PRINT December 2004



UNLESS SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY HAPPENS VERY SOON, 2004 will go down in the annals of British art history as the Year of the Momart Fire. And—without denying that the immolation of over a hundred artworks (including key pieces by Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin, Patrick Heron, and Gillian Ayres) in an allegedly undermonitored East London storage unit is a disaster for all concerned—that’s a shame. Not only because it’s impossible, in retrospect, to separate the event from gleeful attempts by British mainstream journalists to spin it as a supremely appropriate Viking funeral for Young British Art (note to newspaper editors: For all intents and purposes YBA died years ago), but because in the London art world this year was primarily about anything but destruction. Mostly, it was about building.

In fact, it was more about building than about art, with most of the action occurring at the glitzier end of an expanding gallery circuit—the evolution of which might have serious long-term consequences for the city as a center of artmaking. On May 27, just three days after Momart’s Leyton storeroom ignited, Larry Gagosian unveiled the biggest commercial gallery London has ever seen—12,000 square feet of former garage in the increasingly gentrified area of King’s Cross, given a beautiful makeover by Caruso St. John—with an exhibition of new Cy Twombly paintings, whose uncommonly static, even wallpaper-like quality almost seemed to signal that Gagosian didn’t want anything to upstage his new building. So the capital has a terrific new venue, but time will tell whether the gallerist will program adventurously or resort to lucrative dreck like Damien Hirst and David Bailey’s photographic “Stations of the Cross”—the show running at his testing-the-waters Piccadilly gallery when the King’s Cross space opened. The new space later hosted the first substantial London showing of Martin Kippenberger’s work in living memory: a good omen.

And we very much want to see such omens right now, because there’s a real fear that as more international galleries open in the city, London could turn into just another dealing hub for the franchise. Fortunately it seems that not every foreign gallerist who’s opened here recently is in it purely for the money. A fair example of balancing business and pleasure has certainly been set by Hauser & Wirth, who, following Paul McCarthy’s celebrated trashing of their Lutyens-designed former bank’s interior in 2003, gave the main space a slinky revamp and this year rolled out a lineup—including fine shows by Mary Heilmann, Anri Sala, Maria Lassnig, and, in his first London solo since he won the Turner Prize in 2001, Martin Creed—that felt like it was of actual benefit to the city’s art enthusiasts. The Swiss gallerists thereby moved confidently into a sector of the London market that has become quite crowded in the past few years, thanks to the influx of fellow international galleries such as Sprüth Magers Lee and, of course, Gagosian; the inauguration of top-end British dealerships such as Haunch of Venison; and the ramping-up (via bigger galleries) of leading dealers such as Victoria Miro and Jay Jopling, the latter of whom is currently renovating a former London Electricity substation in Piccadilly from which he’ll apparently just deal, rather than exhibit. The immediate success of the Frieze Art Fair—now widely considered second only to Basel in Europe—hasn’t hurt, either. London is officially safe for topflight galleries.

All of which has had effects elsewhere in the ranks. Public spaces have naturally taken note of the booming audience for contemporary art; two venerable institutions, Camden Arts Centre and South London Gallery, reopened this year after varying degrees of expansion. Tate Modern didn’t change its appearance in 2004 but continued to nudge along the burgeoning public taste for bigger! better! more! via saccharine spectacles such as Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, whose artificial sun finally went out in March. Fired by infectious gigantism (or perhaps just fearful of being left behind), smaller private galleries are scaling up, too. In July, British dealer Michael Hue-Williams, previously known for a smart transatlantic roster (James Turrell, Andy Goldsworthy, Tony Bevan) and a shoebox of a space on Cork Street, boldly opened Albion, an 11,000-square-foot space designed by Norman Foster on the south side of the Thames. Hales and Andrew Mummery, a pair of respected up-and-coming galleries previously based in somewhat far-flung areas, have sprung for more floor space and congregated in the Tea Building, a storied venue in the heart of the East End. Meanwhile, Greengrassi and Corvi-Mora, previously of Fitzrovia and specializing in young American and European art, have taken up a similar Chelsea-style, safety-in-numbers arrangement in a building in the riskier South London borough of Kennington. Thomas Dane, a gray eminence of YBA, finally opened a gallery of his own in Piccadilly, in the location formerly occupied by Simon Lee (of Sprüth Magers Lee). Timothy Taylor had a successful first year in Anthony d’Offay’s old space. Nobody, as yet, has boldly scaled down and called it the New New Thing.

