Selling like pickled cows

Art Market: Young British artists are a life-force in an otherwise sluggish international market, discovers Geraldine Norman
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
As late 19th-century France is often presented as the age of Impressionism, late 20th-century Britain could well go down as the age of young British artists, or yBas. A few decades hence the easiest way to reconstruct the feel and mood of Britain in the 1990s will be to look at the art we made or, more precisely, the art which has made Britain famous around the globe and become a magnet for international art lovers - the art of the yBas. This acronym was coined six months ago by Art Monthly in recognition of the almost mythical status now accorded to the younger generation of British artists - especially when seen from abroad.

If you ask any of London's younger gallerists how the market is going, they will turn to you, wide-eyed, and reply: "Amazing!" Artist after artist is selling out. Japanese buyers are pouring into Brixton. French buyers are pouring into Hackney. Earnest Americans in sneakers, A to Z in hand, are working their way from Cork Street, via Fitzrovia, to Shoreditch. Some foreigners come to stay. Two Italians opened the Robert Prime gallery in Warren Street earlier this year, and Lotta Hammer from Sweden opened a gallery in Cleveland Street. Both chose a W1 location, near the well- established galleries of Laure Genillard from Switzerland, Karsten Schubert from Germany, and Laurent Delaye from France. And it is now strongly rumoured that New York's leading dealer, Larry Gagosian, and Charles Saatchi, the advertising tycoon and art collector, are planning to open a London gallery together.

Meanwhile, I am told, the market in Paris is dead, Cologne - the great new art centre of the Eighties - is in trouble and the New York market only so-so. To update on what's hot in contemporary art in mid-1996 means telling a phenomenal British success story.

Patricia Bickers, editor of Art Monthly, has picked up sharply on the making of the yBas myth. Dating from Freeze (the 1988 exhibition in a run down warehouse, curated by Damien Hirst, while a student at Goldsmiths'), it already encapsulated many features of the ongoing myth - the sudden emergence of brilliant young artists from Goldsmiths', their adoption of an entrepreneurial role in mounting their own exhibitions, the "alternative" or "underground" feel to exhibitions in old warehouses, and the intentionally provocative nature of the art - vide Hirst's shark and segmented cows. The identification, from abroad, that the art is working class and oppositional.

The first big foreign exhibition of yBas was Brilliant! at the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, in May 1995. By May 1996 New York's top commercial galleries were showing British artists and achieving unlooked-for sell- outs. Damien Hirst's first US exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, No Sense of Absolute Corruption, was sold out by the opening night with prices ranging from $40,000 to $400,000 (pounds 25,000 to pounds 250,000). The Denver Art Museum bought an eight-foot ashtray filled with cigarette butts and trashed packets, while Saatchi added two, segmented, cows to his Hirst portfolio. Five new sculptures by Rachel Whiteread at the Luhring Augustine Gallery also sold out at prices between $55,000 and $95,000 (pounds 35,000 and pounds 60,000). At the Barbara Gladstone Gallery the same thing happened to Georgina Starr's home videos in the $2,500 to $40,000 (pounds 1,500 to pounds 25,000) range.

There are now rumours that the Guggenheim in New York, and San Francisco's Museum of Contemporary Art are planning shows of yBas. They may not come to pass but there are two major European exhibitions firmly scheduled, a group show at the Kunstmuseum in Wolfsburg, Germany, and a thematic study show at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris curated by a well-known young Belgian, Hans Ulrich Obrist. The Paris show is titled Life-Live and will focus on the British phenomenon of artist-run exhibition spaces which Obrist considers unique. It will include five small exhibitions mounted by specific artist-run spaces, including City Racing and Transmission, and a big exhibition with some 12 artists exploring life forms.

Such a survey of Britain's new creative achievements in Europe's traditional capital of artistic excellence is a remarkable accolade. The selection of the 12 artists in the main exhibition has yet to be finalised but Obrist divulged the names Douglas Gordon and Sam Taylor-Wood. Gordon has been "hot" for a year or two, a video artist who had the idea of showing Hitchcock's Psycho in slow motion so that it runs for 24 hours. Sam Taylor-Wood who is three years younger - 29 this year - is also into photography and film. She has a show at London's Chisenhale Gallery on until 27 October where she is exhibiting a five-screen film-work called Pent Up. Each screen focuses on a different individual mumbling to him/herself, with a text that subtly links their private preoccupations.

Jay Jopling, the London dealer whose gallery, White Cube, plays host to many leading artists of the new generation, handles Sam Taylor-Wood's work and she is the first artist who springs to his lips as someone going places. Among her hangable works are 5 Revolutionary Seconds, a series of photographs taken by rotating a camera through 360 degrees in an interior, where actors are engaged in a miscellany of activities from the conventional to the pornographic. Taylor-Wood achieves a mad geometry of counter-tensions by unfolding the 360 degrees into a flat strip. Jopling charges pounds 5,000 for framed prints in an edition of three.

Maureen Paley who runs Interim Art in Hackney, a noted launch pad for yBas, stresses how important video and video projection are to the new generation of artists. "It is now approached as a normal medium for art, almost a new drawing or a new painting," she says. The same, of course, goes for photography. Paley's own stable includes Gillian Wearing, famous for approaching people in the street and photographing them carrying a sheet of paper on which they have written what they are thinking - an open ended series called Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say. Wearing also makes videos by providing ordinary people with a context and letting them rip; for instance, she placed an advertisement in Time Out which read "Confess all on video. Don't worry. You will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian" - now the title of the resulting video art work.

Another film artist whose name is on every lip is Steve McQueen who plays on his own body in movement. At only 27 his work has sold to the Tate and the Arts Council; this year he was in the Spellbound exhibition at the Hayward, in December he will be showing at the Kunstmuseum, then Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. He's one of the successful artists handled by the Anthony Reynolds Gallery - "I've got to ship work to 50 different foreign shows over the next 12 months," Reynolds groans. His other major success of the year is Richard Billingham who photographs life in his council flat - his alcoholic father, his tattooed mother, his brother who is in and out of care, the cat, the dog, the knick-knacks.

But the yBas phenomenon is not limited to film and photography. Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose exhibition at the ICA elicited choruses of horror, make sculptures - bland mannequins subjected to horrific physical degradation. The Victoria Miro Gallery has been deluged with requests for their work from all over the world. She also cites the success of Chris Ofili's paintings which use collaged elephant shit. Jopling expects the painter Gary Hume to be the most exhibited of all his artists next year - he will be Britain's sole representative at the Sao Paulo Biennale - closely followed by sculptor Mark Quinn, who is now using rubber and glass to ape the human body.

The age of the yBas, where media fantasies and reality merge, is a long way from the sunlit decorum of the age of Impressionism. Not only has a century gone by, but the fulcrum of creative activity has moved across the Channel. No one would have conceived of this happening, even five years ago. !