."

Wilding agrees. "In my year at the Royal College of Art [1970], I was the only woman. It's so radically different now. There are so many women making sculpture, and most curators are now women."

It can only be a matter of time before sculpture by women features more heavily in major galleries and exhibitions – and that the need for all-women shows like Pangolin's disappears. That, surely, is the hope; but for now, a show such as this offers a rare chance to see a wealth of art made by women together in one place. For Morgan, at least, "It's about looking at the women making sculpture, because we haven't seen enough of them."

• Women Make Sculpture is at Pangolin London, London N1 until 18 June. Details: pangolinlondon.com. For more information on Hepworth Wakefield in Wakefield, West Yorkshire: hepworthwakefield.org


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January 23 2011

Modern British Sculpture – review

Royal Academy, London

Anyone who thinks Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII (the bricks) has been more reviled than any other sculpture in this country should think again. Jacob Epstein's statue of Day was regularly assaulted in the 20s. His Rima, in Hyde Park, was once tarred and feathered and you can still see the mutilated remains of his nude figures on the facade of Zimbabwe House in the Strand, noses and genitals hacked off in 1935 "on safety grounds" after years of vicious campaigning.

The bricks, by contrast, only suffered a mild dose of paint and the acid aspersions of the Sunday Times in 1976. But still the attack seems to belong to another era, an age of outrage, violence and censorship before sculpture became such a familiar, not to say popular, art form in this country.

For we are used to seeing sculpture celebrated annually on the Fourth Plinth, in the Turbine Hall, at the Turner prize. Our countryside is full of fixed Gorms. We know the art of Mark Wallinger, Cornelia Parker, Helen Chadwick, Marc Quinn, the venerable Richards Deacon and Wilson. Thousands travel to see the ghostly casts of Rachel Whiteread, the poetry of Ian Hamilton Finlay, the radiant illusions of Anish Kapoor. It is no stretch to claim, as Anthony Caro recently has, that sculpture has become our language.

So this feels like the perfect moment for an all-together-now survey of modern British sculpture. How could it possibly fail? Let me count the unexpected ways. To start with, not a single one of these British artists (bar Caro) is included. Perhaps they were not invited, perhaps they refused, but in any case the omissions weaken and distort the story.

You would not learn from this show (curated by the sculptor Keith Wilson and Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain) anything about the Geometry of Fear or the rise of installation art. There's no pop and not much advanced conceptualism. And if that suggests a bias away from Martin Creed, say, towards carving, casting or traditional craftsmanship, then bear in mind that all sorts of relevant candidates, from GF Watts to William Tucker to the Chapman Brothers, are also excluded.

Or, rather, Tucker is represented only in the catalogue, by his 1969 essay on modern sculpture in Studio International, just as all of Gustav Metzger's fiery creations and destructions are bypassed for a boring wall of his Page 3 girls. Half a gallery is devoted to ceramics or, rather, to demonstrating the influence of Chinese stoneware on potters like Bernard Leach, when Japan was surely as crucial.

Wonderful as it is to see the films of Len Lye screening in the Royal Academy, it is not clear why they count as sculpture, even when the definition is so elastic as to include anything (such as a happening, a performance or a Richard Long walk) that exists, or once existed, in three dimensions. And if Andre's Equivalent VIII can make the cut, though the American's minimalism never took root here, then why not Marcel Duchamp, whose influence is infinitely greater? Surely yesterday's headlines were not a factor?

In short, this show is either unintentionally patchy, perverse or a combination of the two. It spurns comprehensiveness in favour of "conversations" between exhibits. But its own tendentiousness gets in the way.

You walk into a gallery containing four flagrantly miscellaneous figures. Alfred Gilbert's neo-baroque Victoria, in which the old queen resembles nothing so much as Gilbert, or is it George, on a throne crowned with gilded lilies; Lord Leighton's classical athlete; Philip King's semi-abstract Genghis Khan and Charles Wheeler's bronze Adam, in which the pierced head admits light in most unfortunate ways, making the eyes come alive in Hammer Horror fashion.

What is the connection – leaders, empires, robes, on the one hand; heroic nudity on the other? The juxtapositions force the issue, but the bathetic answer is that these artists were all Royal Academicians (three former presidents, we're told, as if that matters).

The opening gallery is bent on displaying what every schoolgirl knows, namely the influence of ancient cultures on early 20th-century art. Tremendous loans from the British Museum alternate with modern sculptures so that one sees, definitively, the lessons of Indian carving for Eric Gill, the effect of Aztec figures upon Henry Moore, what Epstein took from Egyptian art.

It is an exemplary exercise, to be sure, but also a knockout for modern art. Every piece here is lessened by comparison. Gill looks like an art deco stylist, Gaudier-Brzeska appears silly, and next to the stupendous Assyrian reliefs he revered, Sargeant Jagger's first world war frieze looks about as sophisticated as sculpted icing.

Too often, the art is presented to make a point, or even two. Moore and Hepworth: figurative v abstract, horizontal v vertical. Gilbert's Victoria: commemoration v propaganda. The approach is vigorous and should keep visitors moving briskly – assuming they are not intent on the sculptures as art.

One hundred and twenty artists to choose from, yet so many poor or unrepresentative works. Why not borrow Gaudier-Brzeska's marvellous Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound instead of his dog? How about Damien Hirst's elegiac Away From the Flock, not another case full of flies. Sarah Lucas, Rebecca Warren, Richard Wentworth: none is well represented. Wilson even asks in his catalogue essay, as if to acknowledge the fact, whether weak works say more than strong ones.

There are brilliant moments in this show, it's true. To open with a replica of Edwin Lutyens's Cenotaph, that soaring monument that seems like the bright, solid opposite of a grave (and what associations with absent Whiteread) is to strike at the whole definition of sculpture right away. To see Epstein breaking free of the British Museum is to understand his thunderous impact on British sculpture.

And Anthony Caro's Early One Morning, with its dazzling array of steel girders, tubes and backboards, shifted and tilted until the forms seem to react to one another, signalling or springing flirtatiously apart, remains forever young. Open, free, airily articulate, its scarlet feet barely touching the ground, it feels perennially new after 50 years.

From Caro to Kapoor, there are so many different strains of abstraction in British sculpture; so many, and perhaps more, of figuration. You could tell a tale of primitive idols, hyper-real effigies and eerie tableaux, of philosophy, memory and the landscape transformed, of ideas made visible and dramatic illusions, of humour and politics and strange beauty: of immense creative richness.

But none of this is touched upon at the Royal Academy, with its joyless chronology and lack of focus, shape or story. In fact, by the time you reach the final room, where the objects are displayed like Hoovers in a shop, you may have lost heart, and no wonder. It would be hard to imagine a major exhibition that showed modern British sculpture to less advantage.


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January 21 2011

$1m artworks up for sale at online fair

Ray Johnson, Damien Hirst, Gilbert & George and Sarah Lucas are among artists represented in online innovation

Ray Johnson has a good claim to be called the godfather of virtual art.

In 1962, this New York collage artist and friend of Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol founded the New York Correspondence School and started to send his small, witty works of art through the mail. By the time of his death in 1995, he was a recluse whose only contacts with the art world were those regular mailouts, making him a virtual, rather than face-to-face, member of Manhattan's art community.

It is highly fitting, therefore, that he is to star in the world's first online art fair alongside such living celebrities as Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. Johnson's works are being presented at the VIP Art Fair that goes online today in space allotted to the Richard L Feigen gallery which represents his estate.

Some would say that gawping at collectors and gallerists is half the fun of art fairs. But an impressive collection of leading dealers, including White Cube, Gagosian, Sadie Coles HQ and New York's Metro Pictures, have put their faith in people registering for free to be online fair flaneurs. However, if they want to get into the private rooms and VIP lounge and fully experience the collecting vibe and chat with dealers, it costs $100 (£62), falling to $20 after the weekend.

VIP stands for View in Private and this two-tier access system means the fair is far from being a bargain basement online auction. More than 50 of the works on sale are priced at $1m and above, points out Jane Cohan, one of the fair's four founders.

