By Jeremy Miles
THE gang’s all there. Mad Tracey Emin from Margate with her trashed bed, dodgy Damien Hirst from Leeds with his dismembered animals … Then there’s Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley constructed from the handprints of children and Marc Quinn’s sculptural self-portrait made out of several litres of his own frozen blood. It’s hard to imagine how much of a furore these not-so-young British artists have managed to cause with these and other radical works over recent years. Their art has been attacked, vandalised and the subject of acres of vitriolic newsprint.
In the case of Quinn’s blood-head it was even allegedly melted. Not by an act of vandalism but by a hapless workman who turned the refrigeration off while working on Nigella Lawson’s kitchen. Then there was that cleaner who binned a pile of old cigarette ends, half-empty wine glasses and other assorted "rubbish" only to learn that it was very expensive work of conceptual art by Damien Hirst. My how the tabloids lapped that one up. They hadn’t had such a good laugh since dear old Carl Andre flogged his pile of bricks to the Tate just over the river.
Now of course the YBAs are part of the London tourist trail and these works are among the star exhibits in Charles Saatchi’s remarkable new gallery housed in the old committee rooms, corridors, offices and library at County Hall. And how great they look set against the sober and rather stuffy backdrop of this fine Edwardian building with its parquet flooring and ambience of faded grandeur.
Putting aside the astonishing turn of fate that mean that Saatchi – Margaret Thatcher’s ad man -– has now taken control of a big lump of the former GLC citadel of her arch enemy "Red " Ken Livingston, what has been created is a great gallery. There’s something a bit unreal about it too. The original offices remain seemingly untouched, their original mantel-pieces, fireplaces and clocks, (all set at different times, I noted), looking just as though the pen-pushers have left for the weekend and the furniture has been moved out for someone to slap a new coat of emulsion on the wall. What if one of their ghosts returned, wandering along from Waterloo Station to discovered that their office, where budgets were once adjusted and memos written in triplicate, was now home to Chris Ofili’s portrait of the Virgin Mary complete with elephant dung, or a Damien Hirst pharmacy poster offering pie and chips in 100 milligramme capsules? It’s a wonderful thought and one that gives an intriguing insight into the curious nature of changing times, places and values.
The works on show at County Hall are not of course the fevered creations of unhinged lunatics that certain elements in the popular Press would have us believe. They are, like it or not, the product of some of the most creative minds in Britain today and a vital and important part of the on-going debate that says that art should question and challenge rather than just sit in a frame and look pretty.Certainly this gallery with its prime position on the banks of the River Thames right next to the London Eye is attracting tens of thousands of visitors.
It is also one of the three stop-off points for the new Tate to Tate Ferry. This service, a godsend for art lovers, is a flash 220-seat river bus decorated with Damien Hirst spots, which shuttles passengers between Tate Britain at Millbank and Tate Modern at Bankside calling in at County Hall on the way. The journey which lasts just 18 minutes takes in one of the best cityscapes in the world and is also a great way of travelling between the Westminster/Millbank area and The City. A £4.50 ticket allows you up to three return journeys.
At the moment the Tate Britain is of particular interest those au fait with the local art scene as it is host to the first full-scale international art museum show by Bournemouth trained photographer and 1999 Turner Prize winner Wolfgang Tillmans. German-born Tillmans, who studied at the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design and returned there last year to receive an honorary degree is an extraordinary artist, obsessively exploring everything from the magnificent to the mundane.
This massive show, taking up seven rooms at the Tate Modern, is called If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters. It’s a point that is rammed home as room after room displays images that range from socks rolled up on a sofa to pieces of orange skin, a bunch of keys, clubbers, sexual encounters, Concorde, the Halle Bop comet and some intriguing experimentations with photographic dyes. Some are just prints stuck to the gallery wall with pieces of tape, others hang from bulldog clips. In a world where we are bombarded by millions of visual images, it’s intriguing to encounter someone who finally understands their mind-numbing normalcy. And to put a show like this in the Tate Britain is every bit as radical as the display offered by Saatchi’s not-so-bad boys and girls across the water.
* Wolfgang Tillmans’ If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters is at Tate Britain until September 14. Call 020 7887 8888. For information about The Saatchi Gallery at County Hall call 0207823 2363. For information on how to get there and where to stay visit (website)visitlondon.com