Silver spoon successes: The intellectual, affluent and well-connected new generation of Young British Artists

Today's Young British Artists are well-connected, appear in Tatler and are mostly Oxbridge-educated – a far cry from the rough edges of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst.

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:33

The art world was brash and rude when ruled by Damien Hirst and his crew back in the 1990s. Artists were outspoken and irreverent. Many of them had worked their way up from a tough start in life. Sam Taylor-Wood and Tracey Emin had notoriously difficult childhoods. Damien Hirst grew up as the son of a motor mechanic and was famously outrageous before he cleaned himself up. They treated paparazzi with insouciance and flounced out of television studios. The tabloids loved them for it. And we all knew who they were.

Young artists these days are a more sophisticated bunch. They are more likely to appear in Vanity Fair and Tatler magazines than the pages of a tabloid. They are thoughtful, intellectual and well-connected. They went to Oxford rather than Goldsmiths. They are elegant and polite. Their world is closer to F Scott Fitzgerald than Irvine Welsh.

"The work of this new generation is more thoughtful, beautiful, elegant and profound. The YBA generation tried to provoke outrage through a direct relationship with the public," says Nick Hackworth, the director of London's Paradise Row gallery. And he laughs as he agrees that it is not only the artwork that is beautiful and elegant, but also the artists themselves.

The artists Conrad Shawcross and Henry Hudson embody the new era, as do Shezad Dawood and Eloise Fornieles. Hudson is more of a society man than Shawcross who makes complex kinetic sculptures that are taken seriously by the art world. Shawcross has had exhibitions at the Walker museum in Liverpool; Victoria Miro and the Saatchi gallery in London have shown his work. He studied at Oxford; his work is philosophical, and questions ideas about the cosmos and physics. The construction of each sculpture is a difficult and technical process. It is the work of a boffin yet he has a touch of glamour. He is handsome and his ex-girlfriend, Sophie Hunter, is a Hollywood actress who played Maria Osborne in the film version of Vanity Fair. He is the son of the writers William Shawcross and Marina Warner. He once appeared in Tatler on their list of the "100 Most Invited".

Hudson is perhaps more light hearted. Tatler wrote: "There is a whiff of the rock star about the inimitable Mr Hudson, one of the few people with enough pull to get the Chelsea set across to Shoreditch". Earlier this summer, an exhibition at 20 Hoxton Square in east London showed a selection of his drawings of lavatories, titled Crapula. The work is an exploration of the grotesque, which is ironic considering the world that he moves in.

He had a relationship with the society beauty Grace Pilkington, and Countess von Bismarck, Marina Hanbury and Nicky Haslam all turned up to his opening. The gallery belongs to an equally glamorous and well-connected young man: Alex Dellal, who is the son of a Brazilian model and property billionaire, Guy Dellal. His relationship with Princess Caroline of Monaco's daughter, Charlotte Casiraghi, became prime fodder for gossip magazines.

Shezad Dawood is a handsome and well turned-out artist who makes thoughtful work that reflects on our global culture. He has exhibited in the Tate as part of their Triennial in 2009. And, this year, his work went on show in Saatchi's exhibition, The Empire Strikes Back – Indian Art Today. He used tumbleweed from the American Midwest and placed it in slick modernist vitrines, along with one of the 99 names for God written in neon Arabic script. It brought together ideas about American neocons, radical Islam and modernism in artwork that was beautiful, and required effort and thought from the audience. Gallery-goers have to try harder to uncover meaning in this kind of work.

Achim Borchardt-Hume is chief curator at the Whitechapel gallery in London. He believes that one of the reasons the new generation has changed is because London is a dramatically different place for artists working now. When the YBA generation started out, there was not the infrastructure that there is today. There was no Tate Modern nor Tate Britain, and barely any commercial galleries. Artists did not have the access to today's broad variety of art. There was not the continuous cycle of exhibitions at commercial galleries.

"Artists these days are more internationally aware and better informed about history," he says. "They are less spectacular and very engaged with tradition and the history of art. There is less fear about being aesthetic."

