“Sensation”

The legend of young British art is by now well known. It is based on a few easily graspable concepts: sex, glamour, death, shock, the art capitals of the world all surrendering to the young cockney rascals, etc. Organized by the Royal Academy’s Norman Rosenthal in collaboration with the collector Charles Saatchi (who owns all the work), “Sensation” did little to challenge this legend, but the particular compression the show offered seems a worthwhile one. The display was sharp and ruthlessly focused, if not exactly revolutionary. In Sydney recently I saw another YBA survey, “Pictura Britannica” at the Museum of Modern Art. With this show, there was a clear effort on the part of the organizers to play down the shocks, to give everyone an equal chance, and to edit out the more obviously headlining works. The result was YBA Lite, a worthy but flat exhibition. “Sensation” gave us YBA Brut—heady and fizzy, ghastly and gruesome, beautiful, hallucinatory, and theatrical. One of Damien Hirst’s spin paintings included in “Sensation” is titled beautiful, kiss my fucking ass painting, 1996. Changing the last word to “exhibition” gives a good impression of what Rosenthal and Saatchi must have thought when they finally stepped back to survey their efforts.

From the beginning of the show Hirst’s shark in a vitrine, surrounded by a frieze of Mark Wallinger’s life-size realistic oil paintings of English racehorses and, nearby, Michael Landy’s real costermonger’s barrow bedecked with real bunches of flowers—to the last piece on view, Keith Coventry’s all-white impasto oil painting with its just-discernible news-photo-derived image of the queen explaining Modern art to a former director of the Tate, “Sensation” kept punching up dark, violent, savagely satirical visions of what it feels like to be British today. (Already this is more interesting than the question of what it means to be an artist in Britain—Can you have a professional career? Will you be taken seriously abroad?) Between the entry and exit points were included, among other things, virtually all of Hirst’s vitrine pieces to date, from the noisome fly-and-maggot ecosystem to the recent baroque pig and cow slicings and locomotions; the Chapmans’ mannequins, Marcus Harvey’s nudes copied in thickly scrawled acrylic from the “Readers’ Wives” sections of porn magazines; Gary Hume’s high-sheen neo-Pop paintings, ranging in subject matter from closed hospital doors to supermodels with erased faces; Tracey Emin’s 1995 tent embroidered with the names of sleeping partners; Marc Quinn’s Self, 1991, a cast of the artist’s head in nine pints of his own frozen blood; Chris Ofili’s richly decorative paintings propped on lumps of elephant dung; Rachel Whiteread’s negative castings, including a negative whole room; Ron Mueck’s uncanny two-thirds-lifesize hyper-realistic sculpture of his dead father, lying naked on the floor (Dead Dad, 1996–97); Gillian Wearing’s film of adults on Council Estates lip-synching monologues by disturbed children; and Richard Billingham’s grim, large-scale photos of domestic-hell scenes shot in his parents’ Birmingham flat. What links these works is their immediacy and realism, but also the apparent contradiction that metaphor and transcendence can be achieved via an aesthetic of ugly matter-of-factness.

It is indicative of the status of the YBA movement that “Sensation” at once seemed the most and least popular exhibition in Royal Academy history. It was visited by vast numbers of people but also provoked the resignation of several members of the Royal Academy in protest and a violently hostile press response. The latest outburst came from Britain’s most famous columnist, the former punk music writer Julie Burchill. Writing in The Guardian, she managed to convince herself that the meaning of the Chapmans’ sculptures and Marcus Harvey’s Myra, a ten-foot-tall, Chuck Close–style reworking of the well-known police photo of child murderer Myra Hindley, was that child sex abuse is cool (the painting had to be removed from the exhibition after it was vandalized by an outraged visitor). The artists should be forced to gaze at medical photos of venereal sores on abused children, she raved. This was a wild though not untypical misreading. In fact, Harvey’s painting doesn’t glamorize a murderer; its subject is the glamorization process itself. The Chapmans’ mannequins might be postapocalyptic mutants or allegories of consumerism. But they’re only pornography if you’re really desperate. And even then you’d have to squint very hard to block all the complicating signals the sculptures send out.

