Charles Saatchi, the millionaire art collector, philanthropist and advertising guru, has finally opened his much-anticipated new project in Chelsea, The Saatchi Gallery. The project was beset by many delays, most notoriously a 2004 fire that destroyed many of the works he had collected by the so-called ‘‘BritArt’’ movement, featuring artists such as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and the Chapman Brothers. Saatchi’s influence on the British art market is considerable, and he is a man well known for putting his money where his mouth is. Arguably more than any other figure in the post-war era, he has defined buying trends, moving away from the classical in favour of the (sometimes controversially) modern pieces. He has shown breathtaking audacity in supporting young artists who went on to be household names; Emin, Hirst and Chris Ofill all made some of their first sales to Saatchi.
After the failure of his previous art gallery in County Hall, which closed in 2005, his new gallery takes the bold step of not having a permanent collection, but instead is given over to striking exhibitions of headline-catching art. In the year of the Beijing Olympics, it is unsurprising that Saatchi opens his gallery with an exhibition devoted to modern Chinese art, which has been acclaimed and despised in equal measure. Often unseen outside its native country, there is also the drawback that much of it just doesn’t translate beyond the Far East; as Waldemar Januszczak, the Sunday Times art critic notes in the exhibition’s programme notes, ‘‘most Chinese art is awful.’’
The building itself, housed in an old military HQ just off Chelsea’s Kings Road, is a striking space to highlight a variety of art that ranges from the overtly political to the disturbingly abstract. Saatchi’s taste as a collector has always been eclectic, and so it proves here. Yet, as you walk round the strangely incense-scented ground floor galleries (the artist Zhang Huan uses incense to give texture to his paintings), it’s possible to see method in the madness.
Much of the work revolves around themes of persecution and repression; images of Chairman Mao loom large, in one case incongruously transformed into a cat (Mao is Chinese for cat) and there is a great deal of frighteningly realistic sculptures of the human body made with silicon. Sometimes these are presented to strikingly gruesome effect, as in Zhang Dali’s representation of the hanging underclass, ‘‘Chinese Offspring;’’ at other times, the effect is more droll, such as the much-discussed ‘‘Old Person’s Home’’ by Sun Yuan and Peggy Yu. Half installation, half interactive game, it consists of thirteen life-sized sculptures of aged pensioners, dressed to resemble world leaders, whizzing around in automated wheelchairs, bashing into each other and the spectators. The satirical point is clear.
As the first major new gallery of modern art in Britain since the Tate Modern, the Saatchi Gallery is the object of a great deal of interest. Future exhibitions will include displays of Middle Eastern work, sculpture and abstract painting from America. Saatchi’s track record promises he will be featuring the controversial, attention-grabbing art that is clearly where his interests – and his heart – lie. As probably Britain’s best-known art collector, his willingness to back and promote new and emerging artists is legendary, and his gallery will no doubt expand and continue that lead.
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