The new Saatchi Gallery at the Duke of York HQ, King's Road, Chelsea. © Saatchi Gallery
Review - Freya McClelland runs the rule over the new Saatchi Gallery and its opening exhibition of Chinese Art.
The Saatchi Gallery is now open in the 70,000 sq. ft. Duke of York HQ building on the King's Road, Chelsea. The opening exhibition is The Revolution Continues: New Art from China.
But the first work of art you will see is the building itself. Located in the chic Duke of York Square with its landscaped gardens, you walk up to a grand, white stucco-fronted Georgian Palace, formerly the home of The Duke of York and then military orphans.
Inside, there are 15 large white beautifully lit galleries with high ceilings and wooden floors spread generously over three floors. It is the first completely free contemporary art museum of its size in the world.
A project room serves as a platform to present work outside the main collection. Currently this is Aleksandra Mir: Newsroom Cops and Teens. Her large tabloid splashed drawings, inspired by NYC tabloids. There is also an education centre, which is developing exciting education programmes.
Aside from the excitement of the gallery itself, the inaugural collection of Chinese art has already inspired mixed reviews. While interesting, there is certainly a feeling of repetition and reproduction, with a few surprises of individuality and true artistic flair.
Liu Wei, Love It! Bite It! © Saatchi Gallery
Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings with their characterless, archetypal faces appear throughout the exhibition. Given the sheer number of them his protest at the lack of individuality allowed under Mao seems like a contradiction. Yet, Xiaogang is the most successful of the 15 artists exhibited and these pictures sell from upwards of 1 million.
As you walk through the galleries you keep seeing Mao’s iconic image: Zhang Hongtu shows the chairman taking the place of the Quaker on a tin of oats. Shi Xinning has Mao sunning himself with Mrs Guggenheim on holiday with Venice. Qiu Jie paints a giant pussy cat buttoned up in a Chairman Mao suit apparently to illustrate a simple Chinese pun: mao in Chinese means cat.
The comic ironic twist shows the release the Chinese now feel, freedom emerging from censorship, although the returning propaganda-style motif shows just how deeply the ex-leader still runs in national consciousness. Still, you are left wondering if this is rather a tame rebellion to one who had been so brutal and oppressive.
Yet humour is a thread that runs through the collection. In Gallery 1 Love It! Bite It! Liu Wei has built a model city of the West’s architectural highlights built entirely from dog chews. The 'tastiest bits', include the Coliseum, The US Capitol and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. This works on a satirical level as a comment on a throwaway culture of mass consumption and the dumbing-down of heritage into bite size chunks.
Shen Shaomin, Unknown Creature - Mosquito (foreground) and Unknown Creature - Three Headed Monster. © Saatchi Art Gallery
In Gallery 2 Zeng Fanzi creates a comic book image of a hospital waiting room where a bloody and traumatized patient provides a stark contrast to the wide-boy, insouciant doctor. The juxtaposition of human anguish and uncaring white coat of bureaucracy provides a palpable social comment veiled in dark humour.
More effective is Fanzi’s expressionist landscapes expressing the conceptual chasm between individual cognition and the physical environment. Painting with two brushes simultaneously, Fanzi uses one to create his subject and the other to paint an abstract expression of sub-consciousness.
There are those who employ shock tactics: Zhang Dali’s life-sized naked resin figures are hung by their ankles from the ceiling and Xiang Jing’s giant naked woman presides over gallery 8 legs akimbo. Again, the message appears to be one of protest against the old guard.
The best pieces in the exhibition are by China’s most controversial artists, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Angel, a life-size and life-like angel, has literally fallen from the sky onto the gallery floor. Wings covered in mottled skin taper into horn and wild matted white hair is parted into to tell-tale horns.
Monstrous and pathetic, it is not clear whether he is dead, unconscious or merely sleeping. With its Biblical overtones it offers a fascinating comment on the state of China’s own spiritual well being.
Xiang Jing, Your Body, 2005. © Saatchi Gallery
In the basement in Gallery 13 is an example of wicked humour working flawlessly. Here Yung and Yu have created a floor full of wheelchair-bound pensioners. Slumped in various positions, their dress hints at world leaders - the broken Saddam, Yasser Arafatt, an aged Bill Clinton. The wheelchairs move around of their own accord, randomly bumping into each other and then moving off again.
It’s an intriguing and highly ambitious show. While China is developing at an extraordinary rate, its reputation in the art world still lags behind, but Saatchi has evidently been converted.
“If China's economy keeps growing as it has, our children will all be speaking Chinese in 50 year’s time,” he says. “I think there are now quite a number of Chinese artists as good as any in the West. We were initially sniffy, as it seemed derivative, but we’ve been won over.”
Saatchi has taken a risk with this exhibition. Although Chinese influence is increasing, and is something we can’t ignore, it remains to be seen if his championing of this artwork will have the same impact that his previous forays into dictating popular tastes will have.
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