Ten years ago this month, fire ripped through a warehouse in Leyton, East London, destroying it completely — and running a firebreak of sorts through an era, dividing past from future. For the warehouse was owned by Momart, the art storage specialists, and one of its key clients was Charles Saatchi, now famous as the Knightsbridge Strangler of ex-wife Nigella Lawson, first famous as Margaret Thatcher’s advertising guru, at the time best known as a patron of the Young British Artists — Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the remained of the Hoxton mafia, who had risen and crested with the rebranding of London as “cool Britannia” in the 1990s.
By the time some of their key works went up, the YBAs had entered the centre of British mainstream culture, whether as heroes, objects of snorting derision, or both. Hirst’s series of animals encased in formaldehyde-filled tanks — a slowly rotting shark (entitled The impossibility of death in the mind of someone living, a cow pregnant with calf, bisected — had become the image of the movement, alluring even to those who dismissed it as no more than gimmick. Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With — a small tent embroidered with names and dates of men and women, and a few comments, and which was lost in the fire — summarised its other side, messy life and barely formed oversharing as creation. None of the YBA works lost involved much specific crafting, and all (save perhaps the Chapman Brothers’ vast Goya/Bosch-inspired diorama Hell) could have been re-assembled without charge of pastiche — so the reaction was pretty festive. Indeed people had turned up to joke even before the blaze was extinguished. At the Saatchi Christmas Party that year, guests were given a Chapman-brothers-designed Zippo lighter, which more or less incorporated the event as part of the movement’s inevitable trajectory — born in a culture of consumption, it had been consumed. By then, Hirst was a restaurateur and Emin a sort of mass media panto dame, one below Germaine Greer on the talk-show booker’s Rolodex.
Less amused were relative and friends of Patrick Heron, one of numerous painterly artists whose works had been stored there — in the case of Heron, a subtle exponent of abstract patterning — and a slow worker — almost 50 paintings were lost, a whole chunk of his oeuvre. No photographs will do justice to the layering and texture of those works, the mind present in the hand — no reassembly of them would be possible, or even a meaningful act. They are gone beyond gone. Mercifully, Heron has died five years earlier. No one spoke of these and other losses much — perhaps it was a little too painful to think about, not only due to its invocation of the very real possibility of death in the minds of the living, but because it raised the question about all the stuff people were being so blase about. What was it? Did it matter at all that it was gone? And if it didn’t, then whatever it was, how could it be art?
The question had been posed with rising intensity through the ’90s and into the 2000s, as the YBAs had left art school — launched by a 1988 group exhibition called Freeze, created by Hirst, whose talents included promotion, whatever else wasn’t numbered among them — and formed a network of sorts around the forgotten inner-East London neighbourhood of Hoxton, a hinterland of dead warehouses and boarded-up shops, with plentiful cheap spaces. Coming in the wake of neo-expressionism, “bad art”, and the other painterly and plastic movements of the late’ 70s and early ’80s — themselves a reaction to the austere conceptualism of the ’70s — the YBAs specialised in simple striking conceptual visions, often with a dasah of distinctively British nonsense humour (such as Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear, which used London’s famous tube map and substituted names of philosophers, actresses etc, to create an intriguing and much-imitated piece). Previous versions of conceptual/dada/craftless art, from Duchamp onwards, had been largely concerned with asking questions about art and representation itself, by playing with notions of authorship and creation. Even the ’80s kitsch art of figures such as Jeff Koons was about what it was for art to be art in a commodified world.
Arguably, the YBA stuff was the first movement to take conceptualism for granted, as a style and genre, rather than as an inherent crisis in art practice. Thus a piece such as Rachel Whiteread’s House — a full resin casting of the interior of a small terrace house in East London, which was then demolished — is simple but tremendously moving, conjuring up the way that buildings survive, while the lives lived within them vanish into the aether. The entire movement gained the summit of British “high” culture with the 1997 Sensation exhibition, which appeared at the same time as “Britpop”, knowing, acerbic and pleasingly pastiche, came to the centre of “mass” culture — the mass/high distinction becoming increasingly pulped and blurred. Million-sellers made Britpop, the last music movement so to do, while Britart was dependent on a sole buyer, Saatchi, who scarfed up masses of the art, inflating its price right from the start.
