Credit Crunchable: With His Customary Impeccable Timing, Charles Saatchi Launched His New Gallery with a Chinese Show about Shrinking Western Power Just as Markets Collapsed
Adams, Tim, New Statesman (1996)
One thing you have never been able to accuse Charles Saatchi of is bad timing. Who else could spend three years planning a new gallery, fill it with symbols of the eclipse of western power by China, and unveil it in the week that capitalism seemed to be imploding? On 9 October, the great showman officially opened the doors of the third incarnation of his collection with an exhibition entitled "The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art". The public, groggy on the Footsie and the Dow, was ushered in to see, in the first of the splendid white rooms, all the architecture of western power buckling and crumbling. Liu Wei had made a suitably apocalyptic global cityscape out of dog chews; Capitol Hill had never seemed so edible, so credit crunchable.
Like all the greatest admen, Saatchi has always had an uncanny knack for selling you what you want before you know you want it. In 1988, just after Big Bang, when all the City nonsense started, he put his money on the idea that the deregulated financial boom would require an art that both reflected its something-from-nothing character and could cater to its self-centred excesses. When he walked into Damien Hirst's self-curated "Freeze" at Surrey Docks in London, he knew immediately that he had found it. In the two decades since, he has made himself a one-man Medici clan, planning his acquisitions from the bathtub of his Tuscan villa, trawling the studios of the East End, scooping up the sharkiest, bloodiest in tooth and claw art he can find, and flogging it to bonus-boggled financiers.
It is worth remembering that Saatchi commissioned Hirst's iconic Jaws for [pounds.sterling]50,000, at the time a headline-making sum. He sold it, badly decayed and fleshed out with fibreglass, the formaldehyde clouded by bleach, to a Wall Street hedge-fund manager for [pounds.sterling]6.5m. (Hirst has always shared his patron's gift for market analysis; Rome was not quite in flames when he organised his own great, "end of an era", "everything must go" sell-off at Sotheby's last month.)
There is nothing that Saatchi can do that is without premeditated and potent symbolism. The first incarnation of his gallery, in Boundary Road in St John's Wood, north London, which cemented the impossible idea of conceptual art in the mind of the British public, was housed in a disused paint factory (in other words, it did exactly what it said on the tin). Having stolen the heart of the deregulating chancellor's daughter, he could not subsequently resist the idea of moving his collection to the former Greater London Council building on the South Bank. The gallery failed as a public art space only because Saatchi could not let go of the delicious irony of putting his Emins and Hirsts into the wood-panelled warren of offices that had most recently housed Ken Livingstone's doomed administration. He even left the standard-issue bakelite clocks on the walls, stopped for ever at the moment that Margaret Thatcher put an abrupt end to London's brief socialist fantasy. As he gave me a walking tour for an article when that gallery opened, he found it hard to suppress his natural kid-in-a-sweetshop excitement at having a mass-produced spot painting by Hirst, entitled Beautiful, cheap, shitty, too easy, above a bureaucrat's fireplaces.
His new space, the neoclassical old Duke of York's Barracks, just off Sloane Square, has been elegantly stripped out and white-cubed. If the exterior is redolent of the past power of empire (the building was once home to the Parachute Regiment and the SAS) the minimalist interior, and the adjacent shopping centre, are ready for new world orders, a metaphor Saatchi hammers home with typical bluntness in the crowd-pleaser of his opening show. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's Old Person's Home (2007) is a perfect Saat chi headline act, in which ancient waxwork world leaders, strapped into electric wheelchairs and confined to the basement near the gallery cloakroom, bump and grind in eternal, pointless, diplomatic dodgems. …