via Mark Brown for the Guardian
It is fair to say the 205-year-old military barracks in Chelsea, the Duke of York’s headquarters, have never housed anything quite like it.
Behind the tall doric columns of the building’s grand entrance yesterday were large skeletons of imaginary mutant monsters and models of naked migrant workers hanging from the ceiling. The installations were at Charles Saatchi’s much delayed, but undeniably ambitious, gallery which will open to the public on Thursday.
It is the art collector’s third London venue: the first Saatchi gallery in a disused paint factory in St John’s Wood opened in 1985 and often showcased Young British Artists. The second, in County Hall on the South Bank, ended in rancourous eviction after two years in 2005.
The third gallery has taken three years to get right, about a year longer than planned, and opens with an exhibition devoted to contemporary Chinese art – all of it new to the UK.
Saatchi has clearly spent a small fortune – one which he refuses to put a figure on publicly – and has been involved in all aspects of the building and the art in it.
He was there yesterday despite the presence of so many of the types he normally tries to avoid: journalists. But exactly where, was another question.
“He’s around yes, but no Charles won’t be talking to the press,” said Rebecca Wilson, the gallery’s director. “That’s what I’m here for.”
Wilson accepted the gallery had taken longer than planned. “There have been quite a few delays, she said.
“Because it’s a Georgian building there were all sorts of things we had to respect and couldn’t do but actually the great thing about Georgian architecture is that its perfect for displaying art.
“There are very clean lines, it’s very unfussy, so we’ve maintained the proportions.”
It certainly is a big space, about 70,000sq ft, with 15 gallery spaces.
“It’s absolutely massive, it really is, you feel like you’re walking into a museum,” said Wilson. “It’s like walking in to the Guggenheim and if you think of what Boundary Road [Saatchi's St John's Wood space] and County Hall were like, it is has gone up several layers in terms of the scale of it and what we can actually do here.”
Saatchi has supervised all the hanging. In a Q&A for the Sunday Times, earlier this week, he revealed how he does it. “I just go by what shapes and colours work together in a room,” he said. “The poncey way some curators try to demonstrate their ‘vision’ by highlighting connections gives me the collywobbles.”
Wilson was slightly more diplomatic. “The rooms have been curated by Charles. He really hangs everything, it’s all his eye,” she said. “There is a feeling now that curators almost see themselves as on a par with artists don’t they? It’s the curator’s vision which is meant to lend some great kind of light and often it’s a really spurious illumination of the work. It’s much more about the work. There’s no message except these are 24 really interesting artists from China.”
All the work comes from Saatchi’s collection of about 2,500 pieces and the next 10 or so exhibitions are already being organised. The next show will be an exhibition of Middle Eastern art and in the pipeline are a big sculpture show next year and others featuring new American and British artists.
Wilson admitted it was a relief to be open and the final hurdle is in sight. There is a party for London’s great and good tonight. Saatchi is not expected but his wife Nigella Lawson is – and the public will enter for free from Thursday.
While many have fond memories of Saatchi’s Boundary Road gallery (he hosted exhibitions by the likes of Cy Twombly, Richard Serra and Jeff Koons as well as the YBAs), not many have good memories of County Hall. It was not a good exhibition space and the tenancy ended when a judge ruled that Saatchi’s company had shown a “deliberate disregard” to the rights of the landlord.