The last time London’s economy nose-dived it took some dire ’80’s art down with it, making way for the alternative gallery scene, the fledging YBA movement and, ultimately, the part they played in the Cool Britannia revolution that dominated nineties pop culture. Was it all just a domino effect brought on by a knee-jerk reaction to the recession, or was it something that was bubbling under the surface waiting to happen? Gemma de Cruz rakes through the economic ashes to pinpoint five significant landmarks of the last British Art boom.
It’s September 2008 Lehman Brothers has collapsed and the global economic crisis has set in. Meanwhile, back in the art world everyone is talking about Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, the Damien Hirst exhibition/auction at Sotheby’s. Hirst has put 223 new artworks up for sale; the first time an artist has sold this amount of work in such a direct way. You walk through the swanky Sotheby’s foyer, with its carpeted floors and wood panelling and you’re confronted with a zebra in a glass case. For a split second you think back to the first of Damien Hirst’s ‘natural history’ series, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) — a tiger shark in a vitrine, first shown in 1992 at the Saatchi Gallery in Boundary Road. The zebra (The Incredible Journey, 2008) is impressive but doesn’t seem radical, shocking, bleak or beautiful in the minimalist way that the shark did. But that isn’t what this ‘exhibition’ is about — everything here is a commodity with a lot number. Throughout the galleries there are repetitions of various series of new work, what Hirst describes in the catalogue as “a whole load of boxfresh pieces”. There are objects/animals in vitrines, spot paintings, spin paintings, butterfly paintings… all the hits. This show could have filled White Cube ten times over. Hirst simply cut out the middleman, and as the economy was slipping through the country’s fingers, the two-day Sotheby’s sale (initially estimated to fetch around £65 million) generated sales in excess of £100m. Twenty years after he staged Freeze (within a year of 1987’s Black Monday), swapping the dilapidated Docklands for Bond St opulence, Hirst had once again beaten the system.
In financial terms, Freeze may have been small-time but it succeeded in putting the now über-bankable Hirst on the map and, as the years have passed, its legendary status continues to grow. As over-referenced as it is, it’s hard not to bang on about Freeze. It was the first of a series of warehouse shows that was fully independent but conceived and curated on the scale and with the professionalism of a museum show — complete with catalogue. More importantly, nearly all the recent graduates and undergraduate students who participated in Freeze went on to have successful careers. It was self-fulfilling prophecy. But best of all, it offers a convenient point of origin for the Young British Art movement. Freeze was followed by Building One — further exciting warehouse shows — and as Carl Freedman became involved in the curating, Damien Hirst made ever more ambitious art. Now, with the advent of his ‘factory-style’ studios, Hirst’s brand has become the contemporary art equivalent of Coca-Cola.
So, the last time the recession hit London it blew open the door to a new wave of art and a core group who became known as the Young British Artists (YBAs), a title that stuck after a series of so-named shows at the Saatchi Gallery between 1992-5. It’s no coincidence that this group emerge at a time of economic decline; there was a glut of cheap property in the East End that made ideal studio space, the eighties art scene in London was embarrassing and the atmosphere of general negativity in Britain provided something to kick against. Spurred on by each other, artists reacted again the impenetrable gallery hierarchy and rewrote the rules; instead of waiting to be discovered, they announced themselves. The DIY mentality was integral to the work that was being produced. In terms of artists putting on shows, it offered greater freedom in what they could make and prolonged the healthy competition and sense of community that is habitually lost after graduating. There was no pressure and nothing to lose. Things got lo-fi, intrepid and alternative and the artist-run gallery scene sprung up across London. It’s still there now, going strong. It’s difficult to say if the recession was the driving force, a help, a hindrance or simply a backdrop, but once Freeze lit the fuse British art never looked back.
