Saatchi’s new gallery, a huge home for his great passion for Chinese art, reestablishes his importance to modern art
nese art may be the flavour of the month in the auction houses, but where will it finally be placed in the annals of modern art? It is a question that needs to be thought about quickly because, these days, a critic cannot move in the art world without encountering the stuff and, more importantly, because Charles Saatchi has decided to open his vast new museum with a display devoted to it.
The Revolution Continues is a mixed survey of new art from China that achieves mixed results, as you’d expect. The law of averages dictates that a venue as huge as the new Saatchi Gallery can rarely be filled with good art alone. But the criticisms can wait. We need first to celebrate the occasion of the gallery’s opening, because it is a momentous one. After a bout of hesitation worthy of the Grand Old Duke of York himself, Saatchi is finally back on the front line in what used to be the dithering duke’s Chelsea headquarters. Thus the gloves can once again come off in the intriguing art tussle between the professionals and the amateurs that Saatchi began and that has successfully changed the face of contemporary art in Britain. The Tate empire once again has a rival. Let the battle recommence.
Saatchi’s new museum should have opened this spring. It should have opened last spring. But visitors to this posh Chelsea landmark, originally unveiled in 1803 and designed for the Duke of York by the architect who gave us Sandhurst, need only glance at the monstrously tall doric columns guarding its entrance to understand fully why it has taken so long to transform. The former owner’s infamous attempt to march 10,000 men up and down a hill was mere child’s play compared with the task of turning this gigantic Georgian pile into a suitable location for contemporary art. What we have here is a modern art gallery with the dimensions and pretensions of a neo-classical palace.
I have missed the Saatchi Gallery since it closed down in 2005. London has missed it. Modern art has missed it. The old gallery, housed inside the local government spaces of County Hall on the South Bank, may have been a terrible place to show art – the claustrophobic wooden panelling covering every wall soon earned it the nickname of the Coffin – but even in these inappropriate surroundings it was possible to sense the importance of Saatchi’s amateur struggle against the professional art establishment. Having witnessed and written about his adventures since the opening of the first Saatchi Gallery in a converted paint factory in St John’s Wood in 1985, I am certain that Saatchi single-handedly changed the course of contemporary art in Britain. This is not the forum in which to remember in detail how it happened, but having watched the unfolding from close up, I assure you that without his brashness and energy – underwritten by his cash – there would be no Tate Modern; the Turner Prize would still be a dud; Bankside would still be an empty power station; and the relationship between modern audiences and modern art, which is now so active and fruitful, would still be as sullen and distrustful as it used to be.
But that was then. The second most important truth about Saatchi is that he has never been able to match his opening achievements. Nothing has come along in the past decade or so that is as effective as the output of the Hirst generation. Certainly not the frequently feeble Chinese artists granted the honour of opening his newest monster gallery.
It is always difficult to tell from an opening visit what kind of service a new location will provide for the art inside it, but to my eyes, we have here 70,000 sq ft of well-nigh-perfect modern art space. Behind the portentous Duke of York HQ facade, four floors of interconnecting white cubes have been tastefully stacked, illuminated from above by what appears to be a sequence of soft and shrouded roof windows. It’s a beautiful illusion. All the lighting is artificial. But how lofty and airy the galleries appear. Some spaces are spectacular, others modest, as the higgledy-piggledy nature of the original building bequeaths a useful air of variety to the new arrangement. All this is a big architectural improvement on the depressing wooden sarcophagus in which the art struggled so hopelessly in the old Saatchi Gallery on the South Bank.
Unusually for him, Saatchi did not trigger the current enthusiasm for Chinese art. Instead, he jumped noisily onto a rolling band-wagon. The Chinese themselves were the first enthusiasts. Having come into bundles of swag from the Chinese economic miracle, a pushy generation of Chinese wannabes, based originally in Hong Kong, but increasingly hailing from the mainland, set about imitating their western counterparts by buying the local trophy art.
As you go round the show you keep encountering Chairman Mao, popping up everywhere like a proprietorial logo on a range of national goods. Zhang Hongtu shows the chairman taking the place of the kindly Quaker on a tin of porridge oats. Shi Xinning has Mao joining Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the infamous Yalta conference that carved up the postwar world and which, of course, Mao did not actually attend. Qiu Jie paints a giant pussy cat buttoned up in a Chairman Mao suit apparently to illustrate a simple Chinese pun: mao in Chinese means cat.
What is being reflected here is not only Mao’s continuing embedment in the Chinese consciousness, but also his iconic visual presence. Long before Warhol turned the chairman into one of pop art’s most striking faces, Mao himself had reduced his own image to a set of catchy visual clichés. I can certainly see why mocking him has become the default mode of Chinese art, and why Chinese collectors so enjoy owning these naughty counters to the Cultural revolution. It’s like teasing the gorilla in a zoo. But Chinese political pop art – Pol Pop? – leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. When someone has been as brutal as Mao was, and murdered as many as he did, giggling about him behind his back seems a flimsy riposte. What is called for here is Beethoven and not the Cheeky Girls.
The most celebrated of the new Chinese painters, Zhang Xiaogang, whose prices begin at £1m these days and then soar, is more serious than the political popists, but his work suffers instead from a chronic repetitiveness.
Basing his paintings on the family photographs that were banned in Mao’s day – the people had a new family now: China – Zhang churns out melancholy face after melancholy face in a seemingly endless procession of haunted national stares. A thin thread of red joining up all the interchangeable grey figures explains why the entire kitsch series is called Bloodlines.