Sensationalist or adventurous?It was an uncanny experience to find Damien Hirst’s controversial work, “Hymn,” at a gallery in the center of Cheonan, South Chungcheong province. The 6-meter (20-foot)-tall bronze sculpture caused a stir in early 2000 when the British toy company Humbrol sued Mr. Hirst, saying “Hymn” was a direct copy of its Young Scientists Anatomy Set. The artist agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to charity in an out-of-court settlement. For those who have never had the opportunity to view this work of one of the bad boys of British art, the Arario Gallery’s exhibition of British contemporary artists is highly recommended.
The exhibition includes works by artists whose careers predate Mr. Hirst’s, such as Gilbert and George, and Anthony Gormley. But the focus is on Brit artists active since the late 1980s, the so-called YBAs, or Young British Artists, who have become major players on the international art scene.
Critics differ as to why British works leaped to the forefront of the international art world in the late ’80s and early ’90s. One opinion is that these artists best captured the turbulent emotions dominant as a new world order came into being after the fall of communism. Their bold experiments, unfettered by the restrictions imposed on older artists by the art world they worked in, captured the spirit of the times.
Surely the artists on display in Cheonan are not linked by shared techniques or theories. Yet they exhibit a number of commonalities in their works, such as reflecting the intellectual uncertainties at the turn of the last century. An experimental spirit and the desire to subvert norms and embrace taboos are prevalent as well.
Perhaps embodying this embrace of taboos, Marc Quinn had a gallon of his own blood drawn over a period of five months to create his 1991 piece “Self.” The blood was poured into a negative mold of the artist’s head and frozen. It is displayed in a glass box on top of a refrigeration unit.
Jake and Dinos Chapman, who have been short-listed for this year’s Turner Prize, one of Europe’s most prestigious awards for the visual arts, epitomize the use of the grotesque. In their work “Hell,” thousands of tiny Nazi figurines endlessly mutilate, kill and cannibalize each other on a swastika-shaped tableau.
In a more personal kind of rebellion, Tracey Emin reveals her messy side in her installation piece “My Bed.”
Gilbert Proesch and George Pasmore, better known as Gilbert and George, juxtapose photos of themselves alongside gay personal advertisements. John Issacs depicts himself as an antihero, mired in a fleshy eruption of bulges, sags and pustules.
The sensationalism and outrageousness of turn-of-the-century British art was largely orchestrated by Charles Saatchi, a London advertising veteran who had an eye for the shocking. Some critics called many of the works on display in Cheonan mere publicity gimmicks aimed at pleasing a spectacle-hungry public. Indeed, Mr. Saatchi infamously shocked London’s art scene with Mr. Quinn’s “Self.”
Tony Godfrey, an art critic, in his book “Conceptual Art” writes, “In the 1990s, the term ‘conceptual’ has become a synonym for the far-out or crazy: not for the intellectual or difficult, but for a showmanship that seems a fragrant bid for the 15 minutes of fame which an earlier generation of conceptual artists had so ostensibly decried. One is unsure at times whether outrage is being used as an artistic strategy or as a way of getting media attention.”
Critics like Mr. Godfrey might argue that Mr. Saatchi and the artists he supported brought a professional wrestling ethos to the art world. And the works of these artists indeed evoke visceral reactions among audiences.
Regardless of which side of the divide you fall on, the exhibition at Arario Gallery is worthwhile, and a nice sampling of Britain’s artistic rebels. You never know. They just might win some Korean converts.
“British Contemporary” runs through Jan. 31. For more information call (041) 551-5100. Admission is 3,000 won ($2.50) for adults. Arario Gallery is located in central Cheonan, South Chungcheong province.
by Park Joo-yeon
Ms. Park is a visual artist who works in Seoul and London.