City Racing could be described as a one-off, artist-run show that lasted ten years. It was set up in 1988 and run by a collective of five artists: Matt Hale, John Burgess, Keith Coventry, Peter Owen and Paul Noble. Situated by the Oval cricket ground, it’s name came from the sign above the door, evidence of the premises’ days as a local bookies. Cork Street at that time — the supposed hub of contemporary art — served up red wine and dull figurative painting, whereas openings at City Racing were more like a night out at a trendy underground club in Berlin — with art. The gallery didn’t grow, re-locate or even represent artists; their objective was to offer platform to those who needed it and who might never find it elsewhere. Its inclusive nature and non-gallery credentials offered artists an alternative to the few West End galleries that were dishing out shows at that time an it soon snowballed, gathering its own momentum. By operating as a not-for-profit organisation the gallery was able to take a punt on artists without the pressure to generate income. Because there wasn’t a strict policy for showing ‘sellable’ work, shows could be experimental in a way that a commercial gallery may have shied away from. They could also ignore the perceived etiquette surrounding the running of a conventional gallery—the programme was ad hoc and certain shows only lasted a number of days. But the quality and individuality that were the hallmarks of City Racing earned the respect of the art community, and it became the benchmark for many of the independent and artist-run spaces that started up in the nineties. In its lifetime City Racing put on over fifty shows by artists such as Mat Collinshaw, Mark Wallinger and possibly one of the most famous YBA debuts, Sarah Lucas’s Penis Nailed to a Board (1991). The private view for that show was there Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin first met.
In 1993 Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas took out a lease on a disused shop on Bethnal Green Road. The open-to-the-public aspect suited Emin’s natural performer ‘look at me’ personality, while the homespun nature of what they made and sold there fitted Lucas’s ‘found object’ practice. It’s easy to look back and label it as a knowing artwork – an open studio, a gallery, an installation designed to look like a regular shop, even a performance. But, as Emin reflects, there was never a masterplan: “The Shop was just The Shop. It was coming from a completely different angle [to Freeze and similar artist-curated shows of the time]. It was small and it was feminine and it took DIY to an extreme. We weren’t trying to imitate a gallery; we were more like a cottage industry. So if anything, it could have been seen as reactionary to all that. People used to ask us: what’s the slant? To which Sarah and I would just smile and cock our heads to one side. What was good about The Shop was that at no time was I consciously trying to make art. I was trying to make little badges and key-rings and T-shirts, anything that could possibly sell, as, apart from my income from The Shop, I was living on £12 a week. I had my heart, at the time, set on being a writer and had more or less given up the idea of being an artist. My visual aesthetic at the time was definitely not in vogue.”
Without setting out to make ‘serious’ art, The Shop gave Emin the confidence, voice and style that is present in all her best work. Emin and Lucas were the epitome of artists who are serious about what they do without taking themselves seriously. Whether that was getting pissed during the day, sewing cut-out fabric birds onto clothing, or making T-Shirts that said ‘I’m So Fucky’, there was a self-perpetuating conviction behind it all; it was as much about keeping it all going as the work itself. In 1993 the economic news was grim but The Shop embodied a kind of low overhead, easy-come opportunism that would become increasingly available to artists in the East End — at that time practically a ghost town. If The Shop did symbolize an ironic, trendy reaction to Britain struggling through the pain of the recession and the slick commercialism of the West End galleries, it was never in the business plan.
The Shop’s shelf-life was six months; the Tracey Emin Museum was next. Again, it was effectively Emin’s studio turned to wider use: “I needed somewhere to work and have always disliked the idea of commuting to a studio; the premises on Waterloo Road were far too expensive for a workshop, but extremely cheap as a museum.” The Tracey Emin Museum was the site where her famous tent was made. She hosted readings and screenings of her films, or people could simply turn up and say hello. Visitors didn’t necessarily come to buy anything or go away with a tangible work of art but they all gained first-hand experience of Tracey Emin at her ‘museum’ — something that few artists ever offer. What’s more, at a time when there wasn’t much money around, Emin gave something away for free.
SARAH STATON’S SUPASTORE
During the summer of 1993 Sarah Staton had been making small multiples and trading them with friends. She tried to run a stall on Brick Lane, but when that proved to be a non-starter her next port of call was The Shop. When she offered her wares to friends Tracey and Sarah they politely declined, explaining that The Shop was a Lucas-Emin only enterprise. The knock-back, coupled with a large helping of competitive spirit, gave Staton the bottle to try and go one better. She found a space in Charing Cross road and in late 1993 opened the Sarah Staton SupaStore. She filled the room with a scatter art style installation made out of multiples that she’d accumulated from all the artists she knew. A specialist shop in Cologne had sparked her interest in the quirkiness and democratic qualities of multiples. Arranging existing art into an installation seemed as creative, yet somehow more exciting, than conventional curating. The SupaStore took the idea of The Shop, or a shop one step further. Lucas and Emin were happy to describe the work in The Shop as ‘non-art’ while Staton was taking the pound-shop mentality of ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ into a gallery environment, simultaneously repackaging the typically vulgar associations of selling art as something fun. Staton was celebrating the ‘cheap and cheerful’ approach and not only applying it to art but making art out of it.
