25 years after 'Sensation,' has London's art scene kept its cool?

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25 years after 'Sensation,' has London's art scene kept its cool?
The city is still capitalizing on the success of a landmark 1997 show that put it on the contemporary art map and launched the careers of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Photo: Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).

by Scott Reyburn

LONDON.- A monumental mural of a notorious child murderer painted with children’s hand prints. A tent embroidered with the names of all the lovers the artist had slept with. A 14-foot-long tiger shark embalmed in a tank of formaldehyde. Mannequins made to look like mutilated corpses tied to a tree.

Britain’s exhibition-going public had never seen anything like it.

This fall is the 25th anniversary of “Sensation,” the famously provocative exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London that alerted the world to the radically new kind of art being made by young graduates such as Angus Fairhurst, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Jake and Dinos Chapman. The 1997 exhibition showcased pieces owned by advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, Britain’s most voraciously acquisitive contemporary art collector at the time. It drew 300,000 visitors and set off a media storm.

A quarter of a century later, international VIPs will attend the preview this week of the city’s 19th edition of Frieze, the highly successful commercial art fair. For years, Frieze and the various satellite fairs, exhibitions and auctions that cluster around it during “Frieze Week” have capitalized on the sense of cutting-edge cool generated by the “Sensation” generation of artists. Maybe it’s worth reminding ourselves how that sense was created in the first place.

“Suddenly art became like what pop music used to be,” said Norman Rosenthal, a co-curator of the “Sensation” show. “Art had been for a little coterie of people. London was a tiny little world with very few galleries. Most of it took place in New York, with a little bit in Los Angeles, north Italy and Düsseldorf,” Rosenthal said, recalling the 1990s art trade, before the rise of international mega-galleries and art fairs. “‘Sensation’ played an important part in the expansion of the art world,” he added.

But the show wasn’t immediately to local tastes. The Evening Standard newspaper described the artists in it as “louts,” and the BBC was repelled by their “gory images of dismembered limbs” and “explicit pornography.” Marcus Harvey’s mural of the child murderer Myra Hindley, vilified in the popular press, triggered vandalizations and resignations at the Royal Academy.

“Things had been so awful. We came scrambling out of it, fighting, doing stuff. We wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Emin said in an interview, recalling how she and other artists of her generation reacted against the country they felt Britain had become in the 1980s and early ’90s. “Sensation” opened some five months after Tony Blair and the Labour party swept to power in Britain, ending 18 years of Conservative government.

“Britain was moldy, like white sandwiches that curled up at the ends,” said Emin. “In the 1990s we had Cool Britannia, we had Blair. There was a greater feeling of optimism.” Emin’s tent memorializing her ex-lovers was one of the most talked-about works at “Sensation.”

Now, Britain once again has a new prime minister: Liz Truss, the fourth Conservative premier in 12 years. In the export-shrinking aftermath of the country’s 2016 shock decision to leave the European Union, and with the Truss government’s more recent poorly received announcement of unfunded tax cuts, many Britons are inclining toward pessimism. Culture does not figure very highly on the Conservative Party’s list of funding priorities, but the declining status of art in Britain does tell us something about what has happened to the country over the last 25 years.

“That generation of artists completely changed the position of British art internationally,” said Michael Craig-Martin, an American-born artist and teacher who was a formative tutor at Goldsmiths College in London, where most of the 42 artists included in “Sensation” studied, including Hirst, Harvey, Sarah Lucas and Michael Landy. “Artists from all over the world wanted to come to London. It had an enormous impact.”

After its stint in London, the show was also a hit in Berlin, where, in 1998, its run was extended for a month by popular demand. It then transferred to New York in 1999. Chris Ofili’s painting of a Black “Holy Virgin Mary,” mounted on balls of elephant dung and incorporating collaged genitalia from pornographic magazines, provoked outrage when it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum. The painting was branded “sick stuff” by Rudy Giuliani, New York’s mayor at the time, who unsuccessfully attempted to block the city’s funding for the museum.

By then, buoyed by the popularity of “Sensation” and Saatchi’s savvy creation of the “Young British Artists” brand, works by the so-called YBAs were beginning to attract hefty prices at international auctions. In 1998, one of the four medicine cabinets Hirst made for his Goldsmiths degree show sold for $315,000.