The fair hopes to offer an experience that replicates the actual, worldly experience of an art fair, with virtual halls from which you enter the booths of individual galleries to look at a sample of their wares.

In the White Cube room, Terror, a 2006 work by Gilbert & George, is the first thing you see, and at Metro Pictures, a self-portrait by Cindy Sherman is a highlight. There are also booths for smaller galleries including London's Limoncello, which will be showing one of the fair's emerging artists, Sean Edwards.

With this comprehensive digital mimicry of the art fair experience, does VIP pose a threat to what has become the defining ritual and meeting place of 21st-century art?

Two decades ago, art fairs were not unlike trade fairs in any other industry, visited by specialists and insiders. In this century, they have become popular theatres of art, not least in London where the Frieze Art Fair in October now shapes the annual cycle of exhibitions around itself.

In fact, the VIP Art Fair is not so much an attempt to challenge this model as to apply its lessons to the internet, according to Cohan. She and her husband, New Yorker James Cohan, were discussing with their digital specialist partners how to set up a single space on the internet where all the galleries in the world could ultimately be found. "The model for that in our business is the art fair," she said.

The VIP site is not just designed to support annual fairs, but intends to grow into a central directory for the art market online.

The galleries involved, most of whom are regular participants in fairs such as Frieze, are clearly not trying to kill a profitable formula, but they cannot resist trying out yet another way to sell art in a business that has so far proved impervious to austerity.

They also appreciate the internet's accessibility to a young audience. "The gallery is always interested in exploring new ways of reaching a far wider audience for its artists and their work," said a spokesperson for White Cube.

The fair's co-director, Noah Horowitz, argues that it may offer a more educational experience to students and the general public than art fairs normally do.

He said the galleries' "default position" was to use the VIP Art Fair as a chance to sell second-hand and especially pictorial objects that look good online, but many have recognised a chance to provide a deeper level of information about their artists than a stroll around a conventional event might provide.

Visitors can do their viewing at home on screen, at any hour, enhancing the opportunity to learn. All they will miss are the random encounters, spectacles, and social comedy of the fair.

Ray Johnson, who refused to even have gallery shows in his later years, would surely find poetry in the ethereality of it all.


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January 18 2011

Empire of the oddballs

Inspired by artefacts plundered from around the world, Britain's sculptors, from Moore to Hepworth to Hirst, let their visions run riot. Adrian Searle applauds a heavyweight new show

Modern British Sculpture opens with a model and some photographs. The model is a three-quarter-size replica of Edwin Lutyens's 1919 Whitehall Cenotaph. The photographs blown up on the surrounding walls depict the controversial but largely decorous naked and semi-naked figures with which, in 1908, Jacob Epstein once decorated the exterior of the British Medical Association building on the Strand, and which were removed before the second world war.

The mocked-up Cenotaph is pale, serious, and somehow irrefutable. I have long thought it a great sculpture, with its slightly inclined vertical planes, which, if projected, would meet a thousand feet above the earth's surface. Photographed in grainy black and white, Epstein's high-relief sculptures are naked, grubby with London soot, ruined temporary plaster figures.

Temporary like us. This space has the feel of a mausoleum, a place of death and commemoration. Then, through a doorway, we are tantalised by things displayed in spotlit gloom: a black basalt Easter Island figure, an ancient Egyptian baboon, a phallic woman carved by the overheated Eric Gill. Is this going to be a fun show, or what?

British British Sculpture Sculpture is the title of the essay by curator (and recently appointed director of Tate Britain) Penelope Curtis that opens the catalogue. The same title adorns the essay by her co-curator, British sculptor Keith Wilson at the end of the book. Is it me, or is there an echo in here? One cannot but wonder to what degree this exhibition indicates Curtis's future direction of Tate Britain. It tries to tell one among many stories of modern art, in a limited space, and is no worse for bringing less well known artists and works to the foreground, while ignoring others. And who needs another coffee-table pop-up sculpture show and catalogue of the usual big names?

The show is full of echoes: of ancient African, Egyptian and oceanic art, Greek sculpture, the fragile clatter of Chinese porcelains and Bernard Leach pots, the pomp of Victorian Britain and of the imperialist mindset that filled the British Museum with artefacts from other cultures and other times, influencing generations of sculptors.

Britain bought, looted and collected from the world, wherever navy and empire went. Artists in their turn – Moore to Gill, Barbara Hepworth, the almost forgotten Maurice Lambert and Leon Underwood – stole from the treasure horde in the British Museum, as well as from their European peers. Their demonstrable craft and frequent self-regarding preciosity is wearying. They wished to be original, but mostly turned into mannerists.

Less is Moore

And what, in this entire exhibition, could be more modern or more timeless than the 4,000-year-old neo-Sumerian stone, a great, grey, carved weight like a giant, weather-smoothed pebble, whose form is neither more or less than that of a sleeping duck? It declares without trying those perennially ancient and modern dicta about "truth to materials" and "less is more".

Going through the show I thought less Henry Moore would be good, too, but I suppose he is unavoidable. The Sumerian duck also finds an echo, much later on, in a single-bar electric fire whose backplate has been snipped into the form of a yellow fish, a tench swimming in the grate, by Bill Woodrow. Next to the Woodrow is a small, worrying sculpture by the late Lucia Nogueira, a polished Coke can connected to a length of rubber tubing. It's almost nothing, but takes on a disconcerting air of human plumbing, a desperate surgical experiment in connecting insides and outsides, the world with the body, and a thing to a wall. Nearby, John Latham does something inexplicable with plaster, paint and books. Its like a head exploding with ill-digested words.

Also included here are a few more recent examples of key European and American art – a Jeff Koons basketball exactly half-submerged in a fishtank stands near a huge Damien Hirst vitrine. This is just an aside about influence, but there's a real conversation going on between Carl Andre's 1966 Equivalent VIII, his once-notorious bricks, Richard Long's line of white lumps of chalk from 1984, and a 1966 work, a wall-bound cast of a patch of London wasteground, which itself includes stray bits of brick rubble, by the Boyle Family. But maybe it's too nice, too neat a conjunction.

There's nothing nice about the Hirst, with its flyblown, abandoned picnic-table lunch, a barbecue with rotting steaks, maggots and flies heaving among the charcoal, the cow's head leaking blood under a chair. The horror! The horror! At least the Koons is clean. Nearby, a small Urs Fischer sculpture dangles in mid-air, half an apple and half a pear conjoined at the end of a length of nylon fishing line. We are being reminded, once again, what British art owes to both the past and to bloody foreigners. Fischer's sculpture is forbidden fruit. But we've all tasted it now.

What connects Albert Gilbert's Jubilee Memorial (1887) to Queen Victoria and Phillip King's mad, somehow Batman-like, purple Ghengis Khan (1963) in a room called The Establishment Figure? Is it form (both are essentially conical) or inadvertent sculptural stupidity (both are comical), or is it that both Queen Victoria and Ghengis Khan were emperors? Gilbert's Queen ignores Ghengis Khan, and stares unamused through a doorway towards the huge balls and semi-engorged penis of Jacob Epstein's Adam (1938), in the next gallery. Phew, you say, and go for a quick restorative lie down on the hessian-covered bench that, a wall panel tells us, "is here to offer temporary repose to a wilting public". Adam's certainly not wilting. The text goes on to inform us that the bench disrupted "the quite different aesthetic occasion of Anthony Caro's solo Whitechapel exhibition in 1963". What's with this arch wit? Who needs it?

But we do need Caro, and his great, bright-red steel work from 1962, Early One Morning, has a gallery all its own. I always think of this as a figurative composition – a cross-like figure at one end, a sort of red blackboard or mirror at the other, with various complications occurring inbetween. This reading is of course antithetical to the high, Greenbergian modernist terms that Caro adhered to when he made the sculpture. But there's no accounting for what an audience might think, ignoring an artist's intentions. Once, Caro was seen as the world's most radical sculptor. Then minimalism and arte povera came along, with their mutually incompatible boxes and grids, their poetry and images. British art learned to live with them all.

