Private View: Who are they pointing at?

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The Independent Online
So much has already been written and said about the Royal Academy's latest show - all those controversial, provocative, "in your face" pieces by Damien Hirst and Co - that it would be hard for it to be any less than the `Sensation' its title promises. But what do these collected works actually have to say for themselves?

Whatever else may be up for judgement, fame is unarguable and, once it starts, unstoppable. Fame is what "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection" declares at once, in its very title, as being on offer. It's worked a treat. It's not so often that an exhibition of work by artists who are around 30 years old will find itself visited in the same spirit as people go to see the Mona Lisa, the Night Watch or the treasures of King Tut, but the consensus of publicity and controversy in recent weeks has ensured that this is so.

The wonder hasn't come from nowhere, of course. The "Young British Artist" phenomenon has been established for several years in the art world, and its legend - from its beginnings at Goldsmiths' College and the freelance group exhibitions organised by Damien Hirst in the late 1980s - can now be told in the solemn voice of art history. There've been many shows under this flag in other countries, and lots of words written and TV hours filled, and it's right that a general survey should at last be held on home ground.

Whether it should be hosted by a public institution like the Royal Academy and drawn exclusively from one man's private collection is another matter. But clearly any exhibition would have to include a lot of things that Charles Saatchi has bought, since he's bought so much of it. He hasn't bought it all, though, and he's bought many artists who are young and British, but outside the

YBA canon. The selection of 40 artists now at the RA, though it includes most of the main players, is both less and more than the full story.

Which begs the question whether there is a full story, a canon, a definition of the phenomenon. But let's put that aside for the moment - and put aside too the rather repellent manner in which the phenomenon is often advertised, the triumphal voice of the chairman's speech or the party conference, export-driving, Britain-backing, world-conquering; and the way this thrusting talk merges so easily with the promotion of shock, menace and aggression as the distinctive and authenticating qualities of the new movement. Let's have a look at some art.

What have we? Three good works, for one thing, all almost famous enough to need no description. There's Rachel Whiteread's Ghost, the plaster cast of a room's interior, her most perfect find (though a little dwarfed in the room it's set in). There's Marc Quinn's Self, his own head cast in nine pints of his own blood and refrigerated (though, over the years, it's gone quite black and seems to be losing its shape too). And there's Tracey Emin's Everybody I Have Ever Slept With, the little blue tent appliqued inside with the names of all her sleeping partners from childhood on (with the words on the ground-sheet reading "With Myself, Always Myself, Never Forgetting"), which oddly enough turns self-obsession into something impersonal, representative.

Each of these three pieces is a contained and resolved metaphor or emblem. It holds its meaning for contemplation. Or, to put it another way, it doesn't have a beady eye turned on the viewer and the viewer's reactions. With too many works in the show, though, that's just how it goes. Whatever they're made of, their primary medium, the stuff they work on, is the anticipated reaction of their audience. In other words, one way or another, they're provocative.

Mat Collishaw's Bullet Hole is a good, straightforward example. It's a large, opulent colour photo in 15 sections (backlit by lightboxes), showing very close-up an open red wound in someone's head, the hair spread back around it, which looks a bit like a vagina. And it says, in effect: what about that, then? Violence, sex, forensics - you're digusted, you're fascinated - what about that, then?

A nerve is touched. It's touched rather more complexly by Jake and Dinos Chapman in Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000). This is a tableau of naked prepubescent girl mannequins, all melding into a single body, and their open, innocent faces transforming into penises, anuses and vaginas. Obviously, a lot of troubled responses are in the offing with this Sadean organism - in fact the incitements are performed to such obvious excess that it becomes a kind of farce too. But still, the hint of comedy doesn't supply a pay-off. The cool, classy craftmanship of the obscene model-making prevents a full joke from cracking. Again, we're left with our reactions.

