Young British Art: Kate Bush on the YBA Sensation

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Sixteen years separate "Freeze," the legendary 1988 Damien Hirst-curated exhibition that gave birth to Young British Art, and Tate Britain's recent "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," a show that signaled both the phenomenon's institutional apotheosis and, for many, its creative swan song. A three-way collaboration between Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Angus Fairhurst, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was classic YBA: simple themes--sex, death, religion--dispatched in fairground style, and aesthetics ranging from miserablist to spectacular. Full of gaily colored fish, spooky animatronics, crucifixions, various sexual organs and body parts, large animals, and larger numbers of squashed or imprisoned insects and crowned by Hirst's Pursuit of Oblivion, 2004, a crowd-pleasing, aqueous tribute to Francis Bacon's innards-and-umbrella Painting of 1946, it's an exhibition in which, as critic Adrian Searle lamented in The Guardian (Mar. 2, 2004), everything "shouts" and "everything that doesn't dies or disappears."

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"Freeze" had followed on the heels of "New York Art Now" (1987-88), ad magnate and uber-collector Charles Saatchi's momentous two-part exhibition, which first brought Jeff Koons and the neo-geo generation to London and made a big impact on the young Damien Hirst. From Koons, Hirst learned the value of presentation as both an artistic and a promotional principle; his marketing of "Freeze" was arguably much more significant than his curatorial corralling of the exhibition's sixteen Goldsmiths College student artists. "Freeze" anticipated a spate of do-it-yourself group shows staged in cheap, sprawling, ex-industrial spaces in recession-hit East London. Henry Bond and Sarah Lucas's "East Country Yard Show" as well as Carl Freedman and Billee Sellman's "Modern Medicine" and "Gambler," all in 1990, were, with "Freeze," the shows that fueled the myth of YBA as, paradoxically, both oppositional and entrepreneurial. In fact, YBA lingered only momentarily on the margins, soon to be eagerly embraced both by the institutions and by the market, as evidenced by Hirst's precocious debut solo show at the age of twenty-six, at the ICA London in December 1991.

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Nineteen ninety-two was a defining year in the YBA generation's evolution into the dominant grouping within British art. When Frieze magazine launched in July 1991 with a Damien Hirst butterfly painting on the cover, and Artscribe, the journal that had dominated in the '80s, closed in February 1992 with a Damien Hirst spot painting on its cover, it was clear that the baton had been passed. In March 1992, Hirst showed his infamous tiger-shark-in-a-tank, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, at the Saatchi Gallery, and this piece, accompanied by intensive media coverage, projected him for the first time beyond an art audience onto a public stage. The Turner Prize, whose purse had doubled under new sponsorship by the British television station Channel Four, shifted its generational focus. Anish Kapoor had won in 1991 at age thirty-seven. Seven years his junior, Grenville Davey won in 1992 (with Hirst short-listed) and was followed by then-thirty-year-old victors Rachel Whiteread in 1993, Damien Hirst in 1995, and Douglas Gordon in 1996.

Channel Four's affiliation with the prize was a crucial factor in the dissemination of this new art to a broader public. The second crucial factor was Charles Saatchi's sudden enthusiasm for collecting emerging British art. He laid out his goods in five exhibitions between March 1992 and December 1995: "Young British Artists" I, II, III, IV, and V. Saatchi's title, remembers curator Gregor Muir, became abbreviated in the curatorial discussions leading to "General Release," the British Council's national survey for the 1995 Venice Biennale--and from then on entered the lexicon as "YBA." In 1995 and 1996, as British group shows proliferated around the world--in Minneapolis, Venice, Houston, Copenhagen, Rome, Wolfsburg, Baden Baden, Sydney, Johannesburg, Melbourne, Paris, and Tokyo--the acronym was so widely applied that at moments it denoted no more than "young(ish)" and "making art in Britain. …