What – and whom – is omitted or ignored is as interesting as what is included. Certain important aspects of British sculpture are missing altogether. What of the Geometry of Fear, Britain's answer to French postwar existentialism and angst? There's none here. No tortured bronze and steel. No British pop sculpture, no systems art or British backing-into-minimalism-via-constructivism and other routes. There's no Eduardo Paolozzi, no Elizabeth Frink, another thankful omission. Tony Cragg is here, but not Richard Deacon, neither Anish Kapoor nor Antony Gormley, no William Tucker, no Rachel Whiteread. Perhaps they are dispensable to the story of British art's struggle with modernity. We move instead away from sculpture as a fully embodied object, or one that wrestles with big ideas and grand themes, towards fragility, impermanence, an anxiety of making things that count.

Modern life is empty

In any case, it isn't always easy to distinguish major from minor, the canonical from the curiosity, mainstream from backwater. There are millennium-old Chinese ceramics here that could have been made yesterday, and new things that look antedeluvian. And nothing ages quicker than the temporarily modish. Liam Gillick meets Julian Opie (Ah! The gleam of aluminium, the emptiness and disaffected estrangements of modern life!) and a little Rebecca Warren homage to Helmut Newton and Robert Crumb – all legs and bums and vulvas. Some things were never meant to co-exist, but they do.

For much of the past century – let alone beyond – British art has been secondary on the world stage, however Moore, Caro and Hirst have been lauded and reviled. We are good at taking other people's radical advances and extreme positions and taming them, effecting peculiarly diplomatic compromises on unruly foreign extremes. We Brits domesticate other people's art. We are good at oddball individuals though – from Gill to John Latham, Richard Long to Sarah Lucas to Richard Wentworth – whose own takes on modernity and their times are as distinctive as they are eccentric. They also, this show posits, might be important in ways some of their better-recognised and more lauded peers, smooth operators on the international stage as they may well be, are not. In the end you have to ask yourself what matters. Modern British Sculpture is only temporary. One day it will all be old.


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October 30 2010

British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet

There's plenty to love about British Art Show 7 – from veterans like Sarah Lucas and Wolfgang Tillmans to some newer faces

The British Art Show, a snapshot of contemporary art that takes place every five years, is now in its seventh edition. It has survived most of the early outcry – too partial, or English or painting-minded, too big, or small, or smitten with video – and outlived several artists from the first show. It is unimpeachably venerable.

But it is also an unexceptional fixture by now, given the advent of the Tate Triennial, the Glasgow, Liverpool, Whitstable and Folkestone Biennials, the Turner prize and Charles Saatchi's new British art shows. And the common ground expands. Consider the crossover between this year's British Art Show and last year's Tate Triennial – Spartacus Chetwynd, Charles Avery, Nathaniel Mellors, David Noonan, Matthew Darbyshire, Olivia Plender and the Otolith Group (also shortlisted for the 2010 Turner prize). You would hardly think there was enough art to go round.

Or perhaps consensus has hardened into orthodoxy. Here are the top British (or British-based) artists at work today; watch closely and you will see one or more of them appear on next year's Turner prize shortlist. That is certainly how it might appear. But what is valuable about this British Art Show – apart from the individual artists, and the show's immense reach through four cities, 11 venues and more than 12 months of national touring – is precisely that it breaks the chain.

There are new names (to me, at least) as well as veterans like Alasdair Gray, Sarah Lucas and Wolfgang Tillmans. The selection feels independent, broad-minded, sensitive. The curators have not attempted to be definitive (how could they be?). They are not punting any themes or trends (what would they be in our all-embracing wide-world culture?). If there is a particular taste at work, it is for the comic, historic, poetic.

Elizabeth Price, for instance, has made a wonderfully droll black-and-white film that achieves all three. A seamless blend of B-movie melodrama, French critical theory and cold-war menace, with a gleeful hint of Antiques Roadshow, it centres on a series of objects revolving on an LP turntable. Coffee pots, cups, kitsch ashtrays, an LP itself ("a mirror of the terrible 20th century" according to the scathing on-screen script) it matches one kind of bric-a-brac with another, sending up all kinds of rhetoric from computer etiquette to management deadspeak. And all this with a terrific soundtrack and some very deft editing that made me think of Fernand Léger's dynamic 1924 film Ballet mécanique.

The American artist Christian Marclay is showing The Clock, one of those anthologies of film clips so prevalent in recent years, this time featuring clocks, watches and movie characters reacting to both. The alarm goes off, the office clock clicks agonisingly slowly towards the hour, the hero consults his Rolex. Time rushes in the underground, stalls at the top of the skyscraper, terrifies, oppresses, infuriates.

And Marclay has made a 24-hour marvel out of these fragments, somehow managing to find a clip for every minute, even the empty and overlooked. Robert De Niro glances up at 2.03pm. It is six minutes after midnight in Sunset Boulevard.

Each narrative is established for a moment or two, then replaced with the next. Enthralled by these miniature scenarios, amazed at the visual drama, you forget the time but are constantly reminded of it on screen. And Marclay has synchronised the art-life clocks, so to speak: every second on screen is passing away at exactly the same time in real life too.

There is a painter here, Maaike Schoorel, whose extraordinarily fugitive self-portraits seem to shift in time. You stare into the blanched surfaces of her canvases, noticing a whisper of a form that is not quite audible, become distracted by another notation – a bright pupil, a trace of water – and the picture changes. Looking becomes an event.

There is another painter whose portrait heads have overtones of Arcimboldo: hybrids of faces and masks and unidentified objects, something like hooks or postbox slots. Milena Dragicevic is a Serb born in what is now Croatia, and one senses a pressure of horrifying history in these "Supplicants", as she calls them. They have a mysterious force of personality.

It is excellent to be introduced to the work of these artists and others. Karin Ruggaber's Relief No 90 is an array of small painted sculptures, or sculpted paintings, each with it s imprecise suggestion of a form – palettes, clogs, violins, crescent moons – hints from the real world and with the real world carried in their surfaces, from tree bark to pebble and moss. Dancing across the wall, they invoke small objects in rhythm and yet at the same time the turning world itself, the ground beneath one's feet; as beautifully ordered as the words in a sonnet.

I've taken good care to avoid the much-touted performances of Spartacus Chetwynd, whose moniker says it all, but here she has produced a very strong work. With its rickety scaffolding and high platform above, and its vast lunette windows on wheels below, The Folding House conjures the tumbrels en route to the guillotine (though the catalogue, it should be said, refers to modernist architecture). What a macabre name that would have been for the scaffold.

Sarah Lucas is also at her best here, in a quasi-classical phase of not-quite figures – of something like limbs, in fact. Writhing, twining, inter-penetrating, these nameless forms are fashioned out of nylon stuffed with kapok, the resemblance to flesh a lesson learned long ago from Louise Bourgeois. But how perfectly Lucas deploys them here to suggest both ecstasy and rapacity; think of John Donne's hands roving "behind, before, above, between, below".

There are 39 artists here and the ratio of good to forgettable is strikingly high. This may be to do with the curators, Tom Morton and Lisa Le Feuvre, who are clearly passionate about art that can speak for itself; and to the eye, not just the mind. But it must also have something to do with the state of contemporary art too, about which they rightly do not generalise.

For any theory that can be made to stretch all the way from Nathaniel Mellors's Rabelaisian language games to Ian Kiaer's super-refined abstract installations can hardly be of much ultimate value. Yet there is one point of connection, it seems to me – intelligence. We are a long way now from the wilful crassness of Britart.

Indeed the high point of this show is quite possibly the subtlest thing in it: Luke Fowler and Lee Patterson's beautiful sound-and-vision project. A walnut in flame, its incandescent energy releasing in high-pitched song; the sound of raindrops on biblically dark water, increasing to apocalyptic thunder: one artist films the places where the other records sound, the material is separately edited then played in parallel.

The convergences are sublime: the corrugated surfaces of gigantic containers on the Clyde rise like organ pipes to the sound of thrumming vibrations in the air. The screen fills with tiny silver lights that seem to quiver like tiny bells: both artists are intent upon a coiled silver spring, quivering in the darkness. Sound poems, poetic visions, these miniature masterpieces present the perpetual son et lumière of the overlooked world.


