What does the name “Saatchi Gallery” mean to you? The answer, surely, depends on where you stand on conceptual art – on whether you see it as a triumph of pretentiousness and self-indulgence over craftsmanship; or as something with the power to startle and confront and disturb and provoke, to turn existing beliefs and assumptions on their head.
Let’s not get too carried away though. Even if you enter with an open mind and intellectual curiosity, some of the works here are …well… just weird lumpy things. Kris Martin’s Summit consists of weird lumpy things that vaguely resemble Stonehenge. Peter Buggenhout’s displays are weird, lumpy, hairy, rusty things. Rebecca Warren gives us weird, lumpy, deformed and dismembered body parts, while Joanna Malinowska offers a weird lumpy animal thing.
There are, however, other pieces which are truly astonishing. My personal favourite is David Batchelor’s Parapillar 7, a display of everyday household items -toilet brushes, feather dusters, sieves, hairbrushes, rulers- arranged on a tall stand like a gloriously psychedelic tree. No monochrome dreariness here: this sculpture is all humour and fun and party spirit, and is actually really pretty to look at. Björn Dahlem’s The Milky Way also turns a plain functional item into a thing of beauty: in this case, neon strip lights are connected to form an angular 3D model which is both stark and mystical.
Perhaps this predilection for the aesthetically appealing isn’t really getting into the spirit of conceptual art. So I’m shallow. So what? I found myself drawn to the sparkly geometric anarchy of David Altmejd’s The New North, with its iridescent crystals, mirrors and stalactites. Equally irresistible are Roger Hiorns’s miniature constructions of Chartres and Notre Dame, partly covered in blue crystal which shimmers like magic. David Thorpe’s I Am Golden is an oasis of gorgeous mosaics, swirly coloured glass and gentle greenery with flowers. And regardless of what Matthew Brannon’s Nevertheless is really trying to say, I just see it as a softly inviting en suite bedroom in soothing shades of green and white.
The more gruesome pieces are also enticing. Dirk Skreber’s crashed cars invite you to come close and gawp, to enjoy the voyeuristic delights of mangled seats and wires spilling their guts. Berlinde De Bruyckere’s sculptures are distressing and haunting: The Black Horse is made with real horse hide and, while beautiful and glossy, is also a misshapen carcass. Her human forms too are deformed cadavers, with long strands of nothingness where a head should be.
The exhibition is laid out over three floors. It’s very, very spacious, though this might not be to everybody’s taste. Some may find that the starkness and harsh lighting in many of the rooms render the atmosphere too sterile. Others might find this setting is exactly what’s needed to allow the sculptures to stand on their own terms, free of any surrounding context.
The exhibition is free, but the printed guide costs £1. It’s worth buying – if only to marvel at the huge discrepancy between the official interpretation of the works and your own personal response. There’s one more thing: a highlight of any visit to the Saatchi Gallery is the lower ground floor, which is devoted to the permanent installation 20:50 by Richard Wilson. This is a stunning optical illusion involving pitch black oil and a viewing platform. It takes a while to realise what you’re looking at, but once you do, you’ll be astonished. And that’s a promise.
The Shape of Things to Come: New Sculpture is on until 16th October 2011.