Yet while the press outrage often seemed manufactured, behind it can be sensed a genuine despair over the relentless negativity of YBA art, as if good art can only be sunny or lovely and negativity can never be productive (the journalists’ problem, not the artists). But this was the virtue of “Sensation”—the exhibition pushed YBA work outside its usual context (essentially a youth movement like any other) and allowed it to be seen as the intelligent if dark art that it is. The attitude of art-world insiders toward the YBAs is not of course wholly negative, but their response to “Sensation” tended to be guarded and complicated. The British magazine Art Monthly, for example, devoted its lengthy coverage of the exhibition to the power-mongering and financial dealings that possibly lay behind the show. Certainly there is a suspicion about the immediacy of the art’s impact, a suspicion that perhaps the work is opportunistic and uncritical. Rather than “deconstruct” the bad world and serve up thoughtful solutions as to what can be done about it, the artists in “Sensation” seem to say, Here is the world as it is, I refuse your systems for sorting things out. Or, sod you gits!

Sod You Gits, a 1990 work in “Sensation” by Sarah Lucas, could be seen as emblematic of the show as a whole. The title comes from the headline of the work’s source material, a sleazy Sunday Sport double-page spread, which the artist hasn’t altered in any way other than enlarging it. The headline quotes a randy midget who claims men go wild for her body. She’s pictured topless in one photo and holding a whip in another. This brutal and sad reduction of human sexuality is given all the impact of a nineteenth-century history painting by the massive (ten feet across) photocopy enlargement and presentation on a thick wooden support. But if the crudeness of means seems very much to the point, Sod You Gits still isn’t an easy work to pin down. Lucas isn’t necessarily condemning tabloids. The grim richness of the horror landscape Britain’s low press offers obviously isn’t lost on her. It’s hard not to be drawn, presumably just as the artist was, into the detail of the mini-articles and phone-sex ads around the main feature, with their darkly witty (if impossible to parse) headings, like Sex snap tube boob ad-ache, or starkly straightforward ones, like Sharon works with animals.

If a lot of the criticism on young British art is generally unhelpful, one claim made by those who champion the YBA ugly/beautiful aesthetic is worth thinking about: the influence of Francis Bacon. None of the YBAs really paint like him. (It would be odd if they did; even he barely got away with it.) But the sights that made “Sensation” impactful did tend to be from his universe—his stagings and horrors and unlovely flesh, staring eyes, alarming unidentifiable stains and dribbles, and extreme (to the point of sometimes seeming intentionally funny) claustrophobic existential anguish. All this runs through the work of Hirst, Lucas, Quinn, Mueck, the Chapmans, Harvey, Wearing, and Billingham, but in a way that is not particularly mannerist or rhetorical. Bacon’s presence is sensed in the work but at one remove, as if something from art had been found in the real visceral surfaces of the world—the shark, the newspaper photo, the dripping council flat walls, the father’s dead body—and then restaged as art, with minimal tempering of brute reality.

“Sensation” wasn’t a perfect show. Much YBA art has a larky sensibility and is meant more for the moment than for the ages. The exhibition ignored this aspect. Another major defining characteristic of the movement is that it can make almost anything under the sun qualify as art, whereas the emphasis in “Sensation” was on painting and sculpture. (There were, arguably, a few paintings too many—Jenny Saville’s expressionist paintings of big, naked women seemed to belong in a different exhibition altogether, as did the various examples of Richter-ish abstract fields of color or uniform marks, which are far too “international” to fit comfortably into the YBA slot.) But if “Sensation” was a distortion it was a vivid and compelling one, the most credible stab so far at giving shape and meaning to the YBA phenomenon.