The verdict on Saatchi's new gallery

It's the most eagerly awaited gallery opening in years, and Charles Saatchi's new space is truly spectacular. What a shame the art isn't, says Michael Glover

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:13

The title of the inaugural show at the new Saatchi Gallery, in the former Duke of York's Headquarters building in Chelsea, is The Revolution Continues. That title refers to the dramatic transformation in the content and the fortunes of Chinese art since the repressive Mao era.

But is the Saatchi revolution continuing, too? Is this new gallery, and the art in it, evidence that Charles Saatchi himself, that maverick collector, is still worth attending to? It's a good moment to ask that, because last week the most dismal Turner Prize shortlist within living memory was unveiled at Tate Britain. London thirsts for a handsome, new building of contemporary art with free admission – yes, this is what Saatchi is offering us – which will give us reason to feel optimistic about the state of art.

Saatchi has tried before – with mixed results. His first gallery, in Boundary Road, north London, was often a success in terms of the art it showed – Richard Wilson's brilliant installation of used sump-oil, 20:50, was its central wonder – but the space itself, a sprawling, skewed affair with all the innate drama of an aircraft hangar, left the visitor feeling that the art it contained might at any moment float off into the ether. There was no attempt to impose intimacy, focus or shape.

Next came County Hall. That fell foul of the quaint architectural features of the building itself, with post-war German paintings full of anguished, expressionistic violence squeezed into niches that seemed more suited to devotional images. Few of the works looked happily or comfortably sited. Art seemed to be engaged in a kind of low-level warfare with architecture. The spaces didn't flow into each other. Visitors shifted from the grandiose central chamber to tiny rooms complete with fireplaces and sad, stopped clocks. They lost their way in dingy corridors.

This time, the building, a former home to the Territorial Army, is a 19th-century structure, complete with the tremendous fanfare of a neo-classical portico. Saatchi's designers and architects have taken more of a grip on things and produced a series of galleries that are airily lit and harmoniously appointed, and which look and feel logical in the way they relate to each other. What's more, they have added a large extension at the back into which the original building seems to flow as naturally and pleasingly as water.Technically, the gallery is a great success. All the work looks handsomely displayed in spaces that do it justice. Saatchi has never had such spaces before. This is his triumph. There are never too many pieces to a room, so we can give just as much attention as we need to each work. The rooms feel good, tonally; balmy top lighting, cream walls.

But what of the art? What is Saatchi up to this time? Well, he has chosen to give us a large-scale survey of Chinese art. This strikes the onlooker as a slightly odd, if not perverse, decision. Four years ago, you could have said that new Chinese art deserved attention, that it was vibrantly, challengingly different – and an art which was emerging, moreover, from a nation becoming the world's most feared and envied economic powerhouse. Now, that no longer seems quite the case. There have been many shows devoted to new Chinese art in recent years – at Tate Liverpool and the Victoria and Albert Museum, for example. So is Chinese art quite the thing with which to ring up the curtain on a new gallery?

Yes and no. This a good show. It is seldom very good, though, because contemporary Chinese art is very good at some things and not so good at others. It is seldom stylistically revolutionary. It is not difficult to get. You don't need to peel back the layers of complexity. It feels market-savvy. Nothing here is the equivalent of what happened in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. No one could ever describe this work as obscurantist or difficult or solipsistic. Generally speaking, the Chinese look directly at the world. They think of what has happened to them as a nation, how they have been treated – or mistreated. They laugh at things, often quite cruelly. They occasionally spit at them – even at politicians. What they are not so good at is looking at themselves – or at children – without a degree of mawkishness. As soon as a human being hoves into view, the eyes of some of these painters seem to fill with tears. Look at the works by Zhang Huan and Zhang Xiaogang if you want evidence of this.

But satire; that's something else. They are very good at spitting at the West – look, for example, at the marvellous work by Lui Wei in the first gallery. Spread out across the floor is a strange, decaying cityscape, buildings we begin to recognise but in such miserable decrepitude that our hearts go out to them because they are some of the buildings with which we in the West are most familiar: the Guggenheim in New York, the Colosseum in Rome. They are collapsing in on themselves, as if they have decided to give up the ghost. All have been created from edible dog-chews, making the satire all the more edgy, more funny.

Now to the basement for another great work, Old Persons Home, co-authored by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Here is a room full of old men in motorised wheelchairs, sad old men in greatcoats and naval uniforms. One clutches a can of beer, another a pair of scissors. Now and again the wheelchairs come to life like dodgem cars. They blunder into each other – or the wall – and blunder away. I thread my way to one of the men and admire the wonderful likeness of an old human face. I wonder whether this face won't slightly come to resemble that of George W Bush come spring of next year, when a thousand flowers may or may not be blooming in the White House.

The Revolution Continues, Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York's Headquarters, London SW3 (020-7823 2363), to 18 January

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