Freeze in Sensation


‘Where are you going young artists? Are you any use? You are always flying around in jets, being in international group shows and staying in hotels. What do you care what anything means?[1]


In this quote, Matthew Collings (a British art critic, 1955- ), fittingly challenges contemporary British art and its representatives. Although the subject of its background and value has raised many questions, I want to focus on a different matter targeting the period of the 1990s in Great Britain. This assignment examines the similarities and differences between two representations of the movement called Young British Artists (YBA) and its links with two main exhibitions of this generation – Freeze (1988) and Sensation (1997). Furthermore, it closely explores the consequences of these exhibitions as well as their likely audiences in relation to the content of the exhibitions and the background of the movement and argues that the exhibitions attracted different visitors with different consequences.

YBA is a label for a movement deeply connected, though not launched, by a young art fellowship from Goldsmith College in London. Their decision to temporary exhibit their artistic ability was accomplished by Damien Hirst (a contemporary artist, 1965- ), who curated Freeze exhibition in London. ‘Praised for its professionalism’[2], the show was an opportunity to announce a new direction for British Art inspired by the Goldsmiths teaching, which treated students as professional artists and encouraged them to move within departments, develop new methods, intentions to experiment and perform. These acquired skills bound them into an insider circle, which has created a movement representing young British artistic identity internationally many years since. Besides the open-mindedness of the newly born artistic platform, an art collector Charles Saatchi started buying and collecting the artworks of ‘young British art’, which he displayed in Sensation exhibition at Royal Academy in London.

The Freeze exhibition depended on the loan provided by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). This funding, negotiated by Hirst, reflected the corporation’s aim to sustain urban development in Britain during that period. In the 1990s the participants received Saatchi’s support in media coverage and exhibition opportunities.

The Saatchi’s collection reflected neither a representation of the nature of the YBA nor the survey of their artwork but rather the subjective tastes of Saatchi. Strikingly, the specificity of his taste significantly shaped the natural development of the movement. Saatchi was a prominent figure of the art market and the sector of advertising. As such, the artists that wanted to sell their artworks were unconsciously ‘producing cynical and half-hearted one-off shockers – something designed to attract his attention.’[3] Pointing out the fact that Saatchi’s taste for shocking and controversial works presented his collection in a manipulative way due to the connection with Royal Academy’s appearance and power, his collection was considered as the height of contemporary art. Building on the idea that the ‘galleries are the primary contexts that bring together the art world’s key insiders […] and their crucial acts of selection‘[4], the Sensation’s selection of artworks and its publicity was effective in attracting many people who would not routinely visit the gallery.

In contrast to Sensation, the authenticity of Freeze exhibition demonstrates the YBA’s modern identity through their self-promotion without any additional desire for public or critical acknowledgement. The ‘avant-garde’ character of the movement was viewed as an attack against conventions in Art. The exhibition, consisting of three parts, was more authentic and raw in presenting new young British art. Damien Hirst’s choice to put the exhibition into the unusual and vacated space of Port of London Authority Building (Fig. 1) was unique, as was the art that the group produced and displayed there. The emptiness, unpredictability and unusual visual effect of the space, which might have ruined the display and its likely audiences, created a ‘homogenous audience’[5], where ‘everyone knew everyone else, or at least knew someone who knew everyone else’.[6] Despite Hirst’s attempt to promote the event among people of a crucial position in the art world the exhibition did not become commercialised enough to reach Sensation’s exclusivity and elitism.

By examining likely audiences of both exhibitions, I am convinced that the institutional representation of art used a ‘pull-and-push’ method. The artworks caused the consternation and shock. The stimulating environment of the Royal Academy of Art affected viewer’s interpretation and attracted new audiences – catching 300,000 visitors reflecting on criticism of British mass culture. The cause for diversity between the audiences is the ‘face’ of the exhibitions. Freeze’s audiences directly communicated with the artists whose aim was to have their works beheld, show the urban reality and initiate a new movement. Their self-confidence and audacity to produce something in such a remarkable professional way reflected their desire and ironic objectivity yet did not bring many visitors in.

Whereas Freeze’s audiences glamorised the artists, Sensation’s visitors glamorised the commentary on the mass culture and the middle class. The performance of the audience itself reacting to the exhibition became an allure for anyone who was ‘bothered to notice’ the society’s preoccupation with sex, mass culture, and white middle-class man’s hobbies. The audiences fully activated the meaning of the YBA artworks through pointing at themselves and experiencing the artworks through a familiar context of their lives not only in Great Britain but internationally.

The movement of the YBA, thanks to Freeze exhibition and ‘well-placed’ visitors, was brought to New York and invited new audiences to experience different interpretations and provided inspiration. By contrast, Sensation similarly reached international audiences in Berlin and New York, yet in a completely different way. The shocking, offensive or criticizing context of the collection caused many boycotts and insults, thus its impact on the audience was much broader considering press and its ability to comment on social and political ideas, as well as devaluate or defend them.

Spyros Sifakakis states that ‘the ‘‘audience’’ is a concept which has received much critical pressure as its content, uses and context-dependent nature make it a sensitive and complex case.’[7]  Thus, the topic of audiences of Freeze and Sensation raises many questions such as the extent to which did the Saatchi’s sponsorship influenced the public and the audience’ understanding of the of the YBA movement during Sensation.

The audience’s responses to the exhibition were chaotic. Yet, public and audiences had to concede the modernity that could not be omitted in the subject matter of the presented art. This essay has shown a few factors, such as elitism, exclusivity, mass culture criticism, sponsorship, Saatchi’s influence and the institutional power, in both exhibitions that had an impact on the diversity of visitors of both exhibitions and attracted different kinds of people. However, many approaches can be considered and a number of questions asked to fully examine the significance of the YBA’s audience.

[1] Collings, Matthew. Blimey! From Bohemia to Britpop : The London Art world from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst. 2nd ed. Cambridge: 21 Publishing, 1997. p.207

[2] Adams, Brooks, and Royal Academy of Arts. ‘Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection’, London: New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson in Association with the Royal Academy of Arts; Thames and Hudson, 1998. p.17

[3] Stallabrass, Julian. High Art Lite: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art. Revised and Expanded ed. London: Verso, 2006. p.207, Chris Ofili cited in Joanna Pitman, ‘Art Breaker’, The Times’,13 September 1997

[4] Spyros Sifakakis, ‘Contemporary Art’s Audience: Specialist accreditation and the myth of inclusion’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol 10, Issue 2, p. 207

[5] Stallabrass, Julian. High Art Lite, p.52

[6] Stallabrass, Julian. High Art Lite, p.52

[7] Spyros Sifakakis, ‘Contemporary Art’s Audience’, p.210

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