Art of Chess at Saatchi Gallery welcomes sets by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and more

By Kat Hopps | 10 September 2012
A photo of two young people playing chess on part of a tree stump within a forest
Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Deadalive© Photo: Norbert Schoerner, courtesy RS&A
Exhibition: The Art of Chess, Saatchi Gallery, London, until October 3 2012

The Art of Chess exhibition is an unashamed celebration of the art world’s lingering love affair with the “game of kings”.

It brings together 16 chess sets, each individually designed by some of the world’s leading contemporary artists, including Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread and Paul McCarthy.

A photo of a chess board set in what appears to be a doctor's surgery including a cabinet
Damien Hirst, Mental Escapology (2003). Glass, silver, wood, enamel and stainless steel with two medical stools© Damien Hirst, 2003, courtesy RS&A
Although the show’s origins date back to 2003, when the first five pieces were commissioned, it is only now back in the UK after a worldwide tour, returning with two debut pieces from British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster.

The collection as a whole is beguiling. Each artist has created a captivating 21st century interpretation of the popular game using materials ranging from wood and porcelain to glass and silver.

Noble and Webster have drawn on their fascination with dead animals to craft an oak carved, tree-stump chess board and bronze chess pieces made from mummified animals; squirrels cast as Kings and Queens and frogs acting as pawns create a gothic battleground scene.

Barbara Kruger’s untitled piece, which is the only talking chess set amongst the collection, also presents the game as combative, with each piece programmed to ask a question or make a provocative statement when moved.

Other artists have reinvented commonplace objects or fashioned their ideas with humour. In Maurizio Cattelan’s set, he has created his version of good vs evil with Superman and Mother Teresa of Calcutta pitted against Hitler and Dracula.

Rachel Whiteread has produced a felt chess board with miniature furniture pieces inspired by her love of dollhouses, Paul McCarthy has made his set from objects lying about his kitchen, and Matthew Ronay has created a pretty picnic blanket vision.

While each commission is unique, the art pieces are bound together by a singular condition – that they are real, playable chess sets, giving them an instant recognisability and accessibility for audiences.

Many of the artists are said to be keen chess players themselves. A key inspirational figure behind many of the sets is 20th century conceptual French artist Marcel Duchamp, who abandoned his work to devote his life to chess.

Mark Sanders, the co-curator and a co-director of exhibition commissioners RS&A, says the project is both an interesting sculptural commission and an opportunity to break the boundaries around the ready-made concept of the game, explaining that “any artist likes a puzzle”.

From a game which originated in the 7th century in India and has proven a pull for artists ever since, this exhibition is an intriguing imagining of chess that will resonate with players and non-players alike.

  • Open 10am-6pm (except September 11 2012). Admission free.
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More pictures:

A photo of a white chess set featuring opposing sides in pink and yellow in a gallery
Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin Chess (detail) (2003). Porcelain, wood and leather© Yayoi Kusama, 2003, courtesy RS&A
A close-up photo of ornate chess pieces on a board coloured yellow, black, red and white
Yayoi Kusama, Pumpkin Chess (detail) (2003). Porcelain, wood and leather© Yayoi Kusama, 2003, courtesy RS&A
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