As an arts writer from Sydney with a finger firmly on the pulsating vein of that city’s contemporary and emerging art scene, I arrived in London as one might imagine a goldfish to the Atlantic. Staring out at that humbling ocean, mouth agape, I flapped my way through a few miniature galleries and the odd Art Fair until finally I found a guide (life saver?) in curator, lecturer and art-lover, Ben Street. Street’s guiding me (and a few other goldfish) through London’s contemporary art scene over the next five weeks and interestingly, begins the discussion within the white walls of a private-owned gallery, the Saatchi Gallery.
Currently on display is Gesamtkunstwerk: New work from Germany. Saatchi’s collection is impressive and the visit instantly raises questions about low-brow and high-brow contemporary art (and whether the distinction can be made simply by classifying it as by the commercial or institutional spaces it’s exhibited in) and the question of whether good contemporary art can be decided by a commercial gallery or institution.
Isa Genzken provides the perfect example. Take in Mutter Mit Kind (2004), a white plinth, piled with found objects. While Street explains the elements of the piece, these juxtaposed objects imprint nothing on my psyche. Intellectualising the seemingly unrelated individual objects, images and components of Genzken’s work to ‘construct’ a meaning for the whole piece is not difficult, but should contemporary art require such a DIY approach to deriving meaning? Genzken’s clues for piecing together the ‘whole’ of her work are too obvious. That is, unless her work is simply saying, ‘these obviously disjointed but somehow similar objects are no more than a heap of objects juxtaposed around a plinth.’
Thankfully we next approached Andro Wekua’s sublime ceramic tiled Sunset (2008). At 8m tall, this primary coloured sun hovering over a misty sea will carry you away in awe of its monolithic magnitude, so long as you’re a big enough Romantic (eh hem). It may otherwise repulse you. It’s magnitude is as overbearing as a billboard, the harsh colours and blurry imagery an insult to your senses and an imposition on your space. I personally liked it.
I can say the same for the work of Josephine Meckseper and Thomas Zip. Both artists create installations worthy of their own room and create stories that speak to the surrounding objects purposely, but not obviously.
While Meckseper takes objects and symbols from advertising, places them in display cabinets akin to shop front windows (or a wunderkabinett more likely placed in the Natural History Museum), Zip creates works that demand a room of their own. They need to be walked into.
In the minds of many artists (and Romantics), there is some contention in being represented by a private and/or commercial gallery – Charles Saatchi himself wrote a scathing article on the loathsome nature of the art collector (he distinguishes himself from it). And it’s uncomfortable to think that commercial gallerists and collectors are largely to credit for the competitive market and rich diversity of contemporary art in Britain’s galleries (an abundance of which is now also British art), but this is not a new predicament. Where would the Italian Renaissance be without the Medici’s? You could likewise ask, ‘Where would Hirst or Emin be without Saatchi?’