Charles Saatchi: interview
He’s notoriously media-shy and – despite an interest in art from all over the world – avoids travelling beyond the M25. In the week that his much-hyped Chelsea gallery opens, Charles Saatchi gives Time Out a sneak preview of its first exhibition
This week, the long-awaited new Saatchi Gallery opens with a show of recent Chinese art. No doubt the media will swoop on the giant dog turd encrusted with toy soldiers and the donkey mechanically humping a skyscraper, as well as the model of St Paul’s Cathedral crafted from dog chews. It’s the stuff of redtop headlines, you might think; more of the same from the adman-turned-art pusher who brought us sharks in tanks and Myra Hindley hand paintings. But no, there’s something very austere about these bright, white galleries and the atmosphere is altogether more serious and contemplative than that of Charles Saatchi’s last venue, County Hall.
The millionaire co-founder of Saatchi & Saatchi (then M&C Saatchi) refers good-humouredly to the previous gallery as a major cock-up: it ended with a High Court case brought by the landlord and eviction in October 2005. Certainly I’d have to agree it was an ill-advised choice of setting, because the dark wood panelling of the Grade II-listed former Greater London Council HQ was not at all conducive to the type of contemporary art he favours. This new space, however – an imperious Georgian structure on the Kings Road, originally built to house 1,000 orphans – is almost twice the size of County Hall at 70,000 square feet and (despite being listed by English Heritage) has been completely rebuilt on the inside and tastefully extended to the back.
The new Saatchi Gallery
In many ways, this marks a return to the gallery’s original incarnation in St John’s Wood, which became London’s first warehouse-style, museum-quality modern art space in 1985, although he complains that ‘only about ten people came to Boundary Road’. He could have had all the visitors he wanted at County Hall, given its proximity to the London Eye, had it not been for the £8.50 ticket price. Thankfully, like the panelling, the entrance fee has gone. ‘I wouldn’t have done it otherwise,’ he adds, acknowledging the sponsor, auctioneer Phillips de Pury.
The move to Chelsea will not only ruffle those unaccustomed to cutting-edge art among their boutiques and antiques, but also those happier to trek out to the art world’s eastern boroughs and Bethnal Green gallery warrens. ‘I’d like to know where our art centre is now,’ says Saatchi, who’s been buying art in London since the early ’70s, ‘because I’m constantly going east, south, north and occasionally west,’ a thankless tour of duty he shares only with intrepid Time Out reviewers and the most hardened art-loving Londoners. ‘We are insane,’ he agrees. ‘I ask myself every weekend: Why am I doing this? It’s not much of a life.
Xiang Jing, 'Your Body' (2005)
’While he still trawls galleries in a black cab, perhaps accompanied by his wife, Nigella Lawson, he hasn’t travelled far to acquire all this Chinese art. ‘I don’t go to places like China as the big white hunter, vacuuming up everything I like. It doesn’t work like that.’ Neither is he intending to visit India for his forthcoming show, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, nor will he risk a flight to see his latest artistic discoveries in the Middle East. ‘I don’t know whether this means that after a period of conflict, good art emerges, but the most thrilling stuff I’m finding comes out of Iran and Iraq.’ Instead, he requests that galleries and artists ship their work to allow him to peruse and choose at his own leisure and, of course, his own expense.
After sifting through vast amounts of ‘kitsch, derivative dreck’ from China, he has alighted upon an interesting mixture of painterly pop and sculptural subversion for the current display, entitled ‘The Revolution Continues’. The show’s highlights successfully poke holes in our Western view of art, literally so in the pitchforks that pierce the eyes and mouths of classical busts in Bai Yiluo’s installation, ‘Civilization’, and more cheekily in Zhang Huan’s ‘Insects’ painting that rejects Damien Hirst’s pretty butterfly surface for a sickly pink canvas covered in parasitic ants.
Yue Minjun, untitled painting (2005) and Zhang Huan, 'Donkey' (2005)
There’s powerful political imagery in abundance: a room reinterpreting Mao’s legacy as well as the witty installation ‘Old Persons’ Home’, a slow-motion demolition derby of 13 electric wheelchairs, with decrepit war veterans doing mock-battle. Saatchi jokes that he’s getting old (he qualifies for his OAP bus pass this year) and lazy, despite his newly slender figure and the stream of fags and frappuccinos that fuel his feverish preparation for opening day. ‘I’ve been out of work for a while,’ quips Saatchi of his long period without a gallery, but this week he’s back in business.
