School of Saatchi: Episode 1

I’ve been trying to avoid talking about this before it airs partly because I’m fairly sure I’m going to enjoy it on some hideous level and will be hugely disappointed in myself and partly because slagging off Charles Saatchi seems just too obvious.

Here is a blog-as-i-watch kind of thing:

Ah, hello judging panel. Tracey Emin is there – one of the ‘Sensation’ darlings who still believes in her patron. Matthew Collings is present representin’ for the critics and doffing his cap to Saatchi: kingmaker. Frank Cohen is a fellow art collector, and the Saatchi of the North. Lastly we have Kate Bush (no, not that one) – head curator at the Barbican and – to my mind – the most credible member of the panel.

We kick off with a man dressed as a pirate/scientist – C. James Fagan. He is dismissed as “too weird”. Stuart Dagley specialises in endurance performances and has brought in three lever arch folders wherein he has transcribed War and Peace. When asked why it constitutes art he says “Because it’s unusual”. I feel that this is an atrocious answer . The panel conclude that it is closer to the work of a madman than an artist.

Charlie Hollis has screwed up a question he emailed to Martin Creed and placed it alongside a screwed up copy of Creed’s answer. It is to do with the communication. The panel don’t like it. I like the guy so would probably have given it a chance.

Kate Bush announces the panel are looking for something original and we cut straightaway to a man who is recreating Francis Bacon (albeit with great technical skill). Clearly the editors are enjoying themselves as they then cut to a woman named Khana Evans who has veered in completely the opposite direction and apparently refuses to look at anyone else’s work in order to retain her originality. Unsurprisingly the panel (and I) think this is a terrible idea. “Your work is mundane” pronounces Tracey. Khana thinks this is “bollocks” and tells the camera that she stands for “good British art, not shite”. From what I can tell she is very skilled at reproducing a likeness but is doesn’t seem to evoke much of anything as a result.

The voiceover man pulls us out of our contemplation of Khana’s ambitious statement by announcing Saad Qureshi’s name in such a way that if he gets anything less than a full reality telly Journey I shall implode from surprise. His work is about identity and culture – he certainly speaks the lingo. Tracey has seen lots of painting on the edge of stuff in her time, apparently. Saad asks if there are any names she can recommend he look out for and she struggles. Kate (16 minutes in and the only panellist I currently have respect for) tells him that he is struggling to find his formal language but that he has potential. Saad reminds me of Christian Siriano who won season 4 of Project Runway.

Everyone else is glossed over and the panel suddenly have a 12 person shortlist which Saatchi will, offscreen, whittle down to 6. While we are being shown pictures of paint tubes voiceover man tells us that Saatchi discovered Jenny Saville and that’s basically the only reason she became a success. Hooray for Charles.

The final 12 have rocked up to somewhere or other (I wasn’t listening) gallery in London to exhibit and face a cross-examination. Saatchi will also sneak in like a magic ghost and have a poke about in the middle of the night. If this was X  Factor Simon Cowell would be putting up with Sinitta flirting with him next to a Caribbean swimming pool about now.

With the group gathered together for the first time Collings tells them they will be facing their first challenge in order that the panel can see them in practice. Presumably this is because a visit to their home studio space where they live and breathe their art, have their influences to hand and are midway through a bunch of stuff would be dreadfully unhelpful.

They will be doing life-drawing. I was idly wondering how long it would be before breasts cropped up and my initial guesses make 21 minutes seem incredibly conservative. We duly watch struggles and successes while Collings says art schools should do more of this sort of things and that artists shouldn’t struggle to come up with an end product of some sort. I think it’s generally a fair point that practicing any technical skills improves practice however I think that making it in this way and at this juncture perhaps feeds into the popular negative view of contemporary art.

Saad says he had a complete disaster, started scribbling out of anger and is now happy with the result. It’s a microcosm of the reality television experience. Tracey Emin reiterates what Collings said about life drawing but puts it a bit better before the voiceover man kindly announces that the results of the exercise “vary wildly”.

We cut to installation artist Eugenie Scrase who feels this is utterly retrograde and that one doesn’t need life drawing to be an artist. Again, this is a fair point but I think it comes across as childish – the fact she doesn’t think life drawing matters AND is no good at it in the traditional sense has undercurrents of petulance although this is possibly all down to the editing. I actually quite like her life drawing but think the sculpture she originally showed the panel was a bit rubbish. Kate Bush is suspicious of her but Tracey thinks it’s unpretentious. The work she has chosen to show as part of the final twelve is a whistle hanging off a handrail. My gut reaction is that I don’t like it but it is legitimate art. Tracey loves it. She riffs with Eugenie about sex and whistles and blowing and handles and likes her life drawing.

