If you want to make things happen, you’ve got to have faith
Andrew Graham-Dixon recalls his encounters with the YBAs, an ambitious and uncompromising generation of British artists whose rebellious spirit appealed so strongly to George Michael
It was the late 1980s and I had just started working as an art critic when I heard about a new group of artists who were doing things differently. They were fresh out of art school but they weren’t waiting around for commercial galleries to show their work. They were taking things into their own hands, doing deals, getting hold of cheap warehouse spaces and putting on their own exhibitions. They gave them names like New Wave albums: Freeze, Modern Medicine, Gambler. They were making British art, but not as we knew it.
Their work was bewilderingly various. There were photographs of bullet wounds by Mat Collishaw, as well as sculptures made out of things like rubber gloves, or polythene bags filled with water and tied with string, by I can’t remember who. There were the cooler than cool paintings of Gary Hume, who used household gloss on panel to make pictures that looked like the doors of a hospital ward, banged forever shut.
And then there was A Thousand Years, the work with which a young man called Damien Hirst first made his mark: a huge double vitrine with a severed cow’s head in one half and a seething cloud of flies in the other, the two divided by an Insect-O-Cutor, the whole amounting to the replication of a life cycle in miniature, designed to last six weeks, by which time the cow’s head had been devoured by the flies, which had in turn blitzed themselves to oblivion on the elements of the electric grill. It was a spectacular work and an open invitation to headline-writers. ‘Holy Cow’. ‘Damien’s Flies Undone’. Etcetera.
Here was a generation hell-bent on putting an end to the polite insularity of British art, a generation which, like no other in living memory, appeared to be disarmingly fluent in the languages of international contemporary painting, sculpture and installation. The most obvious precedents for Hume’s paintings were the work of the American minimalists, while Hirst’s most easily identifiable forerunner was German, namely Joseph Beuys, melancholic meistersinger of the art of the vitrine.
And yet the Young British Artists, or YBAs as they would become known some years later — the label was invented long after their emergence — were rooted in their own time and place, sharing a set of concerns that could not easily be divorced from their Britishness.
Hirst’s obsessive interest in death and decay, in anatomy and dissection, had hallowed native antecedents in a strain of English art that gave rise both to Hogarth — think of the dog gnawing the remains of the dissected corpse in The Four Stages of Cruelty — and to George Stubbs, whose frieze-like depictions of thoroughbred horses on blank backgrounds, Whistlejacket being the most famous of them, are the uncanny prefigurations of Hirst’s own creatures preserved for ever in formaldehyde.
Tracey Emin, not strictly a first-generation YBA but a member of the second wave, was another with at least one foot in the past. Her confessional tapestries, embroidered with outbursts of rage or melancholy effusions of pathos, might be seen as a disaffected post-feminist equivalent to the samplers once created by English ladies of a certain age to while away their spinsterhood. I always thought her infamous work My Bed was very English too, like an Agatha Christie whodunnit in object form: where’s the body?
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As well as naked ambition, there was a strong element of political disaffection at work among the YBAs, reflecting a belief that there was something rotten in the state of Britain during those years, as the Thatcher government writhed in its final death throes.
Hirst’s close friend at the time, Michael Landy, worked with found junk and the paraphernalia of market stalls to create parodic images of Thatcher’s much trumped free-market economy. Market, his masterwork of 1990, the year of her fall from power, turned an entire warehouse into a marketplace formed from modular units of plastic crating and greengrocer’s grass — a cheapskate, tongue-in-cheek dystopian version of Donald Judd’s minimalist utopia in the Texan desert complex of Marfa.
Landy would later take his distaste for the spiritual vacuity of a world dominated by market economics to such lengths as to become, in all but name, the Francis of Assisi of the YBA generation: in 2001 he took over a temporarily vacant department store in London’s Oxford Street and made it the mise en scène for Break Down, an installation that lasted for several weeks, in the course of which he systematically destroyed and pulped every single one of his personal possessions (including several works of art by his friends, which by then were worth six-figure sums).
Meanwhile, Landy’s partner Gillian Wearing was making a series of profoundly moving and upsetting quasi-documentaries in which she explored the plight of those left behind by Thatchernomics: Drunk (1997-99), in which she collaborated with a group of alcoholics to portray the actual texture of their wasted lives, all darkness with the occasional flash of very black humour, was the most bleakly compelling of her essays in this sourly reflective mode.
Abigail Lane’s distressingly hyperrealised sculpture of a half-naked down-and-out, Misfit, of 1994, was another powerful expression of this strain of socio-political discontent among the YBAs. But its earliest manifestation had been a work created by a rather older sculptor, just a year before the spate of warehouse shows that announced the advent of the YBA phenomenon.
This was Richard Wilson’s 20:50, first shown at Matt’s Gallery in East London in 1987: an installation that would later become one of the signature works of the New British Art (as it was then known), thanks to the fact that Charles Saatchi, who bought and showed so much of the early work of the YBAs, acquired and subsequently reinstalled it in the Saatchi Gallery on Boundary Road.
What did 20:50 consist of? A forbidding lake of sump oil, into which the viewer was encouraged to walk, like Moses at the parting of the Red Sea, along a channel/walkway/gangplank cut through the middle of that dark, reflective pool. It was a sculpture made from oil, once the lifeblood of a now-dead industrial past: a dark reflection on the state of modern Britain if ever there was one, and a kind of talisman for the YBAs, even if its creator had never been part of their group.