He says that, while the YBA generation was occupied with creating an audience for their work, "the young generation already has that public – and is possibly stepping back from it. It's not their primary concern. "I think that now, in an economic downturn, art and creativity are very much alive and there are a lot of very interesting people coming through," he adds.

Idris Khan and his wife Annie Morris are both successful artists. They are a dapper and attractive couple. Like Henry Hudson, Morris is no stranger to Vanity Fair, which reflected on the fact that she was nearly Princess Diana's flower girl at the royal wedding. Morris's illustrations for her friend Sophie Dahl's book, The Man With the Dancing Eyes, brought her to public attention – and she went on to win a commission from Christopher Bailey, the creative director of Burberry, to make a dress entirely out of painted clothes pegs.

Her sculpture and drawings will be on show this autumn at Alex Delall's gallery in Hoxton. No doubt the opening will be a social event, with every glamour puss from London's art world in attendance. But there won't be any of the kind of antics associated with the YBA generation.

Morris says: "Everyone goes to each other's shows and we are friends and we support each other. There is definitely an art scene, but it isn't as loud. It's more pensive. Even though there are big parties, they are not as raucous as those of the past generation. And we don't get splashed over all the papers. It's maybe more polite than it used to be."

Her husband Idris Khan uses photography, film and sculpture to make artwork that alludes to music. In Struggling to Hear ... After Ludwig van Beethoven Sonatas, he used images of the sheet music of Beethoven's sonatas and layered them on top of one another digitally. The image was built up until it was almost black and became a visual embodiment of Beethoven's deafness. His sculpture entitled Seven Times involved sound-blasting steel with musical notes. The final work comprises 144 blocks of steel, blasted with Islamic prayers; their arrangement echoes the proportions of the cube-shaped Kaaba, the most sacred Islamic site, in Mecca.

"Artists now are quieter; the work is not so in-your-face; it is thoughtful," he says. His work may be serious but he also designed a cover for the Editors' album An End Has a Start. He and Morris recently attended the opening of the new Louis Vuitton store in Paris.

"You don't want to get lost or forgotten," he says, "and there are crossovers between art and fashion. Why not do it? It's fun."

The artists David Birkin, his wife Eloise Fornieles and her brother Ed are elegant examples of this new era. They are all strikingly good-looking and bright, and both Birkin and Ed Fornieles studied at Oxford. There are more glamorous connections. Birkin is the son of the writer and film director Andrew Birkin. His aunt is Jane Birkin and Charlotte Gainsbourg is his cousin. But, aside from all that, they have produced work that has made its mark in London. The Fornieles siblings are well-known for their performance art, which is as intelligent as it is bold. They have wrestled each other naked during a performance that questioned taboos about incest.

At London's Trolley gallery earlier this year, Ed Fornieles persuaded an audience to bully a young man to a degree that some onlookers found extreme. Yet his work is mischievous and insightful. He showed how a crowd can easily turn dark and ugly. "When you give crowds a little bit of liberty or freedom it's amazing how they can take it," he says.

His sculpture is currently on show as part of the Bold Tendencies exhibition at Hannah Barry's gallery in Peckham. Nicholas Serota and Sir Norman Rosenthal attended the opening this summer, and saw there Fornieles' sculpture, The Gift of the Gum. It is of Spongebob Squarepants and Patrick the Starfish on a mini-motorbike careering up a ramp, which is imprinted with images from High School Musical. It is a well-crafted object and art institutions wanted to buy it. Ed Fornieles works as an assistant to Anish Kapoor and knows how to give a high finish. Like work by Jeff Koons, Fornieles' sculpture pokes fun at the self-conscious seriousness of visual art.

A couple of years ago, Sir Norman was spotted languishing inside an installation by Fornieles called Feeling Booth 1. It was a room with walls made of silk, from behind which designated "feelers" touched up visitors as they entered.