Suki Chan is a Goldsmiths graduate and is next to face the panel. Her video installation is of a pulsating flock of starlings. It’s a cross between meditative and lonely and she clearly has oodles of technical skill. She wants the chance to open up her practice and stop herself becoming predictable. She reminds me of April from America’s Next Top Model – she will probably get quite far but then get kicked off for being robotic (i.e. professional). The panel currently love her though. Collings takes this as his cue to introduce us to video installations through the ages via 20 seconds of Bruce Nauman and then Sam Taylor Wood. Information y’all.

Giles Ripleyis presenting a video too – his is kind of a metanarrative – a video about the problems of making a video, it is also amusing. When asked how this differs philosophically from television comedy he struggles and eventually suggests that film and television are art too. This is clearly the wrong answer for the panel and he slumps outside the room with his fellow artists. One of them offers comfort in the form of Tolstoy’s assertion that art is art if the audience think so (I though Tolstoy actually said that art was communication which relied on engaging an audience and that good art was intelligible and sincere but I could well be wrong).

Saad Qureshi feels that challenging the legitimacy of the final 12’s work is a terrible affront to their status as artists and brings up a certain person’s unmade bed. Cue Collings explaining that Tracey’s bed was an event that drew attention to contemporary art and the fact that the public doesn’t quite get it. Tracey likes her bed and thinks it was the product of extensive personal editing and calculation. Again, her explanation is more useful than Collings’.

Saad is next to face the panel and shows them a distorted video of himself on a swing. His practice is autobiographical and deals with his Pakistani heritage and British academia amongst other things. Facing the question “Why is it art?” he is irked and replies “Why isn’t it art?”. Conversation moves swiftly on to his scribbled life-drawing. Saad describes his inability to capture the model’s beauty as frustrating and that this led to the drawing.

Kate Bush points out to camera that Saatchi actually doesn’t tend to collect photography and film.This point, along with the fates of the three video artists, is left to dangle as we meet Ben Lowe – the name feels irritatingly familiar. Apparently he’s been a commercial artist for about a decade meaning I could feasibly have heard of him. This is going to bug me until I place him! He would like to move away from producing abstracts for cash and make more personal artwork. Tracey is rolling her eyes as he speaks and dismisses his explanation of needing to pay the bills. Amusingly once he leaves she decides she likes him in a naive way.

Samuel Zealey is introduced with some footage of him struggling with some powerful magnets. He is a Wimbledon graduate who wants to be as big as Picasso. Picasso was a relatively slight man judging by photos. Perhaps he should aim to be big like Marlon Brando? His work incorporates mechanics and physics. He is inspired by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and reminds me of Ben Tyers and Hugo Wilson. His piece is a tractor tyre running on a treadmill. The panel hate it and they also hate his life drawing. Kate Bush thinks she could have done better herself and has a guilty thrill from saying something so terribly cliched.

Collings tells us that contemporary art is likely to make use of contemporary technology. I felt that this was such a pointless observation that I threw a cushion at the television. Could we be about to look at some art involving technology? Oh yes! It’s a computer that repeatedly draws a hand in an attempt to make a machine that will force the audience to question what they know about the machine. The panel like the explanation but think it’s an exercise in overegging the technological pudding.

Matt Clark is exploring obsession. The panel like his crazy oppressive rooms and deplore his life drawing. He explains he was never good at life drawing at school. I think perhaps he heard ‘life drawing’ and instantly assumed he has to return to his school experiences, not realising he could channel his current practice into it somehow.

The artists decamp to a local pub while Saatchi himself slinks in encased in his own pestilent mystique. His colleague and buddy Rebecca Wilson will function as his mouthpiece and represent him to the panel. Perhaps Simon Cowell will take note and resort to not judging on the X Factor to increase his own cache.

Charles is telephoned for his decision on the final 6. There is no negotiation meaning that the four panellists are essentially pointless.

Suki Chan, Saad Qureshi, Ben Lowe (WHY DO I KNOW THAT NAME?), Samuel Zealey, Matt Clark and Eugenie Scrase go through while the others – including a woman I swear I haven’t seen before – are applauded and dismissed.

So there we have it. I’ll probably watch again especially given it looks like it’s about to turn into The Apprentice but I have discovered I can’t stand Matthew Collings, the judging panel’s opinions carry no more weight than chiffon, the editors need lessons in subtlety and that Charles Saatchi is being presented as a god. It could be interesting in terms of opening up contemporary art using the reality format but I doubt that was the main motivation.

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