Art For Art's Sake - The New Saatchi Gallery By The Thames

By David Prudames | 15 April 2003
Shows the Central Exhibition featuring Hymn - a giant bronze male - by Damien Hirst and Mask - a giant male face - by Ron Mueck.

Left: the Central Exhibition, Hymn, Damien Hirst. Right: Mask, Ron Mueck. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

Fighting his way through the tourists, David Prudames strode forth camera in hand to take on Charles Saatchi's new gallery.

Nestled between crowds of tourists and some of the capital's most famous sights, the relocated Saatchi Gallery will open on April 17, 2003.

Occupying 40,000 square feet of County Hall, the former home of the Greater London Council, the gallery is a dedicated showcase of contemporary art from advertising mogul Charles Saatchi's personal collection.

Previously located in St John's Wood, the Saatchi Gallery was a familiar haunt for serious fans of contemporary art, but it was off the beaten track. The move is intended to give more people a chance to see the collection.

Shows Traveller - a life-size sculpture of a male tourist - by Duane Hanson.

Right: Duane Hanson's Traveller is so life-like you ignore it before it takes you by surprise. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

“If you sell a piece of work to somebody, they want to show it,” said a gallery spokesperson. You can hardly blame him, Saatchi's collection of around 2500 works includes some of the most notorious and talked about pieces of art created in the last 15 years.

Commentators have already suggested that the new gallery will deflect attention from the hugely successful Tate Modern just a little further up the river.

The spokesperson from the gallery was keen to explain that, far from competitors, the Saatchi Gallery and Tate Modern would complement each other. The Saatchi Gallery could never hope to put on a Matisse Picasso retrospective as Tate Modern did last year, he said. However, he added, the publicly-funded gallery doesn't have an unrestricted acquisitions budget.

Shows Myra - a portrait of Myra Hindley created by tiny hand prints - by Marcus Harvey.

Left: Myra, Marcus Harvey - disconcerting and very powerful. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

“We are not as big as Tate Modern and we don't have the clout of Tate Modern, but what we do have are the most iconic and most recognised pieces of contemporary British art in the world.”

Love them or loathe them, the pieces on display, from Hirst's shark to Emin's bed, are just that, iconic and instantly recognisable.

Having them all in one place offers a fantastic opportunity and putting them in the Grade II listed County Hall is a masterstroke.

In amongst the plain oak-panelled offices of the Edwardian government building, the works are removed from any kind of 'modern art' or even gallery context. There is no hint of a glass case and no cordons to keep either a physical or intellectual distance between the viewer and the work.

Shows Mask by Ron Mueck.

Right: Ron Mueck's Mask puts you in your place and is so real it could easily be a stern parent or headteacher. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

Think what you will about Charles Saatchi and his motives behind this venture, but out on their own, the works in his collection confront you with the gusto of a screaming tabloid headline.

I walked around one corner and there was Gavin Turk dressed as Sid Vicious and pointing a gun at me. I headed into the Central Exhibition where Damien Hirst's Hymn and Ron Mueck's outsized and terrifying Mask towered over me. From the opposite wall Marcus Harvey's Myra stared disconcertingly out through those familiar eyes.

Together with Jenny Saville's huge paintings of women, these are all blockbuster works that grab your attention, but the collection includes moments of great and moving subtlety.

Shows 20:50 - a room-sized tank filled with used engine oil - by Richard Wilson.

Left: Richard Wilson's vivid optical illusion, 20:50. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

Ron Mueck's Dead Dad is poignant in subject, yet spellbinding in its authenticity and Tracey Emin's much talked about My Bed is an intimate adventure in one person's most private world.

Despite works by Mueck, Duane Hanson and 1950s Kitchen Sink realist John Bratby, the collection is overwhelmingly British and more often than not created in the last 15 years. This is a testament to Saatchi's patronage of the so-called Young British Artist, which is underlined here by the Boiler Room, a space dedicated to new and emerging art.

But the biggest reminder of his efforts to boost the British art scene is in the choice of a retrospective subject for the first in a changing programme of exhibitions.

In her exhibition notes Patricia Ellis describes Damien Hirst as “the alpha-male of contemporary British art,” and while the legitimacy of the title is debatable, his fame is undeniable.

Shows Pop - a life-size self-portrait as Sid Vicious, gun in hand - by Gavin Turk.

Right: a shock around every corner - Pop, Gavin Turk. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

From the giant ashtray of Horror at Home to the preserved lamb in Away From the Flock and a Mini, adorned with trademark spots, Hirst's body of work is bold and must be seen close-up to be appreciated. In particular his 17-foot tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde is, despite being motionless, sleek, powerful and inches away from being a vicious predator.

As yet the gallery has no educational facilities (although there are plans to use the original council debating chamber for a series of lectures), it isn't cheap and some works are not suitable for children.

However, it does offer the opportunity to see and judge for yourself some of the most notorious and important works of contemporary art in one informal and rather dramatic place.

Although some works are permanent, the Damien Hirst show will be on display until August 31.

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