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October 25 2010

Best of British

A clock made of movie clips, a severed head vomiting into a bucket, a man on a burning bench ... Adrian Searle is thrilled by the best British Art Show ever

What time is it? No need to check your watch. You can watch a movie instead, or rather snatches of thousands of films, each of which features a timepiece of some sort: a digital alarm clock, Big Ben, a fob-watch or a Rolex. And each clip tells the right time, at the moment you look. It's astonishing.

American artist Christian Marclay, now living in London, has spliced together all these moments from B-movies and cult films, forgotten third-features and international classics, to make a filmic 24-hour clock. Currently on show at White Cube in London's Mason's Yard, The Clock can also be seen at the New Art Exchange, in an inner-city Nottingham suburb, as part of the seventh British Art Show. The Clock is at once unmissable and unwatchable, in that it is impossible to sit through the whole 24-hour cycle at one go, even when galleries stay open all night to screen it, as White Cube recently did.

The Clock is full of continuity gags, branching fragments of stories you can almost grasp, and moments you recognise from the movies you've seen – here's a bit of Bergman, and there's Dandy Nichols, the "silly old moo" in Till Death Us Do Part. There's William Holden, menacing and dangerous, and here's Tom Courtenay, camping it up in The Dresser. Much more than merely clever, The Clock is relentless and compelling, and it's hard to drag yourself away. Like life itself, it is one damn thing after another, and sweeps you along. But time runs on, and so does the seventh, five-yearly British Art Show, currently showing at three Nottingham venues before touring nationally next year.

Curated by Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton, the current British Art Show, which opened on Saturday, is no pick'n'mix of what's hot and what's not. Intended to showcase the best of contemporary British art over the past five years, the exhibition's subtitle, In the Days of the Comet, makes us think of celestial signs and portents, the comet as harbinger of doom or a cataclysmic shift in the world order. And like Marclay's Clock, the exhibition is full of mad stuff, lyricism, pain and misery and laughter, things you've seen before and things you never want to relive a second time. Comets return, sometimes unexpectedly, on their unknown parabolas around the solar system.

Over at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, a very lifelike animatronic head, hooked up to a dodgy life-support system of tubes and wires, vomits a frothy spume into a bucket. The quiet gurgling is unnerving. Nathaniel Mellors's head is mounted just off the floor in the corner of the room, and many visitors walk straight past, before doing a double-take. Did you see that? It's revolting. Let's look some more. The head is a sort of appalling, mute chorus to Mellors's video, which is showing in the same room. This is the artist as critic, puking at his own work, as well he might. The film's action involves a barmy family of wealthy eccentrics, and an uninvited guest dressed in white who no one perceives as being human. Dad talks total art-bollocks about his mouthy daughter's risible sculptures, though they're no more ludicrous than much of the art one comes across everywhere nowadays. It's a farrago of embarrassments and humiliations, the bonkers and the insanitary.

We have come to expect the absurd, the oddball, the incomprehensible and the impenetrable in contemporary art. Sarah Lucas's Nuds sculptures bloat and bulge, penetrating and ingesting themselves. The Nuds might be mistaken for carved and polished alabaster, but really they're just stuffing-filled women's tights which form mental as well as physical knots: are they male or female? The shapes hint at penises, orifices, bulgy intestines, knees, bellies, breasts. They're sexy but not sexed, and make you think of Jean Arp and Hans Bellmer, and all sorts of 20th-century things on plinths. But it's all one to Lucas, whose sculptures get better and better. They sit in the yellowish light of a long, old-fashioned gallery at the castle. I like this space, which also suits the almost trudging academicism of Michael Fullerton's portraits (he knows this is how they look, it's part of his bigger game with history and manners).

Lie down and think of Russia

Other painters in the British Art Show don't fare so well. Painting here is the weakest link, except for George Shaw's paintings of the Coventry suburbia where he grew up, with their litter-strewn verges, graffitied walls and grim, lightless afternoons. Shaw's paintings don't change much, but then neither do the psychically deadening places he depicts. He paints as though it's always damp and melancholy, and escape were impossible.

A similarly pervasive and lowering atmosphere becomes almost elegiac in Luke Fowler's film A Grammar for Listening. This work takes us from a flooded quarry, the air thudding with the sound of a distant aeroplane, to the emission-choked air and sick trees of the M60 motorway, and from sparrows nervous in the roar of industrial noise to the quiet crackle of a burning walnut, and a metal spring flickering in the light. Fowler is concerned with the dynamics of sound as much as of place, time and focus, but the real power of the piece is that it is so unexpectedly moving, for almost no identifiable reason at all.

The British Art Show is full of good things: Ian Kiaer's cardboard model of the cylindrical 1920s house of the Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov (you have to lie on the floor to get a view of the building's interior, and you forget what size you are); Karla Black's gorgeous festoon of pink suspended polythene, catching the light – it is so simple, so playful; Wolfgang Tillmans's roaring abstract photographic smear. The show goes on. Elizabeth Price's fetishistic high-definition video presents a taxonomy of kitsch pottery, the sheen on a cheap figurine and the light-catching slither of a vinyl LP and the glittery spangle of a revolving egg whisk, all set to the hard shudder of remixed 1980s pop. Price's work is an erotic encounter of objects, surfaces and colliding categories. I nearly did myself a mischief watching this.

While Price seems to be revelling in the timbre of a certain kind of modernity, and taking the idea of postmodernity somewhere new, other artists concern themselves with the persistence of the past in the present – Anja Kirschner and David Panos's almost hour-long video about the 18th-century folk hero and criminal Jack Sheppard is a riot of Restoration muck and coffee-house intrigue, mouldering wigs and handbill illustrations. Simon Martin remakes a 1969 Hollis Frampton film of the passage of light over a lemon, and accompanies it with a loaned 3,000-year-old Mexican Olmec stone sculpture. Becky Beasley pays homage to Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard's great 1975 novel Correction, and Duncan Campbell constructs a quasi-documentary about the Northern Irish activist Bernadette Devlin.

Did someone catch fire?

All this makes for the best British Art Show I've seen – and I've seen them all, back to the late 70s. It is full of variety, wit and seriousness. The coming economic cuts might mean that big shows like this no longer even happen, let alone tour. Some might think that this is a good thing. We all might end up like the young man in underpants, who sits on top of a council bench, his feet on the black metal seat, staring at the floor. Down at the other end of the bench a small fire burns merrily. Did someone spontaneously combust? Or maybe the youth decided that starting a fire was less effort than putting some clothes on. That's Britain for you. Roger Hiorns says he doesn't know what it means either. The boy is a stand-in for the artist, who posed, naked, for a photo depicting the same scene in his studio half a decade ago. Art, like comets, means different things at different times in different places: I think of wrecked benches on sink estates, and a boy in an urban wilderness keeping the fire burning.

Visit the show and you may miss the nudity and the conflagration, though. The boy and the fire will only appear at odd, unannounced moments. But hang around long enough and he'll be back – like that comet.


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June 20 2010

Sebastian Horsley obituary

Artist and self-styled Soho dandy, he underwent crucifixion for his art and was celebrated for his wit

Sebastian Horsley, who has been found dead aged 47, always favoured the provocative in his writing and art. In 2000, he notoriously underwent a crucifixion in the Philippines as a participant in a rebirth ceremony. He was nailed to a cross for 20 minutes, fainted from the pain and fell when the footrest gave way. The incident – photographed by Dennis Morris and filmed by the artist Sarah Lucas, with accompanying music by Gavin Rossdale, the lead singer of Bush – inspired a series of paintings by Sebastian. These, along with the photographs and the film, were exhibited in his 2002 show Crucifixion.

Having swum with sharks when he was young, Sebastian became fascinated by their capacity for beauty and danger, and they became a recurrent motif in his large-scale paintings. His 2007 retrospective at the Spectrum Gallery, in London, was entitled Hookers, Dealers, Tailors and included displays of his flamboyant bespoke tailoring. The outfitters Turnbull & Asser created a shirt in his honour. Sebastian was as comfortable in the glittering salons of London's art world as he was in the backstreet dives of Soho, where he lived. Visitors to his two-room flat on Meard Street would be confronted by a sign on the black door stating: "This is not a brothel. There are no prostitutes at this address." If one were allowed to enter – a Byzantine process, often involving multiple rings of the bell and telephone calls – one encountered a cross between a Dickensian grotesque and a Byronic dandy, with just a touch of the ringmaster.

