Scene & Herd

National Obsessions


Left: Parkview International's Vicky Hwang, Serpentine codirector of exhibitions and programs and director of international projects Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Red Mansion's Nicolette Kwok. Right: Artist Josephine Meckseper. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)

National identity was “the new black” in London last week, as local art-world superpowers the Serpentine Gallery and the Saatchi Gallery went head to head with their respective blockbusters, “China Power Station: Part 1” and “USA Today.” First, I set out for Battersea Power Station, a Grade II–listed ruin that sits on the south side of the Thames about a mile upriver from Bankside Power Station (better known as Tate Modern). Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones, elegantly accessorized with a flashlight and work boots, took a group of twenty patrons on a tour of the exhibition. We started in the giant cavern of Turbine Hall B, where we listened to a selection of sound works, went through two fabulously dark and dank floors of video projections, and then ascended to the top of the industrial cathedral to find ourselves in a vast room dominated by a Great Wall of apples. Peyton-Jones confessed that she’d taken Chinese elocution lessons in order to pronounce the diphthong-laden names of artists like Jia Zhang-ke, Cao Fei, Pi Li, and Yang Fudong, who were the show’s highlights. Although only a dim-sum sampling of the art, it was an awesome adventure that reminded me of my days researching raves.

After the tour, we convened in the Ito Pavilion for a dinner hosted by Nicolette Kwok’s Red Mansion Foundation. There I talked to Vicky Hwang, whose family plans to transform the thirty-six-acre Battersea site into a hotel, shopping, and leisure complex by 2012. Once seated, I was pulled into the high-speed orbit of curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist. We spent much of the evening reveling in Obrist’s mission to “protest against forgetting” with art historian Edward Lucie-Smith, whose Movements in Art Since 1945 was a key resource for Chinese artists in the ’80s because it was the first book about contemporary art widely available in the Communist country. Lucie-Smith treated us to some forty years of tragicomic gossip (about hommes fatals, suicides, artists, and prostitutes)—unfit for print but impossible to forget. Later, reminded of the national theme, I asked Obrist, “How Swiss are you?” He responded with a snappy dissertation on multilingualism and urbanism that ended with the charmingly batty disclosure: “I was born in the studio of Fischli & Weiss.”

The next night, I was off to the Saatchi Gallery’s temporary home in the Royal Academy of Arts. There were no paintings in “China Power Station” and no videos in “USA Today.” Much has changed since Saatchi’s “Sensation” show of YBAs took place under the RA’s roof nine years ago. Saatchi is no longer perceived as a collector; his primary identity is now that of an innovative secondary-market dealer—a symbolic figure who reveals more than anyone else that there are no rules in the art business . . . except that painting sells. Word around the exhibition was that “Charles has made more money out of art than advertising” and that the work in the show was “hit-and-miss but brilliantly packaged.” When I asked one collector whether he didn’t prefer the title “Uncertain States of America,” he responded: “No, it’s too complicated. ‘USA Today’ has the simplicity of 'The World’s Favourite Airline,’ the line Saatchi penned for British Airways.”

Left: Artist Burnaby Furnas with dealer Marianne Boesky. Right: Art historian Edward Lucie-Smith.

After the shaky reception of his last exhibition, “The Triumph of Painting,” Saatchi has returned to his core competence—emergent art—by showing thirty-seven young American artists (YAAs, I assume), about twenty of whom had flown in for the opening. I asked several if they felt their work represented America today. Inka Essenhigh said yes with a big smile, then pointed to her paintings and explained, “This one is New York, and that one is Columbus, Ohio.” Kristin Baker said hesitantly, “Sure . . . My work is about spectacle and the fine line between catastrophe and beauty.” French-born dual citizen Jules de Balincourt admitted, “I feel like an American who is permanently a tourist. The show is like the melting pot. That’s the beauty of America.”

The YAAs seem to have a different attitude to commerce. None harbored illusions about the nature of this show. One even joked that it was good to see his work here because he might not see it again until it was up for auction. Another laughed, “Everything is for sale, but Charles seems to be enjoying himself.” As painter Barnaby Furnas admitted, “I think Charles is more up on New York artists than I am . . . which is a bit disconcerting.”

Josephine Meckseper seemed a little shell-shocked that her photograph of a beautiful redhead smoking a match had been plucked for the cover of the sumptuous, large-format “USA Today” catalogue, which bore a striking resemblance to those published by auction houses. About the fire at the RA in August and the Momart blaze that destroyed a portion of Saatchi’s collection two years ago, Meckseper volunteered, “I was a minor pyromaniac as a child. It’s a coincidence. Charles and I both have a history of fire.”

Left: Artist Adam Cvijanovic. Right: Artists Jules de Balincourt and David Hockney.

Predictably, Saatchi was absent from his own opening. A few days earlier, I gained access to the exhibition during installation. Builders were still working hard on repairing the water damage caused by the fire, and I eventually found the elusive dealer-curator strutting through his half-hung rooms. “Please don’t think me rude, but there are other people who can talk about the art better than me,” he said preemptively. “Just one question,” I implored. “Do you feel British?” Saatchi let out a deep sigh. “Do I support England when they play Germany? Yes. What else could I feel? I’ve lived here all my life. But those kind of boundaries don’t matter as much as they once did, and nationalism is very bad taste.” I was about to be dismissed, but having snatched a moment, I hazarded a second question: “May I take your photo?” Saatchi looked at me like I was out of my mind, as if I’d asked him to strip naked and dance the cancan. “It would help promote the show,” I ventured. But this only fueled his photo phobia, and he declared with finality, “I don’t care about promoting the art that much!”

Left: Serpentine chief curator Kitty Scott, Tate director Nicholas Serota, and Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones. Right: Artist Inka Essenhigh and dealer Glenn Scott Wright.

Left: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch and artist Kristin Baker. Right: Artist Keith Tyson.

Left: Artists Lara Schnitger and Matthew Monahan. Right: Christie's Katherine Burton.

Left: Sotheby's Francis Outred and Saatchi Gallery curator Nigel Hurst. Right: Art consultant Irene Hochmann.

Left: Artist Cao Fei. Right: “China Power Station” cocurator Gunnar B. Kvaran with artists Pi Li and Fu Jie.

Left: Artist Ou Ning. Right: Gu Dexin.