Sunday, August 28, 2011

Shape of things NOT to come

In its recent issue, an online art magazine carried an article from The Observer stating -“how Saatchi and his YBA influenced leading Asian artists”. Article quoted three hugely successful artists from Asia, such as Takashi Murakami of Japan , Ai Wei Wei of China and Subodh Gupta from India, acknowledging influence of YBAs and Saatchi in their art practice.

History has proven that patronage is one of the important  factors in determining a trend in art history. Charles Saatchi is indeed a significant figure of contemporary art world of 90s who has been credited with changing the art trends in many ways . It would be interesting to understand Charles Saatchi the man and if he is still relevant in today's art world as in 90s in shaping the perceptions of global art scene ?

Charles Saatchi, born in 1943, is of Jewish of Iraqi origin and before he became powerful art dealer he belonged to advertising world of UK. Saatchi shot to limelight in early 90s with his exhibition of his collection of works called “Sensation-” presenting Young British Artist's (YBA)such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Chapman brothers, Jenny Saville, Marq Quinn, amd many others,  whose career's were launched with this show. There is no doubt that Sensation was the game changing event in history of post war art that set new rules, new equations and new art practice.

For Saatchi, this show catapulted his position from a regular art collector/dealer to position of the “game changer”. At least that is the perception Saatchi tried to propagate which is evident from his statement “ art world is constantly speculating my next move ...” some of the artists were quick to subscribe to his perception and coveted Saatchi's 'midas' touch . If Saatchi made careers he also broke careers of the artist, by dumping their works in market. Italian artist Sandro Chia is a case in point. So did his protege, Damien Hirst and his dealer bore the brunt of Saatchi's whim when he threatened to sale him cheap . Hirst and his dealer had to buy all his works back , including the shark work which made Saatchi and Hirst famous overnight.

Methods Saatchi adopted while building his art collection was to buy a young and emerging artist's works in bulk and later sell the works at a large profit. Such methods of buying/selling in bulk is generally adopted in stock market trading and are known as as speculators a category distinct from investors. A speculator is defined as one who is 'risking investment, anticipating a major change in future price of the asset.; or “some one who makes conjecture without knowing facts”; or “one who participates in market to profit from buying and selling futures and by anticipating futures price movements”. Saatchi thus changed the game of art collection. Traditionally an art collector built a steady rapport with the artist/dealer who first tried to understand artists' ideology and then participate in his aesthetics by putting his money on his creations. This process was far long drawn as it required relationship built on trust, friendship and respect. Investment in art was not seen as out right profit making venture but rather a long term participation in cultural history, which eventually would give financial returns.

Saatchi had no patience to wait for such a long time( a decade or more) to see his investment bear fruit . So he changed the game of collecting. To be in Saatchi's collection, artists had to be 'prolific' . It is the volume of works where his profits came. It was no longer necessary (for him) to own that single masterpiece of the artist on which his reputation was built. Instead by collecting of a large number of works of a single artist he created a monopoly over his market and then sold it at profitable margins, wiping out looses even if the works were of mediocre quality. He was after brand making and not after reputation of an artist. Overnight artist became stars and Saatchi became billionaire. Thus he changed the focus of an art work from critical acclaim as a parameter of a good work to market price achieved at the auction house. Saatchi knew it was much easier to manipulate the auction results than to generate a critical opinion for a work; as he declared in disdain for critics, “ critics can be assigned to gardening or travel jobs”.

His criteria of collection influenced a new breed of artists who could produce their works in “factories” and sell them in bulk. Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Donald Judd, Rober Gober, Sol Le Witt, Tracy Emin etc , to name some of the artists; engaged in mass production of their works making art in to a “formulaic product”. Further, the argument of post modern theory  positing the idea that 'authorship of an artist is no longer relevant for a work of art object', supported Saatchi's ideology of mass production of art. Issues like artistic merit, integrity of artist, authenticity etc, were no longer relevant issues on a debate of art practice. Saatchi successfully convert art object from 'unique commodity' to any other retail commodity available for mass consumption.

Saatchi's success in art market , encouraged many speculators to enter the art market, with the lure of quick money. Speculators are like gamblers who never know when things can go right and when it would go wrong. There is nothing wrong in being a gambler or speculator. However, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to know that when there are more speculators than investors in market , it is bound to crash.

If Mr. Saatchi was instrumental in creating a bull market for the art world. Then probably he was also responsible for its collapse in some ways.

Charles Saatchi the man, is a mystery. He never speaks to media, nor does he attend his own openings. He is often described as reclusive, single minded,visionary decisive, bold, capricious, hot tempered , and man with short attention span. By his own confession, Charles Saatchi is an artholic. Collecting art is his passion and his business.

In a recent, ongoing show titled “ Shape of things to come: New sculpture” in his London gallery, Charles Saatchi tried to once again predict( as the title of the show suggests) the trends in sculptural practice mainly in Europe and US. Unfortunately the exhibition reflects his vision of 90s and not 2011. Most of the of the works did not attempt to break new grounds in terms of materiality , thematically and even technologically to suggests any future trend. Neither there was any element of surprise or sensational qualities of YBAs show . On the contrary most of the works are predictably boring and formulaic, with a quintessential Saatchi stamp on it. Many of Saatchi's recent exhibition on Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern art shows have received a similar criticism and response. Predictability seemed to be plaguing Mr. Saatchi's vision, and so is his credibility to speculate the things to come.

Saatchi's perception on YBAs might have been bang on the target, but is he able to read today's global cultural trends correctly? Or is it time for another 'game changer' to arrive on the global art scene?
only time will tell...

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