By the 1990s, it was scarcely unusual to see a hardcore Conservative showing a taste for “modern” art — even though Margaret Thatcher was reputed to have described Francis Bacon as “that man who makes those awful paintings” — but Saatchi’s devotion to a genre that sometime bordered on the nihilistic raised eyebrows nevertheless. Admen et al were wont to collect more traditional, high-craft art as a counterweight to the superficiality of their daily practice, just as futures traders favour Van Gogh — exchangers of phantom value buttressing their lives by devotion to the man who never sold a painting.
But by the time Saatchi switched his art obsessions from New York minimalism to the YBAs, that cultural hierarchy no longer prevailed. Rather the reverse — Saatchi had made his fortune in the world of British advertising, a place from the ’60s to the ’80s that had fantastically huge budgets for individual ads, and a population accustomed to a quirky and knowing style, from Lewis Carroll to Monty Python. British ads of that period are consequently minor masterpieces, not merely of form, but of bizarre and challenging content — “high concept”, as it’s known, full of giant floating chocolate bars, Martians debating mashed potatoes and the like. British advertising went conceptual hot on the heels of high art itself. Saatchi’s attraction to the YBAs — consciously or otherwise — was not merely a recognition of a similar creative practice, but a desire to smash the high/mass distinction in a particularly Thatcherite manner, enthroning the fluid, infinitely exchangeable concept, over the resistant, intrinsic and incommensurable nature of craft- and hand-based expression.
Hirst couldn’t paint (as later exhibitions would show), Emin couldn’t really draw (she is now a professor of drawing), but the ideas, look at the ideas! This celebration of the abstracted idea was what confused much of the British public the most. For, no matter how much Spectator-based fogies fumed and protested about charlatanism, it was obvious, when looking at YBA art, that there was something there. The work was intriguing, beguiling, provoking. But so too was that weird ad where a mysterious giant orange man beset Tango drinkers. What Hirst and co did created new thoughts and things — it’s just that those ideas weren’t that elusive or rare. In deciding to cover an 18th-century skull with diamonds and call it For the Love of God, Hirst had an idea. But he didn’t have much more of an idea than an copywriter has to come up with of a morning. The difference was that Hirst’s idea cost 14 million pounds to make, and sold for 50 million pounds, and — dead-centre of galleries — acquired layers and lustres of meaning. By the 1990s, the powers of the art world agreed, with YBAs winning the Turner Prize four years out of seven, to the increasing fury of cultural conservatives, who demanded that more traditional artistic standards be restored — particularly when Tracey Emin’s My Bed, an, erm, unmade bed, made the shortlist in 1999. The prize judges duly responded — by giving the 2001 award to Martin Creed, for an empty room in which the light goes on and off.
Creed, whose major retrospective, currently drawing to a close at London’s Hayward Gallery, canonises him as one of the major British artists of the last quarter century, was never a part of the YBA group, but he works in the same mode — an eclectic conceptualism, which covers a vast mix of styles, with no core concern with the question of representation or the art object, or the narrow pursuit of a style. Sixties minimalists like Sol LeWitt systematically worked their ways through the iterations of a white cube over 30 years. The first room of Creed’s exhibition features a giant rotating neon sign, sweeping over one’s head, with the word “MOTHERS” lit up, as well as 200 framed imprints of broccoli, and a nubbin of Blu-Tack stuck to the wall. Off left, there’s an annex showing a film of young art students vomiting in a white gallery space, later of them shitting. At the end of a row of small wall sculptures, a gallery door opens and closes automatically (and duly has its own explanatory sign). There’s a room filled with balloons that gallery attendants shove you into a Ford Focus on the gallery’s brutalist balcony/roof, whose doors and radio open and turn on and off automatically — and so on, and so on.