It’s clear that every single work has been placed just so. Each piece is encountered individually; none jolts or belittles its neighbour. This magnanimous, but ultimately merciless, style of hang reveals not only Saatchi’s measured approach to the art experience but something of his own reclusive personality. The gallery might bear his name, but he doesn’t seek star status.
Marcus Harvey's portrait of Myra Hindley from 'Sensation'
As we wander round the former army barracks (the last tenant was the MoD), I can’t resist asking this modern Maecenas whether he feels partly responsible for the current collecting-mad, money-driven art world. ‘Of course it’s irritating to have the hedge-fund people come in and treat art as a commodity,’ says Saatchi, who sold his most famed commission, Damien Hirst’s original pickled shark, to American hedge-funder Steven Cohen in 2004 for a reported £6.5 million. ‘Yet at the same time, it makes artists rich and creates this huge, global art market. When I started there were literally ten big collectors: eight in America, one in Germany and one in Italy,’ the last being Count Panza di Biumo, whom Saatchi refers to as a personal hero. ‘Now everybody wants to buy art, it’s fantastic.’ He’s also surprisingly flattering about his competition – the other collectors with their own spaces, such as Anita Zabludowicz. Then there’s the question of his rivalry with Tate director Nicholas Serota and whether an offer to loan his collection was rebuffed by the museum. ‘People love to stoke this, but we are a little pimple compared to Tate. More people have got excited about art because of them than anything else.’ He does concede that his gallery might be able to offer something different: ‘There is a need for a place in London where you can see big shows that the Tate wouldn’t be able to handle quickly; I’m trying hard here to show only very contemporary work. I love showing what I like now’.
Sarah Lucas's 'Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab' © Sarah Lucas Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
There was a time when Saatchi seemed to be propping up the UK art scene single-handedly, but dealers, he claims, ‘haven’t got that much to thank me for, because I’d say that less than 20 per cent of the “Sensation” art [the 1997 Royal Academy show of Saatchi’s Young British Art] was bought from galleries. Most came straight from artists putting on their own shows.’ He misses the heyday of artist-run spaces, unique to London in the late ’80s and early ’90s, explaining how he’d hear about shows popping up, ‘like gigs’, and relating a story of visiting an empty shop by Carnaby Street only to find a ratty old kitchen table adorned with two fried eggs and a kebab. Of course, this no-nonsense piece by a young Sarah Lucas has since become a seminal comment on female nudity in art and one of the cornerstones of the so-called Young British Art movement.
‘Trying to get a dealer, collector or anyone to come to your studio has always been incredibly hard,’ says Saatchi, citing this as one reason for inviting artists to post their work on his ‘Your Gallery’ website. No one could have foreseen the phenomenon the online Saatchi presence (www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk) would become (it’s around the 200th most visited in the world, with more than 68 million hits per day). It’s no coincidence that the same man who came up with slogans such as ‘Labour isn’t working’ and ‘Britain’s favourite airline’ is now responsible for the world’s largest art community. It’s just another canny manoeuvre in a string of masterstrokes that gives new meaning to the show’s title, ‘The Revolution Continues’.
Liu Wei, 'Love It! Bite It!', dog chews (2005)
It’s strange how much criticism Saatchi has faced over the years, given all he’s done for London’s artists. Particularly chilling was the schadenfreude in the press after the 2004 fire that destroyed 140 pieces of his British art collection. Before Saatchi can respond to this, he lets out a loud wolf whistle as American artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel walks in. Wasn’t this the guy whose work Saatchi long ago bought in bulk, showed at Tate to accusations of imposing his taste on the museum, then offloaded at the end of the ’80s, helping Schnabel’s price and reputation hit rock bottom? ‘Hi, Charlie,’ says Schnabel, and after a hug they’re off to hang a room of his Chinese paintings in the gallery allotted to the sponsors. There are obviously no hard feelings, and why should there be? Saatchi has always done more good than harm and his new space looks set to spread more of his fervent vision, this time truly to the masses.
‘The Revolution Continues’ opens at the new Saatchi Gallery on Oct 9.
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