To do what with them? Nothing, except acknowledge that we have them, that these nerves are there to be touched. And so the works acquire an aspect of stupidity. All they can do is point. They stand wide-eyed before their perception that the world is full of threatening anxieties and ambivalences. You find the same effect in Sarah Lucas's exposure of the imagery of yobbish sexism, her cruddy, low-skill arrangements of melons and cucumbers, fried eggs and kebabs.

You certainly find it in Myra, Marcus Harvey's enormous re-working of Myra Hindley's notorious police mugshot, painted in child's hand-prints - a powerful picture, but how could it not be? How could this treatment of that super-charged image fail to mobilise strong and alarming feelings? But what does the picture do with these feelings? It just says: powerful, aren't they, given it's only an image? I don't think it a wicked picture, but it is a deeply gormless one.

And you find this play of reaction most elegantly and self-consciously in Damien Hirst's vitrines, preserving dead animals, whole or sliced. The specimens are resonant with mortality, beauty, pathos (though never quite with the aura that photos of them promise). Meanwhile, the titles offer a grand sentiment that nudges its own pretentiousness, naivety or irrelevance: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living or Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything - as if to say, your responses can't quite amount to that, can they? So what do they amount to?

This is the characteristic form of YBA's realism: simply to invoke a difficult reality, and leave it there, as a confrontation. You can't call it engagement. The art stays clueless, and presumes the viewer is too (an annoying assumption, that of course you have never got to thinking about this stuff before, let alone tried to work it out). But it's this cluelessness, this stupidity, as much as the particular subjects and responses invoked, that gives the work its real power, to some people anyway. It strikes them as a good directness, staging the contemporary without any safe mediation, bringing the anxieties of the age "live" and unresolved into the art gallery. Raise responses, get people going - that's the thing.

Well, the issue goes back to Pop Art at least, and I don't suppose there's much point trying to dispute it. But it seems to me that this "directness" leaves much Young British Art as a kind of Zeitgeist decor, catalysing and reflecting all sorts of contemporary problems, but not making anything of them. And you might say that's the defining aesthetic - though of course it excludes the best things.

But it includes some nice almost-gags. Simon Patterson's The Great Bear (the London Underground map, with all the station names changed to bizarre lists of world-famous people) and Adam Chodzko's The God Look-Alike Contest (he put an ad in Loot asking people who thought they looked like God to send him their photos) could both have featured in some Monty Python Book of yore. Or nearly could have. But, in both cases, the joke is just witheld, allowing something a little more anxious to enter, some intimation of the arbitrariness of knowledge, or the deep personal weirdness in society that's just a small ad away. And again, the intimation is just allowed to lie there, as if all we could be was puzzled.

There are lots of paintings, too, almost all paintings about painting, using paint to make reference to style and authorship and handicraft and old-master values, putting those concepts into doubtful inverted commas. They're often extremely accomplished in their knowing and detached way: Glenn Brown's super-slavish copies of Dali, Fiona Rae's pick-and-mix melanges of a variety of abstract styles, Richard Patterson's combinatons of photo- realism and big sweeping brushstrokes which turn out to be meticulous representations of brushstrokes.

The effect is viewer bounce-off: you try to read the picture as a normal painting and you can't. But, of course, the bafflement is very dependent on the idea of a normal painting being there, and the procedure just keeps the art of painting on hold, in dead-lock. Only Mark Francis and Gary Hume seem to have got beyond this reactive trick, painting in a way whose anti-personal touch makes something that works in its own right.

So one happy consequence of the Royal Academy's show is that the homogeneity of fame and label is quite easily dispersed. Having it all together, distinctions can be made, and the whole movement thing left to go its merry way. Not that I think that will make any difference for the foreseeable future. Too much is now invested in the confident name of Young British Art - its patriotic, spirit-of-the-age, art-partying excitements, and all the lovely rows it generates - to put it aside so soon. But that needn't be our business.

`Sensation' opens today at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1 (0171-439 7438) and runs to 28 December