Sebastian thrived on organised squalor and considered such niceties as kitchens and bathrooms to be optional luxuries. The focal point of his small but lavish drawing room was an extensive collection of human skulls. If you were female and halfway attractive, Sebastian would normally try to seduce you, less out of lechery than out of what he considered common courtesy. If you were male, similar treatment often awaited.

Underneath the witticisms, one-liners and affectations, he was a kind, sincere and extremely loyal man, despite occasional (usually drug-induced) forays into paranoia and misanthropy. His posturing and preening was an elaborate pose, rather than a deeply held conviction. As an artist he was perhaps ultimately mediocre, but he was a compelling, if derivative, writer and, as a modern-day dandy, he was unparalleled.

He was born in Hull, the son of the Northern Foods magnate Nicholas Horsley and Valerie Walmsley-Hunter. He claimed that, when he was born: "I was so appalled that I couldn't talk for two years." His parents both had alcohol problems – "everyone in my life who should have been vertical was horizontal," Sebastian once explained – and they divorced in 1975. After attending Pocklington school, he failed to get into Edinburgh University and took up a place at St Martins School of Art in London in the early 1980s, but was soon expelled.

In his autobiography, Dandy in the Underworld (2007), Sebastian wrote that he had an affair with the former gangster Jimmy Boyle around this time. He married the artist Evlynn Smith in 1983, but the pair separated in 1990. She died of an aneurysm in 2003. He enjoyed a lucrative period playing the stock market in the 80s, but the money he made was swallowed up by his addictions. He became an aficionado of prostitutes and once estimated, conservatively, that he had slept with around 1,000 of them.

Sebastian wrote a regular column for the Erotic Review, from 1998 to 2004, waxing lyrical about the joys of paying for sex and his dissolute habits. His agony uncle column for the Observer in 2006 came to an end shortly after he wrote an article about sodomy, published on Easter Day. He contributed short and idiosyncratic pieces to the books The Decadent Handbook (2006) and A Hedonist's Guide to Life (2009), for which he wrote on sex and death.

Sebastian had always had an unhealthy relationship with death. He slept with a pistol next to his bed, explaining that, accidentally picking it up rather than the telephone, he might shoot himself. He eulogised suicide, writing in his autobiography: "I have decided to stop living on account of the cost." As with so much of Sebastian's life and work, the quote was pastiche Wilde, but the sentiment was his own.

His turbulent life was ripe for a memoir. Dandy in the Underworld (renamed from Mein Camp) was published in 2007 to critical acclaim. The following year he was proud to be denied entry into America on the grounds of "moral turpitude". His autobiography was adapted as a one-man show for the Soho theatre, written and directed by Tim Fountain, with Milo Twomey as Sebastian. Sebastian professed to be horrified by the idea of it: "Why should I go to the theatre to see rape, sodomy, alcoholism and drug addiction? I can get all that at home."

The show opened earlier this month. It was typical of Sebastian that he should die at the peak of his success. "If I had known I was going to live this long," he once said, "I wouldn't have taken such care of myself."

He is survived by his mother, his brother Jake and his sister Ashley.

• Sebastian Horsley, artist and writer, born 8 August 1962; died 17 June 2010


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June 04 2010

The cheek of it ...

Will Self on an exhibition that celebrates the great British satirical impulse in art

A few weeks ago, a famous – and famously beautiful – young novelist found herself unfortunately seated beside me at an otherwise impeccably Hampstead dinner party. Bemoaning the state of British arts in general, she animadverted concerning our undoubted satirical prowess: "It's easy for us, it's what we do – we just lift an arse cheek and out it comes." Actually, I'm not sure she did say the arse-cheek bit – but it was words to that effect.

Esprit de l'escalier it may've been, but I found myself, days later, wondering why exactly it was that we should feel at all shamefaced about our singular collective ability to guy, to poke fun, to take the piss and otherwise generally excoriate. Now comes Rude Britannia, an exhibition of satiric art and cartoon which, if any were needed, provides ample confirmation of not just how deeply the satiric taproot is sunk into British soil, but how crucial its vigorous propagation has always been to our constitution – both political and psychological – while its massy canopy has, for centuries, protected our civil liberties, such as they are.

Rude Britannia takes a broadly narrative and historical approach to graphic satire, while allowing for sub-sections to treat of the political, the bawdy and the absurd. Beginning in the mid-16th century, with text-heavy allegorical and emblematic prints, the exhibition canters brusquely through the great ribald explosion of the 1700s – Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson et al – on through the expansion of print in the Victorian era, and the concomitant democratisation of satire; then presents such wayward and decadent figures as Beardsley, before shepherding in the celebrated 20th-century cartoonists – Low, Scarfe, Steadman – eventually coming up to date with generous space allocated to such nominally "fine" artists as John Isaacs, Sarah Lucas and David Shrigley.

The inclusion of these latter is entirely just: British satiric art begins in adaptations of style by painters who saw themselves as fundamentally serious, and ends having come full circle. From Leonardo Da Vinci, via the "characters" of Wenceslaus Hollar, the tradition of exaggerating human physiognomies in order to express underlying characteristics was championed by William Hogarth, but, as his 1743 Characters or Caricatures makes clear, the derogatory intent – or otherwise – is in the collusion between the hand of the creator and the eye of the beholder. It remains there. I always considered the works of the so-called "Young British Artists" of the 1990s, as cartoon-like – in a good way: strong, arresting images in two and three dimensions, that were then captioned by their titles. Damien Hirst's shark-in-formaldehyde, entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living comes to mind, but Rude Britannia has other works on show, such as Lucas's Chicken Knickers, and Isaacs's I Can't Help the Way I Feel, that capture this satiric impulse equally well.

The former is indeed a plucked chicken affixed to the front of a woman's knickers (the woman is in them), and it would seem to me suitable to link the image to Thomas Rowlandson's notorious Cunnyseurs, a much-reproduced etching from the early 1800s, which shows four men mixing perversion with aesthetics. As for the latter, Isaacs's is a latex figure of such terrifyingly morbid obesity that he – she? it? – could also serve as a grotesque of 18th-century social saturnalia or, more particularly, as a model for the pendulous bare buttocks the bewigged toadies are attempting to kiss in the seminal Idol Worship or the Way to Preferment, a 1740 print which marks the arrival on the British scene of caricature specifically deployed to drag the haut down to the bas. Occasioned by anxieties about Horace Walpole's government and the eclipsing of monarchical by parliamentary government, far from seeming a remote or recondite image, the techniques by the anonymous creator of Idol can be seen to this day, on the editorial page of this very newspaper, deployed by such modern masters of the genre as Martin Rowson and Steve Bell.

To my mind, the presumption that satire is essentially light-hearted and antic is the first victim of this fine in-gathering of works. The curators of Rude Britannia contend in the catalogue that it may be difficult for us moderns to understand what the viewers of the early caricaturists and political cartoonists found in them to laugh at, but this is a mistaken view of satirical art, which may have humour as by-product, but whose main intent is quite as serious as that of any other genre – arguably more so. It's no coincidence that, in the 18th century, satire boomed with the establishment of modern parliamentary democracy, nor that it languished during the later Victorian era, during the mass-hypnosis of imperialist jingoism.

EB White said of Punch – originally launched in 1841, and subtitled the London Charivari – that it was "as British as vegetable marrow", and that it constituted a legislature in its own right. But while the very term "cartoon" owes its origin to a fine and serious bit of satire that ran in the early Punch – John Leech's Cartoon No 1 Substance and Shadow – the magazine soon degenerated into manufacturing the sort of whimsy even Victoria herself could stomach. Leech's "cartoon" was of the cartoons – in the original sense – for the opulent interior decorations intended for the new Houses of Parliament, being looked at by the emaciated London poor.

