The friends with whom I was staying are successful New Zealand restauranteurs. It was Friday evening, so we went out to dinner. We started at Nobu for an absurdly expensive but equally exquisite Japanese meal. Despite the prices, service was still characterised by an ethic of production and profit. Underpaid (and thus indifferent) staff wearing smart Japonisme tunics served us. The sake was excellent. After dinner, my friends decided to take me to meet the fabled, but in this instance, very coked-out Damien Hirst, at Pharmacy, Hirsts new restaurant in Notting Hill Gate, just down the road from where we were staying in Ladbroke Grove. The very successful but slimy and socially manipulative restaurant partner of Damien recognised my friends. He greeted us. Downstairs in Pharmacy customers sat amongst shelves of pharmaceuticals at small, sterile, tables while upstairs customers sat at a white bar surrounded by Hirsts big dot paintings. It was all very Conran chic with no preserved animals to be seen. Hirst had already done dead animals at Quo Vadis, another restaurant in the West End. In trendy restaurant culture repetition is not tolerated.
On the way out, young enthusiastic trendies and ageing Japanese punks lined up outside the large glass sliding doors. They were organised into two well-ordered queues by two black bouncers. At a large counter just inside the doors, cute black chicks with eccentric coiffeurs matted with thick shining product greeted those customers who got past the bouncers. I overheard one very cute, but seemingly dim receptionist attempting to explain the intricacies of the periodic chart of elements and the meaning of the chemical symbols to the fawning young patrons. Everyone seemed too willing to be impressed. I began to think about fictional narration. Where there is money and power to be admired there will always be those who are willing to invest whatever capital they may possesswhich in this instance were copious reserves of credulity.
Next day something became evident. For some time the Saatchi Gallery crowd in St. Johns Wood must have resented the iconoclastic efficiency with which artists like Hirst and the other new Brits had so easily been able to gain huge amounts of public attention. Moreover, Hirsts soccer chants single "Vindaloo" had unexplicably shot to the top of the music charts. Hirst and the band with whom he collaborated set up their own record company in order to maintain total independence. More satisfyingly, none of the profits from this number one hit went to the already greedy record companies. From a certain point of view, only advertising agencies ought to manipulate vernacular culture for profit, and Saatchis still like to think that they are the best at doing just that. Agencies like Saatchis like to pride themselves on their creative dexterity, but compared to Hirsts intuitive tenacity, they remain conventionally institutional.
The Saatchi Gallery launched a new hardback pictorial publication entitled The New Neurotic Realism. That weekend, a well-timed article in The Independent weekend magazine claimed that the Hirstliche iconoclasm of the early 90s is flawed, passé and sensationalist. Hirst and his mates, Gilbert & George protegés Dinos and Jake Chapman should move over and make way for the new neurotic realists. Neurotic Realism is an art historical category recently invented by Saatchis, but includes the work of NZ painter of bright flowers now living in London, Karl Maughan.
The Independent article conspicuously included a large illustration of one of Karls paintings. Earlier this year I saw Karl appear on NZ television. He cynically testified that he had to "give" the painting to Saatchi for nix, implying that the value added currency generated by the inclusion of his work in the Saatchi collection would indeed serve Karls long term career interests. It seems to have worked. Cut-up animals, Siamese Twats, Five Easy Pisses, and other anti institutional references do not impress mainstream corporate associates. Do not forget that Saatchis, despite their strong arts presence, are primarily advertisers with corporate allegiances. Corporate interests intensely dislike critical, satirical discourse, especially when directed at them. Advertisers, on the other hand, have always loved illustrative formalism. It feels more comfortable and Neurotic Realism is just that. Safely weird, illustrative formalism. More pertinently, however, the continual promotion of large collections of the work of young, unproved artists is required if long-term investment potential is to be secured. In the visual arts, a sense of institutional order will always assure investor confidence.
I was staying in Brixton with Derrick Cowie after my friends kicked me out of Ladbroke Grove. In a completely different world from West End art politics, I visited Graham Harwood in his small but comfortable ex-council house just north of Brixton. It was South London and a long way from The City on the very run down Northern Line. Graham was involved with ARTEC on a new Internet project. He left ARTEC when he got pissed off with the politics that erupted when ARTEC got the jitters over content issues with Harwoods work. Harwood is now funding the completion of the project himself. Harwood and his collaborators are making subversive web projects and bogus search engines. They are just about to get the project on line but because of a recent commission from Ars Electronica 98, Harwood has delayed the launch. Very pissed off by the class machine of British culture and corrupt corporate bull machines, Harwood and his collaborators have taken the HTML code and graphics of corporate web sites and refilled them with explicit radical material. They have invented look-alike search engines with bogus and satirical links to their bad boy sites. For example, you may be using a search engine to find the Saatchi & Saatchi home page and end up at a subversive site ripped off from a corporate giant. The reworked site may contain, for example, violent Japanese gay porn or satirical sociologically and historiographically corrupted material.
Say you download a rehashed version of Photoshop 1.0. Maybe you choose an image of a cute white chick, but as you use this resource edited application, the image keeps turning dark and facial features turn Afro. The text fields also display racially loaded directives. This is wonderful speculative fiction and in a culture steeped in the historicity of privilege and the excesses of the moneyed classes, this is an especially good work.
Only two other London shows interested me. German photographer now living in London Jürgen Teller had a show of dead dogs and delinquent virgins at the Photographers Gallery in Great Newport Street. Tellers show constitutes photographic images of naked super models taking the piss in heavily choreographed grunge settings of violence and decay. Despite the catalogues claims that the work constitutes reflexive exposures of fashion culture, the work disappointingly remains as contrived and self-conscious as any formal couture production. American photographer Andrsa es Serrano had an equally interesting show entitled A History of Sex, at Photology in Litchfield Street. "After religion, homelessness and death comes sex". The show included an interesting mix of images. Attractive blond dwarf woman doing man with big dick. Aged women with young stud. Old man with warrior queen. Pimply arsed punk being fisted by indifferent young women gazing into middle space. Regular late 90s visual substance abuse but standard when one considers just how widely USENET voyeurism has widened the visual vocabulary of the culture.