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a loss of sensation — the ybas in crisis

After 26 years of sell-out exhibitions, major retrospectives and art world domination, are the YBAs finally moving on and trying new things, or has the art scene just moved on and left them behind?

by i-D Team
|
17 October 2014, 10:25am

Image Mark Wallinger, Labyrinth #59, 2013. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth and the artist.

If BritArt were a person instead of a movement, we might have recently begun to notice it balancing its casual alcoholism with a new dedication to the daily grind, or a yuppie's passion for bikram yoga. We'd find it was pickled in sea-green aldehyde, but still sagging a little on the snout, and that its bed remained unmade, but was cleaner. BritArt would not have learned any tricks in the kitchen, in particular, but it would have perfected the fried egg — a cartoon splat, on two levels, like an egg from the Beano — and its Nazi jokes would be couched more softly, as satire.

BritArt turns 26 this year, and who, I find myself asking — as someone the same age — really cares about 26? Has anyone every thought to celebrate such a milquetoast milestone?

While little appears to have been written directly about the synergy between the "BritArt" and "Britpop" movements, the parallels are nakedly apparent: the snarling, swearing Gallagher brothers are kindred cultural spirits for those painters, sculptors and dealers who were brawling in The Colony Rooms.

Because it's the perfect quarter-life crisis age, truly — simply too dull for function. What happens to those who live fast, and then don't die young? The answer, of course, is that they are forced to find new modes of living. Otherwise, after adolescence comes adulthood; after Sensation comes the loss of it — half-deaf, half-blind, all-dumb, slumping in the auction sales and cast out of the cube. A true YBA persona, in the nineties, was built around the idea of deconstruction and deviation, and as such, it had an expiry date built in. It is true, for instance, that at the height of her fame Tracey Emin was enviably thin — a suitable mannequin for "divinely slinky caramel Yves Saint Laurent," in the words of the Guardian — but it is also true that her memoir reveals that her clotheshorse figure was the product of raging alcoholism: those characteristics which made her an ideal media figure were also the self-destructive tics which would be her undoing in the long-term. While little appears to have been written directly about the synergy between the "BritArt" and "Britpop" movements, the parallels are nakedly apparent: the snarling, swearing Gallagher brothers are kindred cultural spirits for those painters, sculptors and dealers who were brawling in The Colony Rooms.

(Later, in 2008, Time Magazine would run a cover-story on Damien Hirst whose headline made this connection more explicit: The Artist As Rock-Star, with the subheading: "Next week, Damien Hirst expects to sell more than $100 million worth of work at auction. Is this the end of art or the start of something new?" Of all of our nation's most heavyweight artists, it is perhaps easiest to imagine Hirst in this role — I once saw him approached by a female fan at a party in Miami, who clutched at his arm and gushed like a groupie, breathlessly, that she just had to tell him that he "was [her] favourite artist, I mean, like, ever." It remains the only time I've ever seen somebody do this to an artist, as opposed to, say, Britney Spears.)

"I remember Sarah [Lucas] clomping downstairs in her boots the following morning [after Tracey Emin's 30th birthday] and making her way over to a black plastic bin filled with icy water," Gregor Muir recalls of a party in the 90s in Lucky Kunst. "She rolled up her shirtsleeve and thrust an arm into the depths. Much to her surprise, she hoisted out a tin of Tennent's Extra, lager of choice for the hardened alcoholic. "Great!" she announced and gulped back the contents."

Lucas, for her part in this 26-year story, is representing Britain in the 2015 Venice Biennale, having kept a consistently low tabloid profile since the first wave of interest in the YBAs died down. In the rock star analogy, this is roughly the same as winning a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award without first agreeing to have your music on an ice-cream advert: in "selling" in lieu of "selling out," she is a rarity. At this year's Frieze Art Fair, asked to devise a performance piece, the artist went for a post-modern spin on her eggs-on-tits Greatest Hits — titled Fried Eggs, the piece is more-or-less self explanatory, seeing Lucas create a 'series' of the breakfast food for an audience and then staple it participants' t-shirts. The gesture is this: take the thing for which I used to be famous — when I, like a cracked-egg, was less than formed — and examine it closely with the benefit of hindsight.

This is her escape from that awkward hinterland between youthful rock-star behaviour and middle-age: self-awareness and humour. It adds to her creation myth, but it defines it as kitsch. It fries its egg and eats it, too, and with this it sustains itself.

"The anxiety has gone out of my face," Tracey Emin wrote in The Independent, meanwhile, shortly after detoxing. "The lines are only half as deep. My eyes are really bright. My voice sounds light and happy. My skin is glowing and my urine is like tap water." As the media's demands on the artist have changed, so other YBAs have been forced to adapt or die; for some, the growth of gills to serve out their days in spa deprivation tanks, and for others, claws to dig into the turf of their country estates.

If the BritArtists were "rock stars" in their own respective rights, too, The Successful Artist as an archetype itself has since turned into something more like a loving and deferent court-painter for the music industry, instead: think, for instance, of Jeff Koons' Gazing Ball collaboration with Lady Gaga, or of the Hermes Birkin bag customised by George Condo for Kanye West; a gift for the rapper's own pneumatic artwork of a wife, herself the subject of a piece by Barbara Kruger in a fashion magazine. A certain degree of this smooth integration into other areas of popular culture is a more necessary skill for the artist in 2014; so, too, is a full integration into the world of finance and the real of terrible, tedious, deathly 'likability.'

As the YBAs disappear, drop out, or redefine themselves, who can really blame them for their quasi quarter-life crisis? Who wants to be a "nice, normal guy," and be popular, when you have always been a nasty, hedonistic one?

There is a new art movement that the New York Observer is calling "Bro Art." Beneath a url which ends, horribly, with "crew-of-painters-shred-the-art-worlds-gnar," the journalist Nate Freeman dubs the collective in question: "well-studied, good-looking, hard-working and fun-loving future art stars."

"They spend all day in the studio dreaming up and eventually creating abstract works that don't challenge the status quo so much as inch it forward at their own pace," he continues. "The biggest collectors in the world love them, and they love surfing. They seem like nice, normal guys." The 'BroArtists,' far from carousing and fighting and acting like rock stars, enjoy what the internet-savvy and the stupid might refer to as a "chill situation." They banter about who has sold their first artwork to Leo Dicaprio. They "[talk] about the local surf spots, and when they were going to head out to the beach that weekend."

As the YBAs disappear, drop out, or redefine themselves, who can really blame them for their quasi quarter-life crisis? Who wants to be a "nice, normal guy," and be popular, when you have always been a nasty, hedonistic one? Perhaps the problem is not even that their lifestyle and youth-focused title was hard to sustain, but that the art world has changed. Tellingly, in the profile of the affable 'Bros,' their respective ages are identified not as '27' or '26' or 'under 30,' but as "close to 25."

(And who can even remember being as impossibly young as 25?) 

Credits


Text Philippa Snow
Image Mark Wallinger, Labyrinth #59, 2013. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth and the artist.

Tagged:
Culture
Sarah Lucas
Think Pieces
Damien Hirst
Tracey Emin
yba
Britart
2015 venice biennale
broartists
gregor muir
philippa snow
the colony rooms