Laure Genillard picked up on what Staton was doing and offered her a show in her plush West End space. The SupaStore Boutique was thus relocated to a bona fide gallery and given an art/fashion theme. Among many other objects, it offered a suit made by Sarah Lucas and some bags made by Stephen Willats. Although the slick, white-walled environment lifted the installation, the Foley Street locals weren’t as quick to catch on and thought the gallery had closed, wondering why the pristine space was now strewn with what they looked upon as ‘moving out’ debris. The SupaStore had now attained brand status, and popped up in various spaces over a period of seven years including New York, Tokyo, Kunsthaus Bregenz and across the UK.
Before Freeze, before the recession, Maureen Paley found a derelict Victorian Terrace house on Beck Road that, she explains, “was converted into a gallery with white walls and grey floors with no furniture and nothing very homelike about it. It seemed an immediate location to open a project space from.” Interim Art grew into one of the key galleries contributing to the cutting edge contemporary art scene of nineties London. Paley showed work by Angela Bulloch, video artist Gillian Wearing and photographers Wolfgang Tillmans and Sarah Jones. The inherent domesticity was something Paley refused to play up. “I wished at the time, and now, to distance myself from gallery spaces in domestic settings. I had no interest in this being the emphasis of my space. I was being expedient and the street I was in housed a number of artists who converted part of the house as studio space.” The gallery had a lo-fi sensibility similar to that of an artist-run space, but perhaps because Paley was a gallerist rather than an artist, she had enough distance to think about the business angle rather than just self promotion; she was climbing a different kind of career ladder. When Paley made a move to the West End she greeted the recession head on: “Actually, in 1991, the year the last recession hit hard, I was in the West End having moved my gallery to Dering Street near Antony D’Offay’s gallery in the late winter of 1990. I had very high overheads and had made too great a commitment at exactly the wrong time. I was forced to return to the East End and to regroup at the original space by 1992, having had a one-year lease on my West End premises. I then had to rebuild the business, embrace the East End and start anew.”
The gallery kept going in the original two downstairs rooms of the Victorian House and, while Paley didn’t start out from home because of the recession, she was savvy enough to realise that the low overheads would enable her to ride it out. Despite being the most prominent and successful of the gallery-in-your-home entrepreneurs, Maureen Paley had always viewed the space on Beck Road as a forerunner of a more conventional space which she now has in Maureen Paley on Herald Street. “I had no sentimentality about the house. I am pleased to have done iconic shows in the new space and to be able to convert the gallery for many of the shows in extreme and different ways to accommodate the work.” But that original, innovative project space, set the precedent for the professional home/gallery, a model that, however temporary, undoubtedly offers the cheapest means of showing art and is now a staple of the ‘alternative’ scene.
Talking about an economic recession in relation to art is an interesting, if occasionally circular, subject of conversation. You could start with the argument that emerging artists never have any money anyway, so why would it affect them? But this has then to be set against the reality of fewer collectors spending less on art, and whether that sieves out the ‘bad’ from the ‘good’ . . . Then you’re back to whether artists would continue to make their work regardless of the economic climate? Even if Freeze wasn’t instigated because of the recession it undeniably started a domino effect that powered through the ensuing economic hardship, simultaneously leaving the late-’80s London art scene to eat its dust. Maybe it was merely about the right people (ambitious students, good teachers, sharp collectors) being in the right place time… As far as the current economic downturn goes things are different; galleries continue to proliferate — two extravagant new spaces, Raven Row and Calvert 22, have just opened in the East End — and for young artists the YBAs remain a very tough act to follow. Perhaps the most pertinent connection between an economic meltdown and a new art movement is that we can never really predict where they are coming from or when.
Gemma de Cruz