What was it that made the YBAs so exceptional? I think it was their combination of ambition and determination
I was in my late twenties when I first started writing about the YBAs, just a few years older than most of them. I got to know many of them quite well, and co-curated the first exhibition of their work at a public institution (rather than a warehouse). That show was called Broken English, with work by Damien Hirst, Michael Landy, Rachel Whiteread and Gary Hume, among others, and was put on at the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens in 1991.
What I remember most vividly from the time I spent with them then is the spirit of friendly competition that existed between all of them. They were rivals, in a way, but fiercely loyal to one another at the same time. They all promised to give me a work of art, but Michael was the only one who did: a trolley full of junk from his series Closing Down Sale. A year or two later, my cleaner mistook it for rubbish and threw it away. A few years after that, Michael told me to insure it because it was worth a small fortune. He thought it was hilarious when I told him it had gone to the dump.
Damien was the consummate showman of the group, but even he was occasionally upstaged during the early years. In 1992, I remember embarking on a road trip to Kassel to see the quinquennial survey of contemporary art known as Documenta. I made the trip together with Michael Craig-Martin — who had taught many of the YBAs at Goldsmiths — and Karsten Schubert, who was Rachel Whiteread’s dealer at the time. I remember the three of us winding up at a huge schloss somewhere outside Kassel where Damien had taken over an outhouse of some kind, in which he was showing what I remember as a slide show of wounds, or diseased flesh, or something of that kind.
Whatever it was, it was eclipsed by the work of the New York wunderkind Jeff Koons, who had created a puppy dog the size of a building in the courtyard of the German castle — a puppy dog entirely made out of geraniums. No one even bothered to go and look at Damien’s chamber of horrors. I think it was the only time I have ever seen him nonplussed. But he got over it. He was on an unstoppable roll: earlier that same year he had exhibited The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, otherwise known as The Shark, at Charles Saatchi’s gallery.
What was it that made the YBAs so exceptional? I think it was their combination of ambition and determination. It was bold to think of the shark. But then Damien persuaded Saatchi to pay for it. He got it done. Likewise, it was brave of Michael to think of destroying everything he owned, of stripping himself back to the condition of a man who has nothing. But it was even braver to carry it through, as he did, without compromise.
For me, the milestone creation of that whole fascinating time remains, paradoxically, the one work of art that hasn’t survived except in the memory. I am thinking of Rachel Whiteread’s House, of 1993–94: a cast made of the interior spaces of an entire, real, derelict house, in a benighted area of East London, then left in situ, all too briefly, as matter for our contemplation; a strange and ghostly monument, of sorts, to the generations of ordinary people who had made their lives there. To have thought of the sculpture was remarkable, but to achieve it was truly astonishing.
I recently attended a celebration of House held by James Lingwood of the Artangel Trust, enabler of Rachel’s work, in a restaurant near the place where the sculpture once briefly stood — until its demolition, just three months after its unveiling, on the orders of a singularly unenlightened council planning officer. The event marked the 25th anniversary of its destruction. I found myself wondering where all those years had gone.
Listening to Rachel’s speech that evening, it was clear that she still regards that sculpture as her masterpiece. And I was interested to hear from Nicholas Serota, who was also present, that ‘House really changed everything’. I couldn’t help speculating whether, by that, he meant to suggest that without the sea change in attitudes brought about by Rachel’s work he might have found it much harder to work his own miracle, namely the founding of Tate Modern in a disused power station opposite St Paul’s Cathedral.
Not only did Rachel and her contemporaries decisively alter the course of British art, they profoundly altered global perceptions of it. Before the YBAs, Britain was regarded as a backwater by even the most dedicated followers of artistic fashion. After the YBAs, Britain, and London in particular, would be regarded as a genuine power to be reckoned with in the world of contemporary art.
I have one other vivid memory that seems relevant here, from just a few years after what could be called the heyday of the YBAs. It was 2005 and I was at the Gagosian Gallery in Manhattan, where Damien was exhibiting a group of works that marked something of a departure for him: a series of photo-realist canvases quite unlike the sculptures for which he was already known.
How did it come to pass? Creativity is a large part of the answer. Belief is just as important
People were unsure what to make of them; but there was no doubting the clamour, the sense of event. Everyone in the room seemed to be a celebrity, and all the celebrities were queuing up to talk to Damien. I saw Iggy Pop, looking like one of the ancients, stooped over, staring at the floor, standing there just waiting to have a word with Damien the maestro. I remember thinking that things really had changed: Iggy Pop, waiting to speak to Damien Hirst, like a courtier at the levee of Louis XIV!
In the past, the only route to stardom for a British boy who had been to art school had been to become a pop star. Think of David Bowie, Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry: art students all, who chose to make their art in the form of popular music. But now the British artist was a star, so much so that even rock stars wanted a piece of him.
What more compelling proof of this great change could there be than the very existence of George Michael’s rich and fastidiously chosen collection, mostly of work by Damien, Rachel and their peers? A formidable trove of contemporary British art, put together with great sensitivity by a hugely successful British pop star. It might not seem so strange, nowadays, that such a thing might have come to be, that a man like him would have spent his money on all this.
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But when I think back to when I started writing about art, when I turn the clock back 30 years, I really do believe it could never have happened in those early days. How on Earth did it come to pass? Creativity is part (a large part) of the answer. But I think belief is just as important. If you want to make things happen — well, in the words of the song, you’ve got to have faith.
Order the souvenir catalogues and tote bag for The George Michael Collection. The collection is on view in a special multi-media exhibition at Christie's London (8 King Street, SW1Y 6QT) from 8-15 March. Admission is free of charge