But attempting to shame politicians with caricature has always been a risky business. The caricaturist's experience all too often bears out the old adage that "politics is showbiz for ugly people", because – as Ralph Steadman once put it to me: "No matter how venal, corrupt and disgusting you make them look, they still call up wanting to buy the thing so they can hang it in their toilet." Steadman became so appalled by this narcissism of the grotesque, that during the 1997 elections he refused to draw any part of politicians but their legs, and – shades of 16th-century allegory – I was called in to provide the legs with extended captions. However, Steadman's plaint is nothing new – George IV was an enthusiastic collector of Gillray and Rowlandson – even though they often depicted him in all his corpulence.

Other cartoonist-laureates seem more tendentious to me: David Low, represented in this exhibition by a cartoon showing Aldous Huxley and Dick Sheppard (Anglican clergyman and founder of the Peace Pledge Union), terrifying Hitler and Mussolini with their limp-wristed antics, is habitually cited as the "greatest 20th-century British cartoonist". I have my doubts: I never liked Low's line, and more perhaps than in any other form of graphic art, line is absolutely crucial to caricature. Low's is too smooth for my taste, and I'm not so sure that he isn't hoisted above the shoulders of his peers precisely because of his early stand against appeasement – thus becoming the cartoon version of Churchill (although, arguably, Winnie was always his own best comic exaggeration).

Rude Britannia isn't all politics, though; there's room in the show for such sauciers as Aubrey Beardsley and Donald McGill, both of whom – in their very divergent ways – extolled the comedic potential of the male erection in those far off days before the synthesis of Viagra. Big dicks can always shrivel into nubbins of insignificance, and as such they are obvious stand-up stand-ins for phallocentric patriarchy. Looking at McGill beside Beardsley makes one realise not so much how filthy Beardsley's cocks are – with their exposed domes and writhing veins – but how equally subversive McGill's 1930s' seaside humour was, making a mockery of Britain's interwar flop-on by equipping its petit-bourgeois with such exaggerated symbolism.

Which brings us to the vexed question of sex: the curators of Rude Britannia ruefully admit to their collective masculinity, and they have attempted to represent female artists working in the satiric mode; however, with such notable exceptions as Sarah Lucas (and Sue Webster of Webster & Noble), there's great evidence here of an enduring male satiric supremacy. Such British mistresses of the craft that there are tend towards the whimsical end of the spectrum, and while not wishing to denigrate the fine work of Posy Simmonds or Beryl Cook, it altogether lacks the bite delivered by doggier types. (As for Alison Jackson, her look-a-like fake-celebrities doing daft things belong on teenage iPhones, so far as I'm concerned.) Personally, I don't see this as a cause for despair; on the contrary, in as much as satire is a concomitant of political and economic power, it's only to be expected that it should be practised by recusants of the moiety that possess these things: when we have as many female MPs and company directors as there are male, then too we will have satiric parity.

It could be argued that I'm being myopic here – and that Rude Britannia's curators are as well. There is a very important sense in which the graphic art that lasts is determined by non-obvious forms of acceptability. A case in point is George Cruikshank's huge emblematic painting The Worship of Bacchus (1860-62), a work allegorising the socially deleterious effects of alcohol, which the artist undertook when he himself took the pledge. Despite the undoubted magnificence of Bacchus, it wasn't popular in its day, and ended up damaged and languishing before being restored by the Tate at the time of the Millennium celebrations. Cruikshank's painting employs satiric means to distinctly worthy ends – but such agitprop is never reverenced, whether it's in support of feminism or temperance (and recall, the two were closely entwined in the 19th century).

Moreover, there's a great deal of satiric graphic art that by reason of its mode of production is necessarily ephemeral. This was true of the wood-blocked chapbooks that endured into the Victorian era, as radical agitators maintained primitive production methods to keep prices within range of working people. It's true also of the work of such graffiti artists as Banksy (significantly absent from the exhibition), whose greatest works are necessarily situational. It would be impossible to "show" Banksy's stencil of two rats mounting a rocket-propelled grenade attack on the Houses of Parliament, which depends for much of its effect on the fact it was stencilled on the embankment opposite Westminster.

Arguably, there's already something curiously dated about a show like Rude Britannia itself: it may well demonstrate the full compass of a tendency in British art. After all, if the satiric style begins with established naturalist painters exaggerating their hand, then surely when the likes of Jake and Dinos Chapman, or Grayson Perry – who are more than established in the fine art world – have their gallery-conceived works re-contextualised as avowedly satiric, the circle may have been closed. The early works of Hogarth and Reynolds were, in part, intended as "in jokes". Reynolds's Parody of Raphael's School of Athens, while depicting effete and ugly Grand Tourists cluttering up the salons of Italy, nonetheless provided him with an entrée to those self-same tourists' buying power. The same might be said of the Chapmans and Perry, whose works – whatever else they may be – are stratospherically expensive.

It may be that the rudest and most subversive parts of ever-rude Britannia are not really amenable to the gallery, occupying as they do the demented zoetrope of the web. Well, I'm no great fan of the web – it certainly doesn't do for graphic art what the mezzotint did – but if it does have a role to play, then the satiric one would appear to be ideal, demanding as it does an instantaneous response, coupled to a near-universal accessibility. Which brings us back up the stairs to confront our young novelist: it may be that satire is as easy for us Britons as lifting up an arse-cheek; it may be that that's what we do, but just try and imagine what it would be like if we stopped doing it? The best description of the Russians I ever heard was: imagine the Irish with an empire. This suggests the best possible description of the Dutch: imagine the British . . . without satire.

Rude Britannia: British Comic Art is at Tate Britain (020 7887 8825) from 9 June to 5 September 2010. A series of three BBC4 programmes, Rude Britannia, will begin on 14 June.


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November 14 2009

'Anyone can be Rembrandt'

Since he made his name in the early 90s, Damien Hirst has been less an artist than head of a multinational. In the process, he's earned an absolute fortune, if not critical respect. But why should he care?

Damien Hirst stares into his portrait of a skull. This is the new Damien Hirst – Hirst the solitary painter rather than Hirst the art world's flamboyant marketing magician. He has painted these pictures with his own hands, rather than employed minions to produce work under his name, as he has done in the past. But, he says, this is also the old Hirst. After all, like most artists, he started out painting rather than conceptualising and mass-producing. "I gave up painting by 16," he says. "I secretly thought I would have been Rembrandt by then."

I give him a look. But Rembrandt was a genius?

He shakes his head. "No, I don't believe in genius. I believe in freedom. I think anyone can do it. Anyone can be like Rembrandt."

Hirst is a master of the potty soundbite. I wait for a smile or wink, but it doesn't come. Instead, he gets into his philosophical stride. "Picasso, Michelangelo, possibly, might be verging on genius, but I don't think a painter like Rembrandt is a genius. It's about freedom and guts. It's about looking. It can be learned. That's the great thing about art. Anybody can do it if you just believe. With practice, you can make great paintings."

How far away does Hirst think he is from producing a Rembrandt? "A long way. But then again, there's no need for that sort of thing today." He's got a touch of the Arthur Daleys about him – the chutzpah, the patter, the self-belief.

It's mid-October and Hirst is giving me a guided tour of his upcoming exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London. Being Hirst, it's bound to be controversial. For starters, he's paid £250,000 of his own money to have his work hung here against the same striped blue silk wallpaper beloved by Marie Antoinette. What's more, he's pitting himself against the likes of Rembrandt and Titian hanging in neighbouring rooms. And then there are the paintings themselves. For two years, he has painted alone in his garden shed in Devon. He didn't show them to anybody, didn't think they were any cop, discarded them one by one, until he finally came up with some he liked. But as he leads me round the exhibition, I'm not quite sure how to react. He's  right when he says he's a long way from Rembrandt. Perhaps a little further than he thinks. I say they're spooky – it's the best I can come up with by way of a compliment. At times, they seem more like illustrated CVs than paintings. All the traditional Hirst signifiers are there – skulls and sharks, dots and butterflies, crude nods to his hero Francis Bacon by way of spidery white lines, and the usual references to death and decay. There's certainly no mistaking who these paintings are by.