Though most rejected the catchall YBA branding, the participating artists often acknowledge that “Sensation” was also part of a more general efflorescence of culture in Britain that, as punk had done in the late 1970s, gave two youthful fingers to the status quo. Irving Welsh’s novel “Trainspotting,” a visceral, vernacular dive into Edinburgh’s drug subculture, was published in 1993 and made into a cult movie by Danny Boyle in 1996. The angsty Manchester band Oasis released huge albums in 1994 and 1995. London fashion designer Alexander McQueen launched his posterior-revealing “bumster” pants in 1994.

All of these cultural figures, like most artists in “Sensation,” came from working-class backgrounds, and what they produced burned with a coarse energy. Back then, government grants allowed free study at universities and art colleges for those who could not otherwise afford it.

“They were reflecting the concerns of young people at the time,” Rosenthal said. “They were an art movement. Now it’s broken up: They’re different; times change.”

They sure do. The so-called Young British Artists are now middle-aged, and most are no longer the innovators they once were. After making hundreds of millions of dollars over two decades as a quasi-industrial artistic brand, Hirst has now returned to the kind of spot paintings he made as a student, but now in bulk, monetized as his “Currency” NFTs. Jake Chapman, who, with his brother Dinos, made the mannequin sculpture that so flustered critics at “Sensation,” has parted creative ways with his brother and now devotes much of his time to writing and documentary filmmaking. The Saatchi Gallery, founded in 1985 as a space to display Saatchi’s museum-quality collection, has turned into a rental space for commercial art events. He has sold most of the major works he exhibited at “Sensation.” (Saatchi declined to comment for this article.)

Education subsidies have been cut and Britain’s state-funded art colleges such as Goldsmiths now charge tuition of 9,250 pounds, or about $10,200, in the form of a government-backed loan. Living expenses are financed by further borrowing. The prospect of beginning adult life with a seven-figure mountain of debt is dissuading less-well-off British students from applying.

“It’s so difficult to have an art education now. I’m trying to combat that,” said Emin, who is creating a free art school with 30 studios in Margate, southeast England, where her own studio is based. “It’s not right that people can’t have an art education.”

Having returned recently to painting, which she studied at the Royal College of Art, Emin is arguably the one artist of the “Sensation” generation who is still at the forefront of British contemporary art. Painting now prevails, as it does internationally. Frenzied market speculation has driven works by emerging artists, predominantly women and people of color, to dizzying heights. Reputations are quickly made by influencers on social media, not critics in newspapers.

“Tracy Emin has constantly blazed a trail and appeals to this generation,” said Katy Hessel, 28, an influencer (292,000 followers on Instagram) and curator and the author of the bestselling book “The Story of Art Without Men.” Last month, as an amuse-bouche for Frieze Week, Hessel celebrated the book’s publication with an exhibition she curated at the Victoria Miro gallery of 16 works by women artists, including vibrant semi-abstracts by young British auction favorites Jadé Fadojutimi and Flora Yukhnovich. Hessel said the selected works defined, at the “highest level,” the most important developments in art in the last 20 years. “Painting has never been more alive than it is now,” Hessel said.

The show also included a recent, brutally expressionistic canvas of a female nude by Emin in which, according to Hessel’s catalog note, the artist is “culminating decades’ worth of love, pain, death and desire into one canvas.” A quarter of a century on, Emin is still summoning up the don’t-take-no-for-an-answer spirit of “Sensation.”

Somehow that mold-breaking 1997 exhibition still resonates in the memory of a country increasingly ill at ease with itself. Arthur Hobhouse, a schoolteacher based in Suffolk, eastern England, recalls being taken to “Sensation” at age 11 by his mother.

“I felt like everything forbidden to me — sex, death, gore — was suddenly not only on show but being honored,” Hobhouse said. “Understanding that the status quo could be so quickly washed away, and that the challenge could be so explicit and public, remains a guiding light to this day. I feel privileged to have peered over the edge at that exact moment.”

You might have loved or hated “Sensation.” But you couldn’t forget it.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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