Amidst the mature conceptual objects, the walls are full of small paintings, often on cheap paper, such as computer printouts — recent works, mostly dull colourfield paintings, and juvenilia, competent but unexciting Fauvist-lite portraits. Some works, such as “Mothers” (none have official titles), have a forceful idea behind them. The sign is on a vast iron beam, sweeping round at varying speeds, on a central thick pole, all but grazing the gallery walls, and anyone much over six feet and a few inches in height. The notion of an expansive world-occupying mother of uncertain temper is well-made. Others, like the ghostly Ford Focus succeed as zen incongruities, objects of contemplation. Some — such as a series of common electrical appliance boxes arranged to mimic Andy Warhol’s colourful Brillo Boxes — all but implode with inconsequence. And Blu-Tack and nails in the wall succeed, of course, by the gallery effect — significance attaches to them by their framing in place, and we involuntarily begin to project qualities onto the object (has that Blu-Tack been particularly artfully modelled? No, it’s just imputed to it). In the main gallery, the light switches on and off over the various works — the light itself being the “work” for which Creed won the Turner. Creed’s austere and simple conceptualism feels like the source-code of YBA conceptualism — the pure idea of thingishness that lies at the root of the more lurid ensembles of Hirst and Co. In that sense, though he is contemporaneous with the latter, Creed acts as a bridge between YBA and the conceptualism of the late ’60s and ’70s.
That can’t help but bring to a peak the anxiety that such work brings, a disorientation of the division between perception and object. Creed takes the conceptual challenge to such a low temperature as to court the charge of charlatanism, something thrown at him more often than at most artists of the period. That impression is aided by a sort of mealy-mouthed naif pose, faux or otherwise, by which Creed tries to portray himself as an anti-artist. “I’m not into galleries,” he says, as if a nub of Blu-Tack, or a neatly arranged pile of lumber positioned in a non-gallery space, would even begin to ascend to the status of art. Many of the arranged piles — chairs, metal beams, etc — seem little more than a homage to Carl Andre and other found minimalists, whose work caused a stir last time round. It is one thing to have a content-rich tradition — such as landscape — roll on with minimal changed decade after decade, but to have a whole period, minimalism, essentially repeated 40 years later is bizarre. A film that plays in the gallery foyer is a near self-parodic example of the explanation attached to zero-degree content — Creed and his curator talking about how a crumpled up sheet of paper expresses the “unity of destroying and creating at the same time”, in the manner of a deadpan sketch show.
Some of the work — not much, but some — has an atmospheric charge, but such ludicrous overinterpretation rapidly renders it as absurdity. The truth — as Donald Kuspit noted in The End of Art, his excoriation of the avant-garde racket published at the same time as Saatchi’s warehouse fire — is that such activity as Creed’s is really post-art, the triumph of ’60s conceptualism having ended art as an avant-garde practice, reduced it back to a mere aesthetic practice (i.e. painting and sculpting stuff), or a sort of environmental enlivenment, to help us see the world afresh. But as Kuspit elucidated in an earlier work — The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist -- the cultural system is too strong to allow such a possibility. And admitting that “Art” — especially “Modern Art” — was over would be too disturbing to the culture, which relies on notions of a transcendental modernism, the next big, wholly New thing, as a way of filling the void left by the collapse of earlier meaning systems, such as religion and race/national identity. Ultimately, the next stage in the evolution of Creed’s system would be to simply issue suggestions for ways of looking at the world — “stare at the concrete barrier on the side of the overpass, at the point where one section joins to the next” — something the New York conceptualists started doing in the ’70s, and which marked the transition from modernism to the full dematerialisation of the art object.
But this time around, there is Saatchi and Co. to contend with. The more lurid and compelling conceptualism, such as Hirst’s steers not towards a radical break with reality, but to truly staggering pricetags, and the celebration of the new world of super-wealth (disguised, in Hirst’s diamond-skull case, as a critique of the deadness of wealth). The more austere conceptualism can’t help but leave you feel cheated — because one implicitly asks more of it than it is capable of giving. Does that make such work worth less than the works of a Patrick Heron, their artistic status guaranteed by the fact that they can be irrevocably destroyed? Or worth nothing at all? I don’t think so. The “art” is to enjoy the ensemble environment Creed and the museum have created, as a sort of zen giggle-palace, without feeling the need to seek an interiority in each work, such as interested parties are desperate to impute to it. Were that approach ever to take over — and it will, eventually — the least of Saatchi and Co.’s worries would be the price of conceptual art going through the floor. The true crisis would be the collapse of a cultural system we have come to rely on to shield us from the inert character of the world. That would be the fire next time, consuming art and this, alike.
Featured image: Martin Creed, Work No. 1092 MOTHERS, 2011. © the artist. Image courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.