I hate Chelsea. Not the football club. Chelsea as in Knightsbridge. I hate slobbering Sloane Rangers and bloody Harvey Nicks, and I would eat a barrel before I watched anything called Made In. Seen that, shopped that and only an idiot would buy the T-shirt.
So it was with a sinking heart that I exited Sloane Square Station, over a year ago, for my first visit to the Saatchi gallery. After turning off the dreaded Kings Road and passing through an arcade of annoyingly boutique-y boutiques, the elegant, green grounds of the Saatchi loomed before me like a palm-fringed pond in the desert.
Each time, so far, that I’ve visited the Saatchi Gallery, I’ve had the same feeling; that I’m about to plunge into a pool of pure art, so pure that it transcends its unfortunate geographical location and floats above Chelsea like Swifts’ Laputian island floats above Lagado in Gullivers’ Travels.
After all, we’re talking about Charles Saatchi. Love him or hate him (and I love him), I dare you to read Be The Worst You Can Be, this years’ sequel to 2009’s I’m Charles Saatchi and I’m an Artoholic, the gathered musings of the man himself, and not be even a little bit charmed. I double dare you to visit his gallery and not be impressed by the sheer beauty of 70,000sq ft building, and how achingly avant guard the art (again, love it or hate it) inside is. Plus he’s donated its rotating exhibits to the British public. Admission is always free. I guess he’s got enough dosh, but still, kudos.
The gallery always seem to show the best stuff in the first of its many rooms. Out of Focus: Photography isno exception. Katie Grannan’s stark, overlit portraits of a series of characters from the streets of San Fran who have clearly seen better days will have you circling them in awe, fascinated and disgusted in equal measure by every flaw. Laurel Nakadate’s grubby bikini shots of herself, dirtied by the fingers of anonymous Craigs’ List voyeurs, may make you wince, but they are an image you’ll remember, along with Yumiko Utsus’ Octopus Portrait.
Chris Leviene’s holographic reproduction of the Queen at rest, Lightness of Being, made me see the Queen as a human being, and for a rabid anti-monarchist like myself, that’s saying something. John Stezacher’s mutant combinations of different movie stars’ head shots from Hollywoods’ Golden Age create a literal and conceptual double take.
Some work, like Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s fragments of pictures from Belfast during the Troubles, or Sohej Nishino’s series of city dioramas, left me cold. But is it art? That old chestnut of a question will always present itself at the Saatchi Gallery. And I think that’s a good thing.
You can also catch the winners of the Google Photography Prize on the top floor, on show alongside the main exhibition, but frankly, I didn’t bother. Why waste time on amateurs when the building is teeming with professionals.
As you’ve no doubt gleaned from this brief survey of a fraction of what’s on show, the works of 38 photographers from 14 countries gathered here is dizzyingly broad (‘Saatchi Captures the Confusion of Contemporary Photography,’ as The Guardian has it). Get ready to be moved, shocked, dismissive and impressed in equal measure. You’d need a photographic memory (geddit?) to exit the gallery remembering everything you saw.
Out of Focus: Photography runs until July 15th
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