x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Modern art speaks for itself

The latest show in the Saatchi Gallery compares favourably with 1997's controversial Sensation exhbition.

Goshka Macuga's Madame Blavatsky is one of the most arresting installations on display in Newspeak: British Art Now.
Goshka Macuga's Madame Blavatsky is one of the most arresting installations on display in Newspeak: British Art Now.

It's rather odd to see children happily playing football in the early summer sunshine on the green directly outside Charles Saatchi's London gallery. After all, this was the advertising executive and art collector who, in 1997, took a selection of Young British Artists' work to the Royal Academy, in an exhibition that was so shocking that it was given a cinema-style age certificate. Sensation has gone down in art history thanks to Damien Hirst's shark suspended in formaldehyde, Tracey Emin's tent and, notably, Marcus Harvey's portrait of the child murderer Myra Hindley.

Beyond the shock tactics, Sensation changed contemporary art for good, bringing the work of Emin and Hirst to a wide audience, rather than a select art-school crowd. It also gave artists carte blanche to be a lot more playful. Would Emin have had the confidence to exhibit her most famous work, My Bed, a couple of years later without Saatchi's high-profile patronage? Unlikely. So as a new survey of British artists (young would be pushing it somewhat - only two here are under 30) opens at his gallery in Chelsea, it's impossible not to make comparisons.

In Newspeak: British Art Now Saatchi has gathered together 29 British artists working in a variety of media. And while any exhibition would struggle to match the energy or impact of Sensation, it's immediately clear that this is a much more disparate, low-key show. Even its title seems to be hinting at less lofty aims: George Orwell's book Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newspeak is the "only language in the world whose vocabulary is getting smaller every year", and there is a lot of recycling of old images and ideas here.

Scott King's Pink Cher looks like a Warhol screenprint; William Daniels recreates famous works of art as paper collages and then uses those interpretations as the basis for his paintings; Ged Quinn references Romantic landscapes of centuries past, but dots them with derelict film studios, Hitler's mountain retreat or the spacecraft from 2001: A Space Odyssey. To try to force the work at this show into a theme would be attempting to find links that don't exist. Unlike the Young British Artists, the new intake are not all mates engaged - as it seemed at the time - in some kind of puerile game of one-upmanship to see who can shock the most. This is not the hyper-connected scene of 1997.

Nevertheless, Saatchi does like to try to connect art and artists into such scenes. Since 2008 The Saatchi Gallery has hosted shows such as New Chinese Art, New Art from the Middle East, Abstract America and Indian Art Today. Later this year he'll hold the second part of this exhibition. Even if all the art isn't great, which it certainly isn't here, any event of this scale brings new artists and new scenes together from across the globe. Saatchi's exhibitions, then, are truly international in scope, the success of his first wave of YBAs ensuring that any new collection of British art is an important event on a world scale.

But if Sensation meant British art was shocking in 1997, it's difficult to know what it is now. Maybe the end of such grandstanding is to be celebrated, and the most unsettling work here is a thoughtful sculpture tucked away in a corner by Glasgow's Littlewhitehead art collective. A gathering of ultra-realistic hooded figures are huddled together, backs turned; the kind of fleeting image experienced time and time again in many big cities. Are they homeless, in the middle of a dodgy deal, witnesses to a crime? We'll never know, but in inviting us to create our own narrative, It Happened in the Corner is strong stuff.

It's also a work that needs little explanation, not that the utterly hilarious accompanying catalogue doesn't try. Since the exhibition has opened, there's been almost as much coverage of this embarrassingly try-hard tome as there has been the art itself. The critic Paul Morley called it "one of the great pieces of comedy writing of the year" and perhaps tongues were in cheeks when describing modern Britain as "a nation where vomit meets surf, geographically encircled by froth". But it's a shame that the catalogue's failings have started to overshadow the work, because the best pieces at British Art Now speak for themselves.

Hurvin Anderson's Untitled (Black Street) feels like the oil equivalent of Littlewhitehead's It Happened in the Corner, a menacing street corner painted in monochrome. Another lifesize figure, by Goshka Macuga, seems to hover above two chairs. Entitled Madame Blavatsky, it's a reference to the founder of theosophy, who claimed psychic abilities and the ability to levitate. Even though we now laugh at such new age nonsense, there's a kind of wonder and reverence in Blavatsky's quest for enlightenment here: in repose she takes on the appearance of a dead knight cast in stone atop his tomb.

Elsewhere, there's big installation work that does hint at the slightly tenuous recycling theme that crops up here and there. Sometimes literally. John Wynne's towering collection of 300 speakers all came from a recycling plant, and they transmit ambient sounds, a piano here, an electronic gurgle there. It's a lovely juxtaposition: the installation is monumental and yet the sound is tiny. It's a neat allegory for the exhibition, too. In 1997, those speakers would have been blaring bombast to whoever would listen. But now, Saatchi's new collection seems more considered, less "shouty". Perhaps, even, less sure of what it wants to say, which is possibly why there are so many nods to art's past, rather than pointers to its future. Yes, that makes the exhibition less visceral and less exciting, too. But when it does work, it proves that Britain's still got talent - and that Saatchi still has an eye for great art.

Newspeak: British Art Now is at The Saatchi Gallery in London until October 17.