Hirst has been battling with painting for years. He's always wanted to do it, but could never quite face up to it or get down to it. "The spot paintings and spin paintings were trying to find mechanical ways to make paintings," he says. "And I just got to a point where I thought I can't avoid it any longer." Technically, they might have been paintings, but he felt he wasn't getting down and dirty with his oils and his soul, like a true artist should.

Damien Hirst remains the figurehead of Britart, the movement of British artists whose work was bought and championed by Charles Saatchi in the 90s. In 1992, he first came to prominence at a Young British Artists show at Saatchi's old gallery on Boundary Road in St John's Wood, London. The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Something Living, a shark in formaldehyde in a vitrine, became Britart's signature image.

Hirst was the star of Saatchi's Sensation show at the Royal Academy in 1997, an event that was more of a coronation than an exhibition for the new generation of British artists. Post-Sensation, Hirst and his contemporaries (the Chapman brothers, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Marc QuinnMarcus Harvey, et al) became the new punk establishment. Britart was bursting with enfants terribles, and Hirst seemed the most terrible of them all. It wasn't simply the pickled cows and sharks; it was the swagger, the swearing, the rock'n'roll attitude. He even wore tinted glasses like Bono. He became as well known for his partying and his pill-popping as he did for his art. Then he discovered cocaine and became even louder. A night out for the Britpack was not really a night out until Hirst had taken down his trousers and waggled his willy in public.

The funny thing is, Hirst was never meant to be the poster boy for the movement. He had always thought of himself as the back-room boy – more an enabler than an artist. In 1988, while a student at Goldsmiths, he curated an exhibition of his contemporaries' work called Freeze. Another irony is that the young Hirst had been rather conventional – not nearly as wild as he wanted to be. He was born into a working-class family and grew up in Leeds. His parents divorced when he was 12, and his mother, Mary, who worked for the Citizens Advice bureau, brought him up with a fierce sense of the right and proper. The true punk at his school was Marcus Harvey, who went on to create the scandal of Sensation with his portrait of the child killer Myra Hindley. Hirst adored Harvey, who was two years older. "I wanted to be like him. He was just mental. He wore a kilt and had a tiny blue Hitler moustache on his chest. I remember being incredibly jealous because my mum would cut up anything I went out in that was bad. She'd just say get back in the house. My mum made Never Mind The Bollocks into a plant pot – she put it on the gas, with a rock in the middle, and it just went whooosh! – because it said bollocks." Today, she lives next door to Hirst and his family in Devon.

He was not an academic boy, only just squeezing into sixth form, where he did two A-levels and ended up with an E in art. He was initially refused entry to Leeds College of Art & Design, but eventually got a place. He was later turned down by St Martins, before studying at Goldsmiths. When he first moved to London, Hirst worked on a building site for two years.

He was 23 when he curated the Goldsmiths show. It featured some of his own work, but his cluster of painted boxes went pretty much unnoticed. In 1991, he got his first solo exhibition – In And Out Of Love featured rooms with live butterflies, hatching, flying and dying, with dead specimens stuck on canvases. From early on, his curating skills were evident in his work – the labelling, the titles, the layout, the display cabinets. To an extent, the presentation was the art.

In the late 90s, he became Britain's own mini-Warhol, embracing celebrity, mass manufacture – and money. No British artist seemed so obsessed by the relationship between money, art and value. For Hirst, concept was all. If he'd had the idea (even if others claimed to have had it before, as they often did), that was enough. He loved the notion that he could attach his name to work he had not laid a finger on, claim it as his own and make millions. It was funny, ludicrous and hugely profitable.

Things reached their apotheosis (or nadir, depending on your perspective) in 2007, with For The Love Of God, a human skull, recreated in platinum and adorned with 8,601 diamonds, that cost an estimated £14m to produce. Again, Hirst's timing was perfect, the symbolism acute – after two decades in which art had become the supreme commodity, money was now also the subject of art. There was nothing left to say. The work sold for an estimated $100m, although it later emerged that the consortium that had bought it included Hirst and his dealer's gallery, White Cube.

Earlier this year, he ditched the gallery system altogether and sold a load of work at a massive Sotheby's auction that raised a reported £111m. He seems to be trying to create a new business model for the art world. Hirst thinks it's about time his dealer, Jay Jopling, was given a tougher ride by artists. "He always said I've got your best interests at heart, but he doesn't really. It's like he's got a harem, and I've got to be monogamous, and you just go, 'Fuck that' after a while." (Hirst has always liked his swear words.)

It was after the diamond skull that Hirst retreated to his shed. And it was after the auction that he realised paintings would be the next thing he exhibited. "The auction was definitely the end of something. A brutal change for me – go out with a bang." He admits, reluctantly, that Britart is a product of Thatcherism, but insists he has no politics and says he has never voted in his life.

Hirst verges on the evangelical when it comes to money. He says that he has spent so long trying to make Sarah Lucas, his favourite contemporary British artist, appreciate the value of money and herself. To no avail. "She'd be like, 'I don't give a fuck, give me what you want' and I'd be like, 'You should sell your work for more' and she'd say, 'I don't care. I'm not interested in all that shit.' I was like Sarah in the beginning, but then I had to give a fuck at some point." He comes to a frustrated stop. "I kind of admire her for it," he adds wistfully.

He was jealous when he found out that Rachel Whiteread's work was selling for £100,000 at a time when his was going for £20,000-£30,000. "I remember telling Jay to put my work up to £100,000. And he said to me, 'But I can sell anything you make' and it dawned on me: 'It's cos you're selling it too fucking cheap.' He said, 'It's going to alienate your collectors' and I said, 'I don't care, just do it.' We didn't look back. When he sold something for £100,000, something changed – you get taken seriously by a whole new group of people and they start buying."

Isn't there a danger that the money becomes all-consuming; that the sole measure of a piece of art is what it sells for? "You just keep an eye on it. Selling out is very different from dealing with cash." What is selling out? "My business manager always says you've got to make sure you're using the cash to chase the art, not the art to chase the cash." Hirst would argue that his diamond skull is an example of cash chasing the art.

Has he ever sold out? "I think I've got very close. There was a point I could have just churned out the spot and spin paintings for ever and laughed all the way to the bank."

Was he taking the mick out of the art market? "No. You can take the piss out of art, but I don't think you can take the piss out of the art market. All markets are serious."

So why did he stop mass-producing? In the end, he says, he found it too depressing – it began reminding him of his own mortality. "With the work I was doing, I couldn't see a route to the end of my life. I was doing these sculptures, and the people who work for me have always stayed the same. Then I thought, as I get older, they're going to get older and fucking older… And then I'd be getting old and have to get young people working for me so they could lift the sculptures."

Also, the paintings were no longer relevant to him. "The spot paintings were all about immortality. They're just a total celebration of when you're twatted, when you're taking drugs, when you're under the table. In that moment, you feel you can live for ever. Then you just get to the point where you think you've got less time in front of you than behind you."

There's a story about the spot paintings, possibly apocryphal, that I love – that Hirst started selling kits to make up the paintings for tens of thousands of pounds. In other words, he was charging people a fortune for painting them themselves. Hirst grins. Of course it's true. It came about when a man said he'd like to buy a spot painting painted directly on to a wall and Hirst asked how he planned to do it. "He said, 'Oh, just make me a certificate and give me some paint and tins. So I went through it in my head and worked it out – the certificate certified ownership of the artwork, the artwork must be painted by an authorised representative and the spots are these dimensions, these colours, and the spot painting can't exist in two places at the same time. I bought my own tins, mixed the colours, put it all in a box, a brush for every tin, so you get 150 tins and 150 brushes, compass, pencil and a certificate."

He must have thought that was funny? He shakes his head. "Every time I had a new idea, I realised it had been done years ago. Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, all the minimalists, they all had certified artworks."

Hirst was recently estimated to be worth £200m. What does he do with all his money? Well, there's his rapidly growing art collection, his many houses, his cars, his office. "I've got a lot of projects, and there's lots for charity as well." Hirst tells me which charities he supports, but he's hardly gushing about it. I can't help sensing he prefers the bad boy image and isn't overly keen to destroy it with heartwarming tales of do-gooding. But a number of his friends tell me of the times he has helped out when they've been in trouble.

