My first encounter with Saatchi was the summer after I graduated from art school, when my mother took me on a trip to London. It was an incredibly confusing and anti-climactic time for me. I had just left the only school and community, up until that point, that I had ever enjoyed or felt a part of. After finishing my four and a half year degree in four years with five years worth of credits, I felt burned out on art and terrified of my new role as non-student for the first time in sixteen years. I had no idea who I was anymore or where I was going. My Post-modern education had led me to study under abstractionists, figurative artists, new-realists, neo-modernists, imagists, conceptualists, video artists, and writers. I was completely mixed up and felt betrayed by my alma mater for forcing me to graduate. Serious doubts about the value and role of art had begun to creep into my mind, for at least the past year. To paraphrase Laura Hoptman, the curator for the New Museum, “We now live in a time where we believe in everything and nothing.” (Or at least that’s what I remember her saying) Anyway at that point, I was a lot closer to the believing in nothing part, but wanting desperately to believe in anything.
Saatchi opened my eyes to the endless possibilities of art. His collection challenged me, entertained me, frightened me and even shocked me. The last part is especially funny, since I had grown up with a father who had been a philosophy major in a past life, who constantly proclaimed the death of shock long before I even knew what it was, and a mother who was so appalled when I returned home from school one day with the knowledge that babies came out of your belly-button at age six, that she promptly corrected the lie, by going into elaborate but simplified depth about menstruation, ovulation, and intercourse. Censorship and taboo were generally anathema to my Polish family who lived though the totalitarian Communist Regime. My parents not only allowed me to read whatever I wanted to, (at ten, I used to read Stephen King for all those racy hand-job scenes) but they even encouraged my precocious behavior. My Dad was willing to rent any horror in the video store for me, and although my Mother did not condone this, thanks to my cool Dad, I still managed to see nearly all the horrors in the video store, which in turn won me some serious street cred from all the little boys at the school yard, who would listen eagerly while I recounted what Freddy had done in each Nightmare on Elm Street or just what those demonic, murderous puppets were up to in the fifth Puppet Master movie. They could only dream of seeing what I had seen.
If that wasn’t enough to desensitize me and to contribute to my complicity in the death of shock value, I also had attended one of the most liberal and progressive art schools in the country, where inevitably each year, a new troupe of innovative freshman guys were making drawings with their cum for their foundation classes, and where evangelical, punk- rock vegans sewed their mouths shut with needle and thread, to remind us all of the plight of the chicken. I became very well acquainted with images of my video professor’s penis and masturbation technique, that he would intersperse with images of his one-eyed wife, nude men clubbing, his dog, and candle-lit passages of Burroughs and Nietzsche. I had to sign a legal waiver before submitting a piece in my thesis show promising that I would not be using any blood or other bodily fluids, however tempting it may have seemed to me.
And yet, nothing could have prepared me for Jake and Dinos Chapman’s ring of nude, phallus-nosed children wearing Nikes. They’re old news at this point, and probably would no longer faze me (who knows?), but they sure as hell did then. No amount of desensitization could prepare me for the ultimate taboo; sexualized imagery of children. Just being in the same room as Zygotic Acceleration made me extremely uncomfortable.
I also didn’t know what to make of Tracy Emin’s My Bed, which was her actual bed, complete with used condoms, blood-stained underwear, and butts or Sarah Lucas’s Self-Portrait With Fried Eggs, where a photograph of an indignant looking Lucas with an egg, on each breast, sunny side up, stares darkly and confrontationally at the viewer. I wasn’t shocked, I was more perplexed, and forced to broaden my then limited definition of art. I now have admiration and respect for Emin and Lucas, for presenting an image of femininity that falls far from the socially- sanctioned, complacent, clean, well-behaved woman, but it definitely took some work for me to realize and acknowledge their merits.
Perceptions of what is controversial or relevant are not only dependent on the time during which these assessments are being made, but also on who is judging and creating the criteria. It’s strange to consider the work of the YBAs, and to think of how shocking their works seemed not too long ago and how those same pieces seem barely controversial, if not benign now, at least to much of the art public. I went to a lecture on color in Detroit once, where the mediator (whose name I never learned and coincidentally happened to be British) said something along the lines that the impulse to want to be shocked is actually a sophisticated impulse, since it indicates that a person is willing to have a greater understanding of the world and to become more open. He also talked about how the more one knows about art, how much sparser shock becomes.
My mother, thought that Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary was incredibly beautiful, and she couldn’t understand how even a prig such as Giuliani could have had a problem with it. But the highlight of the day, had to have been when my sized 0, health-nut mother tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Irka, popatrzć!” trying to discreetly point out Duane Hanson’s Tourists II to me, not knowing that they were actual photorealistic sculptures! Funny how almost twenty years later tourists …cough (from certain particularly golden-arched regions of this globe) still looked the same! Some things never change.
I remember so many of the pieces vividly, from the Hirsts to the Mark Quinn, from the Tal R’s to the Glenn Browns to the Daniel Richter’s, to the artists whose names I don’t even remember but whose work I remember distinctly, like the huge, grey sphere, made of individually cast rats, simultaneously repulsive and yet difficult not to be smitten with. The most memorable piece for me, was Richard Wilson’s oil installation, 20:50, and is without a doubt one of the most amazing things that I’ve ever seen. The piece exists in a wood paneled room that was designed specifically for it, and much of the room is filled with recycled oil encased in a visible metal vessel that spans the entire perimeter of the room. Through the doorway, there is a metal pathway, that leads you into the midst of the installation, and it feels, like you are a part of the environment, as you experience the spectacular reflections and illusion of the room reflecting onto itself.
Charles Saatchi has been one of my heroes for some time now, but after recently finishing his book of interviews, My Name is Charles Saatchi And I Am an Artoholic, he has grown even larger in my eyes. Since he was in advertising for so many years, he is a man of ideas, and he is willing to embrace it all from the highly conceptual, to the craft-oriented, to the anti-craft, to the decorative, to the traditional. If only more collectors would follow his lead. Saatchi has continually redefined his collection and interests, while simultaneously bringing contemporary art to the attention of the public. I felt elated while reading his interviews, since he is such a highly intelligent, funny, and unpretentious individual. Whenever the interviewer (who was comprised of journalists, critics, and members of the public) attempted to villainize Saatchi, he would deconstruct the question and flip it around, in such a way that the interviewer seemed ridiculous. Kudos to you, Charles Saatchi!
Here are a few of my favorite excerpts from My Name is Charles Saatchi And I Am an Artoholic
If you were commissioning your own portrait, in which medium would you choose to be represented?
I’d rather eat the canvas than have someone paint me on it. (69)
Have you ever taken advantage of anyone in the art world?
If you asked the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi if they have ever taken advantage of anyone, they’d be lying if they claimed they hadn’t. So you can put me right up there with them, thanks. (110)
Is it not just vulgar to spend ten times the value of an artwork just to make sure you get your hands on it?
It is very vulgar, and I wish I had a more genteel, and cheaper, way of getting the pictures I want. But they are usually owned by very rich people who are often greedy. (69)
What keeps you going?
What’s the alternative? (113)
Do you believe in it all?
I am not clever enough to be a cynic, so belief is the only option available to me. (106)