Artist in attack on YBAs who sold out in pursuit of fame

Gavin Turk accuses his generation of trading originality for celebrity. Andrew Johnson reports

Sunday 06 June 2010 00:00
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They were once the future of British art. The Young British Artists – YBAs – vowed to shake up, remake and reform the stuffy world of contemporary art. But then along came Cool Britannia and the beginning of the end. Some were seduced by money, others by fame, and before long the YBAs were gone.

This weekend, in a remarkable critique of the movement that brought him to public prominence, the artist Gavin Turk said his contemporaries hadn't produced original work, had sought celebrity and now Britain's art scene has stalled because there is no one to replace them.

"There are artists who were perfectly placed and really wanted to be stars, if you like, art world celebrities," Turk said, speaking ahead of the Art Car Boot Fair today, where artists including Sir Peter Blake and Bob and Roberta Smith will sell affordable art out of the back of cars.

In contrast to his peers such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, Turk has kept his feet firmly planted in the grass roots.

Apart from the Car Boot Fair, he's also been decorating bicycles for several summer exhibitions at south coast resorts – which he is curating – all linked by a bicycle ride. And then there's his first public commission – a giant brass nail that will be hammered into the ground opposite St Paul's Cathedral.

Turk is most famous for making images of himself as 20th-century icons such as Che Guevara or Andy Warhol. This, he says, was a reaction against the celebrity culture of the YBAs.

"I wasn't interested in being a celebrity, to the point where my work was trying to criticise celebrity which stops you being able to see the real value of things. Art is about the public. Sometimes art loses value as it obtains such ridiculous [monetary] values. It becomes elite."

He is not ungrateful to the YBA frenzy, however, which he recognises made art cool.

"A lot of the ideas and artworks that people were making were not that original. There were a hell of a lot of things that had already been done. But because there was suddenly this audience of people who didn't have any experience of art, it was amazingly original stuff. When I started on my BA it was a bit embarrassing to talk about art. Now it seems normal. But who are the next ones? The reason the YBA thing is difficult is because we haven't got something to replace it."

"I thought Antony Gormley's thing was strange," he adds, commenting on the sculptor's work for Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth last year, which saw 2,400 people stand on the plinth for an hour each over 100 days. "I first I imagined it as the kind of silent, still and centred way his sculptures work. But the reality of it was everyone got up there with a microphone and crazy wigs and there was a big show-off platform; like a reality art show."

In contrast, he describes today's Car Boot Fair as democratising art.

"I love the idea of the boot fair because it's a typically English thing to sell stuff out of the boot of your car. It breaks down the barriers between high art and low art, artist and audience. The idea of artists selling their work on the streets is fun."

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