He's more likely to tell you about the horrible things he's done. His friends confirm this side to him, too. Although he doesn't reckon he sold out, he did come close to destroying himself with drink and drugs, notably cocaine. He got clean only three years ago, and says for a long time he was insufferable. "The problem is, at the time I thought I was cool, but now I look back and think I was a twat." Shortly before his great friend Joe Strummer died, the musician had had enough of him. "He was going, 'Ignore him. Everybody ignore Damien. He'll go away.' I was just talking spew."

He tells me about a recent conversation with a friend. "I said, 'When I met you, I thought you were really cool' and he went, 'I thought you were a twat.' I went, 'What?!' And he said, 'I thought you were arrogant and stupid and pushy.' Lots of people say that's the impression I give off. I can't quite work out what I do – maybe I just show off – but it always surprises me. I think we're getting on like a house on fire. Maia [Norman, his partner] says it about her friends – they were intimidated by me or I was aggressive or arrogant or they don't like me. 'Who is that twat?' "

And when he was doing drink and drugs, he says, he was hideous. How? He can't remember all the details, so he turns for help to Jude Tyrrell, director of Hirst's company Science Ltd.

Tyrrell: "You were more in your face when you were on the booze and coke."

Hirst: "Yeah, you wanted to give up a few times."

Tyrrell: "No, only once."

Hirst: "Was that the knob out in Dublin?"

Tyrrell: "No, the knob with the chicken bone was fine. It was that girl's 18th birthday party. It was a posh boutique hotel and Damien was there, very drunk and abusive. It was just the kind of thing you don't want to see. Had he continued as he was, I don't think anybody could have stuck around. Also, he would have lost the art. He just wouldn't have been able to do it. He'd be staying up for two or three nights, and I'd have BBC news arrive, and I know how much that costs, and I'd be sending them away because he'd just not turned up."

Why does she think Hirst acted like this? "With everybody else, you think it's because there's shit in their lives. Damien I honestly think did it because he loves life – for purely hedonistic reasons."

And the chicken bone? That's an entirely different matter, says Hirst. "I went to a Malaysian restaurant and I had chicken, and I got a thigh bone from the chicken and kept it in my pocket and back at the hotel I put it in my foreskin, so I had a bone sticking out of the end of my cock."

Tyrell reminds Hirst, aged 44, that he has missed an important detail: "You were in a bar when you were doing it, and this American woman took offence."

Ah, yes, says Hirst, his memory clearing. "She stormed out in disgust, and next day she sued for $100,000. She claimed she'd been traumatised."

That was the last time he exposed himself in public. "I became aware that, in a room full of people and at $100,000 each, it could become very costly. We settled for 8,000 Irish punts."

How did Hirst manage to straighten himself out? "I just got sick of myself." What did his partner, Maia, make of him throughout this period? "We were both battered." She was as bad as him? "Yeah. If we hadn't been, I don't think we'd have stayed together."

Hirst and Maia have three sons. The oldest, Connor, is 14, Cassius is nine and Cyrus four. Hirst worries that their lifestyle affected Connor badly. "He's a bit quieter than the other two, and sometimes I think it's because of that."

We're looking at some white roses on a blue-black background. This is one of his favourite paintings in the exhibition. How important is it to him that the show is well reviewed? "Jay [Jopling] always seems to want to get people to be pleased, but I always say I try to ignore the good press so then I can ignore the bad. If you like the good and try to ignore the bad, you can get fucked up. But you make it for yourself at the end of the day, and that's who you've got to satisfy."

A couple of weeks later, we meet up again at Hirst's London offices, which double up as a beautiful, if unofficial, modern art gallery – a Jeff Koons silver sculpture on the ground floor, Warhol's electric chair upstairs, Hirsts galore. He is wearing different blue-tinted specs (he has some 50 pairs), the customary hoodie and trainers, and is explaining why he wasn't cut out to be a curator. "Dealing with the ego of artists is mental." Who's got the biggest ego among his British peers? "Er, me? You need a big ego to be an artist. I suppose you need a big ego to deal with the shit reviews I've been having for this show."

The Wallace show has received a real mauling; I've rarely read such scathing reviews. The paintings are described as "embarrassing", "shockingly bad", "Francis Bacon meets Adrian Mole", and Hirst labelled "a jumped-up pretender".

Did the reviews surprise him? "Well, I kind of expected them," he says, "but I suppose secretly you do hope they won't be as crap. The worst thing is, I've had phone calls from people who've treated it as a death – phoning up and asking, 'Are you OK?'" He grins. "A couple of the reviews made me laugh. [Guardian critic] Adrian Searle said, 'I failed at painting, too.' I thought that was a cracking line. He rejected me at St Martins."

Has it dented his confidence? "I've had all the confidence dented for two years in the studio, so I've looked at the work and gone through all the doubts and come out the other side. In a way, it was personal and quite aggressive. What got people's backs up most was that I was doing it in the Wallace, in the context of these great artists. But it's early days for me painting. I don't think I've arrived. I don't think I'm as great as they are. These are the first paintings I'm satisfied with… But the Wallace are well happy. The viewing figures are through the roof, sales in the shop are massive."

Some critics have suggested that the exhibition is a joke, that he has deliberately produced bad paintings, knowing that they'll still sell for huge sums. "Maybe it is… who knows? There's an element of that in everything I do. Someone once said to me, 'You could sign a dog shit and sell it' and I said, 'Why would I?' And then you think, if you did, it would be art. Manzoni blew up a balloon and called it Artist's Breath and sold it. And people go, 'Are you taking the piss, or is it for real?'"

He says there's nothing more boring than an artist wanting to be taken seriously, and it's true there is a playfulness to most of Hirst's work, but the bottom line is the paintings are for real; he does want them to be taken seriously. "I didn't think, right, I'm going to make paintings now and I don't give a fuck what they look like because we're going to make loads of money. That's not what they're about. They've got to be good."

Has he learned anything from the reviews? "No. I like what Warhol said: you don't read them, you weigh them." Perhaps he couldn't win, he adds. "It's the hallowed area of painting. The same guys who are saying to me these are shit are the guys who've said you're crap because you can't paint. So you paint and they say you're crap now you're trying to paint."

That's not strictly true. Many of those who were most damning about this show loved his earlier work, particularly the dissected cows and pickled sharks. The concept was so fresh, the lines so clean, the appearance so startling. I ask where he got the ideas from. "School. Even then I was doing that sort of stuff in art with frogs. And there were skulls and pine cones and bits of bone. It was like a nature table with things in formaldehyde. So we'd always draw from that."

He talks about the inspiration for Mother And Child Divided. "It was about my mum and sister, who had fallen out at the time. It was a funny take on that."

But this is all in the past, he says. The future, for him, is painting. He shows me the work that will form his next exhibition, Nothing Matters, opening later this month at the White Cube. There are more skulls and sharks and dots, but the colours are brighter – reds and greens. He's also introduced a few new motifs: deckchairs, windows, splattered crows.

Does he think this show will get better reviews? "I think it'll be another kicking," he says. "It's only a few weeks later and it's similar stuff, so they're just going to say, 'He won't go away!'"

And, he says, they'll be right. "The paintings are going to get better and better and better, and they're not going to go away. There's no way back for me. I've just got to barrel on through. If you want to make it easy for yourself, you can say there's a whole history of great artists who've been slagged off, so you can just embrace that, can't you?"

Hirst tells me he watched a documentary about Francis Bacon the other night. "I loved the way he talked about the Popes. He said they were failed paintings. I loved that. He said he tried to combine the Eisenstein shot of the nanny screaming with the Velásquez painting, and it was a disaster. He said, 'I don't even know why I tried.' I thought what a great thing to say – his greatest paintings, to talk them down like they're shit. That way, no one can slag 'em off." He pauses. "I should have done that."

But Hirst has never been one for regrets, and he chucks a final Warhol quote at me to prove the point. "Warhol said a brilliant thing. He said if anybody slags anything off, make more."

• No Love Lost, Blue Paintings, by Damien Hirst, is showing at the Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London W1 until 24 January 2010. Nothing Matters is at the White Cube, London N1 from 25 November-30 January 2010.


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