The Art of Chess

2 out of 5 stars
The Art of Chess
From 'The Art of Chess' at Saatchi Gallery Damien Hirst 'Mental Escapology', 2003

Neither exploring the cultural influence of the game of chess, nor its use as a 'starting point for artistic expression', this show amounts to little more than a mildly amusing collection of expensive playthings. Touring the world since 2003 and expanding as it goes, this features 16 commissioned chess sets designed by eye-wateringly famous, predominantly British, contemporary artists.

Much in the vein of biscuit tins emblazoned with Van Gogh's sunflowers or flashing yoyos featuring Munch's scream, each board game appears as if it were a gift-shop approximation of its creator's oeuvre. As such, the visit quickly becomes a game of art world 'Guess Who?' – and it's not difficult.

The irreverence of The Chapman Brothers for example, is easily recognisable in their obscene playing pieces fashioned as naked, cock-nosed children. Hirst's renowned pharmacy gets a nod in his clinical white table and pharmaceutical cabinet of pillbox pawns, whilst the embroidery of Tracey Emin is unmistakable on her fabric board littered with languid female forms. And so the guessing continues, with big name artists such as Barbara Kruger, Paul McCarthy and Maurizio Cattelan, all transplanting their familiar aesthetic onto these designer checkered boards.

While few attempts have been made to stretch the constraints of what appears to be a fairly basic design commission, revered conceptualist Gavin Turk's offering is notable. Replacing the traditional board with a filmwork, 'The Mechanical Turk' features the artist disguised as an eighteenth-century chess-playing automaton. This humorous take on this classic piece of gaming fakery – it was in fact an optical illusion – represents a rare point of interest in this otherwise flat exhibit.


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