Damin Hirst, "Spotted Minicar", The Saatchi Collection


You can see it from across the Thames: Noble and Webster's “Toxic Schizophrenia,” a gaudy electric red heart and dagger, dripping love and blood, the doorway greeting for the new Saatchi Gallery which opened in London on April 17, 2003. The much-heralded museum's inaugural exhibition showcased Damien Hirst, the alpha male of the YBA (“Young British Artists” is a Saatchi coinage), although the problem is that YBA's don't stay Y, and much of the art establishment's reaction to the ultra-glam opening was a vicious ho-hum. But most people who go to look at art are not as jaded/sophisticated/overexposed as the art press and museum directors, mainly because they haven't had the chance to see the stuff in person, and for many of them, the visual collision of the lovely Edwardian building, County Hall on the Southbank of the Thames, and the fierce formaldehyde Hirst pieces will be shocking and sensational, as it was for me.

Location, location, location; the new Saatchi is as much about real estate as about art. Queen's Walk, the superb promenade along the Thames, attracts twelve million people a year. The development of the Southbank where the National Theatre, Royal Festival Hall, the Haywood Gallery reside, all the way down to the Globe Theatre, has created a shift in the cultural life of London. The Saatchi is now part of “Museum Mile,” including the Tate Britain, the Tate Modern, the Dali Universe, next door to the London Eye, the touristic Ferris wheel, and the Aquarium.

My private preview of the Gallery in March was a rare perspective, a chance to see a show at a mid-curatorial moment, while Charles Saatchi, who curated this opening show himself, prowled the halls, consulting with electricians and carpenters. Suddenly, the lights went out on “Toxic Schizophrenia,” as a workman pulled the plug. In the hallway Gavin Turk's “Nomad,” the painted bronze sleeping bag which seems to have a person inside, looks alarmingly real, since the floor around it is still dusty, with workmen's footprints, random electrical wires, and the occasional ladder. The Hirst retrospective includes all the famous pieces (the shark, the sliced pig, the dismembered sheep, the chopped-up cows, all with their heartwrenching titles like “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” “Away from the Flock”). Without the crowds, I could put my ear to the vent in Hirst's “A Thousand Years” and hear the flies buzzing as they devour the cow's head and then drown in the blood, while maggots hatch nearby. In the next room there's “Hymn,” with its grotesque gigantism, a plastic anatomical toy whose maroon musculature matches the rotunda's maroon dome to startling effect.

County Hall was built in 1911. It was formerly the seat of city government and a Socialist stronghold until in 1986 Margaret Thatcher disbanded the London Council. Saatchi, one of the most influential collectors of Contemporary Art in the world (and Thatcher's adman during her election to Prime Minister), whose collection of two thousand pieces has never had a proper home (the Saatchi Gallery on Boundary Road in St John's Wood was hard to get to and too small) leased it. Contrary to the usual routine (gut-it, paint-it-white), he restored the building, under an agreement with the English Heritage, to its original elegance (they even found the original wall clocks in the basement); the only important change is the frosted windows to prevent glare. They created one jokey white-box room, and the Ikea-type clock on the wall turns around its still hands. The dark mahogany corridor's niches hold a collection of Hiroshi Sugimoto portraits--Ann Bolyn, Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII-and the presentation adds to their eerie timewarp.

Damien Hirst, "Hymn" The Saatchi Collection, London

The architecture is testament to an aesthetically gentler time: parquet floors, elaborately molded ceilings, the Debate Hall where the original “ayes” and “nays” were voted, and cozy, wood-paneled offices with charming fireplaces, each room just big enough to hold a piece by Hirst or Tracy Emin (Unmade Bed), Marcus Harvey (bloody handprint portrait ), Ron Mueck (Dead Dad), Marc Quinn (head of blood). There is a snarky room devoted to cartoons about Damien Hirst, presumably a pre-emptive strike.

On the splendid grand staircase Hirst's “Spotted Minicar” is caught in disastrous downward motion. And that, of course, seems to be the point: with all the blood and shit, the eviscerations and dissections, the misery and mess, the cumulative effect is a portrait of a society arrested, for our inspection, midway on its calamitous downhill course. Damien Hirst says the point of art is to make you re-see what you thought you'd seen: “One day you drive to work, and a tree's fallen down, and you go, Fucking hell! You look at the tree and it's massive. You never notice it until it falls down. Artists do that.” If that tree is Contemporary Culture, this show may well have us strolling along the Thames, muttering, “Fucking hell!”

Toby Zinman
London, England