Artwork by Eloise Fornieles is highly personal and risky, at times. She explores ideas about the subconscious. In a work entitled Senescence, she swallowed enough tranquilizers to drug a horse. She lay down unconscious in bed for two days at London's Paradise Row gallery. The audience was invited to influence her dreams by whispering into the ear trumpet above her bed.

She says: "I was completely conked out, but at one point I kind of stirred because I was aware that a man was next to me. He was stroking my arm and talking to me, saying stuff about how things were going to be different now.

"He was talking but I couldn't wake up," she adds. "I didn't feel safe but that was part of it. I take responsibility for myself and it's an interesting position to be in. You have to trust strangers."

Her work is not for the faint-hearted. "You have to be very aware of yourself and other people – of how crowds can react in a particular way," says Eloise. She cuts up a raw carcass in Carrion, which she performed at Haunch of Venison gallery in Berlin, earlier this year.

She has danced in blood and stripped naked. Her performances have questioned ideas about violence, the body and hunger strikes.

The Fornieles siblings seem to enjoy the drama and theatricality of their art, and this pleasure also extends into life. Eloise's wedding last year was extraordinary. She married David Birkin in a ceremony conducted down a mineshaft in Wales. Her headdress was a pair of antlers and, with her shimmering grey gothic gown, she could have been Dracula's bride.

Her husband's artwork has both a personal and political edge. There's an intimacy and sensitive quality to Birkin's work. Even when extreme, it seems vulnerable. He made a political statement a few years ago with a four-hour performance at the London art auctioneers Phillips de Pury in which he was naked and held a "stress position" – the same posture as was forced on inmates of Guantanamo Bay.

He won the Sovereign European Art Prize this year with a series of images entitled Confessions. They were ghostly portraits of himself, his family and his wife as they made confessions to a camera, during a single exposure of the camera lens. He described it as an exorcism of painful times within his family.

The beautiful people may have taken over London's art world, but this new wave of artists has a serious tone to their work. And their work is encouraged by younger curators such as Hannah Barry and Nick Hackworth who take a highbrow approach to their art, along with a dash of showmanship. Hackworth's influence on the future of art in London could well turn out to be highly significant.

Last year, he curated an exhibition in Moscow called Natural Wonders: New Art from London. Idris Khan and Eloise Fornieles were in the show along with Nathaniel Rackowe and Douglas White – also names to look out for. Rackowe's large, industrial-style sculptures were featured in Vogue magazine where he is tipped as an artist to watch. He has an exhibition at BISCHOFF/WEISS gallery this autumn where he will show a huge installation called Garden Fence Uprising.

Oxford-educated Douglas White makes artwork using found materials such as dessicated cactus and the roots of a yew tree. "I reanimate detritus," he says. He made a spectacular palm tree from old tyres, which was exhibited at Art Paris earlier this year. He is not so keen on the party circuit and prefers to spend his time in the studio.

"I think there is a greater level of introspection within work these days, which I find more engaging," says White.

Art these days is perhaps more profound than it was in the past. "They are much more political and personal than the YBAs were. This generation of artists inhabit their own creative and imaginative worlds," says Hackworth.

The Britart generation responded to the times and to the media, rather than turning inwards to investigate deeper ideas about us, and our world. They needed to find ways to bring attention to art. And they did it very well. Tracey Emin bared her body and soul. Eloise Fornieles explores our subconscious and the beauty of violence in ways that are perhaps more profound. Her performances require more work and more engagement from the viewer than it took to look inside Tracey Emin's tent.

Work by Fornieles is not so easy to get your head around. Not that there's any need to knock the YBA generation: they had their moment and made artwork that was of its time – and will stand the test of time. They did what they had to. They swore and they staggered about drunk, flicking cigarette butts behind them. They had attitude. They became household names. But the new art crowd has no need to stick up their fingers up to the establishment or parade in front of the cameras. They are contemplative and reflective compared to their forebears. The future of art is more elegant and better-mannered than the past. The days when Britart might have been thought anarchic are well and truly over.

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