Some people should have, though. Just like last year and the one before, those who didn’t swim, sank—at least partly, one assumes, as a result of those making waves elsewhere. This time the casualties included Cork Street dealers Entwistle and Hirschl—that avenue is clotted with tumbleweeds, these days—and East End skin-of-the-teeth outlets Mobile Home and Hammer Sidi, both of which had fairly recently moved to flashier spaces. It seems like every time a midlevel gallery makes a jump for the next echelon via a larger or smarter venue (like Maureen Paley Interim Art and Modern Art, to take two recent successful examples) a few of their previous coevals wither and die.

Not that there are fewer galleries; unquestionably there are more. There are also more artist-run initiatives, with shoestring-budget spaces such as Rockwell, The Ship, MOT, and Cell firing on all cylinders; collectives such as Trailer taking over empty venues to mount shows like it was 1989; and another project space seeming to spring up in Dalston every week. There are more nascent dealerships, too. The problem, as ever, is money: Rising rents in central and east-central areas have increasingly pushed even the latter outlets into the affordable boondocks, alongside the artist-run affairs. Out there, they look even more like the impossibly poor cousins of those dazzling first-division galleries, and, as art-market analyst Colin Gleadell wrote recently in London’s Daily Telegraph, most international collectors never find these places in the “Dickensian warrens of the East End.” Result: Whereas a young unknown artist who’s brightened up a few lo-fi group shows could previously look to a number of accessible second-division galleries to market him, increasingly this moderately comfortable level of the infrastructure doesn’t exist.

But hell, everybody has to start somewhere, which is why the Zoo Art Fair seems like such a good idea. Designed as a piggybacking alternative to the Frieze Art Fair, and held across the park from it, Zoo’s first edition ran parallel to the main fair in mid-October and featured twenty-six galleries all less than three years old (including that of the event’s director, David Risley) and will surely help some of these less-established spaces move out of their economic bracket, or at least prosper within it, by grabbing the annual attention of passing trade and familiarizing locals with some comparatively obscure outlets. Certainly we shouldn’t expect to see many newbie galleries popping up in Gagosian’s King’s Cross, unless the latter’s owners know exactly what they’re getting into. (A similar weird-wasteland effect has been felt around Bankside since Tate Modern opened.)

Galleries and fairs aside, the other factor that can give our hypothetical young unknown a boost is, of course, Charles Saatchi, who—along with others including Jopling, Gagosian, and collectors Anita and Poju Zabludowicz—covered 50 percent of the operational costs of Zoo. It’s been a very strange year for Saatchi, though. Nobody, it seems, particularly likes his County Hall gallery. He’s had to read quotes from the British press and public about what a jolly good thing it was that parts of his collection were torched in Leyton. Having hired a new PR company, he shattered the remains of his aloof mystique by taking out advertisements in art magazines for the first time, as well as by ringing up journalists (albeit not personally) and inviting them for tours of County Hall. Now, while propping up the bottom end of the market through his active presence in the Dickensian warrens—which, if he bought for profit or prestige, he’d arguably need to do anyway, since a slowing in the velocity of British art could have an adverse effect on the status of his extant collection—he may be backing off from showing the fruits of those trips and focusing instead on shoring up his long-term rep. The upcoming January exhibition at County Hall, celebrating the gallery’s twentieth anniversary and entitled “The Triumph of Painting,” features a good number of established Europeans and Americans.

A bull market with several hairline cracks in it, then. What effect the bullishness or, later, the cracks will have on the art being made in London is of course another question, because this certainly isn’t the kind of situation in which YBA gestated. Seeking some kind of portent, I recently went up to Liverpool to see Bloomberg New Contemporaries, the annual open-submission exhibition for recent graduates. Most of those included were doing well already, exhibiting regularly in festivals and London group shows (one artist had boasted twelve shows this year), and their work was cocky and oxygenated, floating merrily on this early success and a nothing-to-lose attitude. On the other hand, there was a preponderance of the type of one-liner art that’s become increasingly prevalent post-YBA: the sort of easily absorbed trinket that bespeaks an interest only in the short-term, in raising a quick, nervous laugh. Which is not surprising, given the market that these artists are facing if they choose to settle in London now—wherein a swift hop onto the bottom of the ladder is likely to be followed by a period of wondering where the middle rungs are, while the upper end of the thing increasingly disappears into the heavens. But they’d better have a more serious strategy up their sleeves, or perhaps pray for a big, fat recession. Otherwise, in ten years’ time London could be just one more place to touch down, pick up a blue-chip artwork from a spacious boutique, and fly out again.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.