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Kettle Whistle / London Eye

By Michele Robecchi

It is difficult to imagine anything more tedious in London than a Henry Moore exhibition at Tate Britain. However, the recent survey of the work of the acclaimed British artist curated by Chris Stevens and Michael Parke-Taylor is quite a pleasant surprise. The show offers a fresh view on Moore’s work while reminding us why he has earned his gigantic reputation.

The trouble with Moore is that the proliferation of his public monuments the world over, together with a critical accolade that put him in a league of untouchables, has caused a lot of people to think they are familiar with his work when, as a matter of fact, they are not. The show at Tate Modern is an opportunity to revisit Moore’s legacy and take a close look at how it all began and understand why he is acknowledged as one of the men who brought the whole concept of sculpture to a new level. The over one hundred pieces in the show reaffirm Moore’s mix of obsessions, including surrealism, eroticism, and primitivism, but it’s in his drawings where his early rebellious spirit truly emerges, and that show how behind abstract forms and stylized human bodies there was an artist willing to take different routes and deeply concerned with social issues, as a series representing Londoners seeking shelter from the German military blitz here testifies.

On the other side of the river, Tate Britain’s younger sister, Tate Modern, staged “A Story of Deception,” the first retrospective of Francis Alÿs. It’s fun to go from one exhibition to the other and see the master of objectual art juxtaposed with an artist who has explored every possible artistic medium, with the sole and deliberate exception of sculpture. For “A Story of Deception,” the first really comprehensive exhibition of Alÿs’s works to date, the two curators, Mark Godfrey and Kerryn Greenberg, made sure to include the artist’s most successful works as well as to give full insight into the different aspects of his multifaceted practice. Everything seems to fall into place, with classic Alÿs works such as Re-enactment (2001), When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), and Green Line (2004) all present, along with a wide selection of his paintings, drawings, and animations, and yet something doesn’t quite click. Alÿs is the kind of artist who seems to work best when put in determined contexts. His intensity here is diluted. The exhibition is good at giving an overall picture of his visual poetry but somehow fails to illustrate the chaos and immediacy that constitute the core of his work.


The Tate was also indirectly responsible for the other big summer news, namely, the decision of Charles Saatchi to give his gallery as well as two hundred pieces of his private collection (estimated value $37.5 million) to the city of London. Staff and headquarters will stay the course, as will the free admission policy, and the new venue will be called the London Museum of Contemporary Art. Such a spectacular act of philanthropy has clearly raised eyebrows. Where’s the catch? Many suspect that the move is the result of the advertising magnate’s desire to grind some axes with landlords and myopic public servants he finds annoying, especially Tate director Nicholas Serota and his periodical refusal to accept Saatchi’s donation of his collection. Despite Saatchi’s public praise of Serota, it is well known that the relationship between the two is a complex one. Saatchi has never made a mystery of his displeasure with how public institutions in Britain work, openly criticizing their conservative approach and their slowness to grasp what’s happening in the art world. The London Museum of Contemporary Art could be what Saatchi always hoped for-a public institution run with an adventurous spirit.

Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York's HQ, London. Courtesy of Saatchi Gallery, London. Photo: Matthew Booth

Another possible explanation is that Saatchi is just tired. Twenty years spent running your own gallery is quite a long stretch, and he can’t pretend the years haven’t left a mark. Ever since he granted Art Newspaper his first interview in 2004, Saatchi has visibly changed. That journalistic scoop was soon followed all too closely by a string of other interviews with British media outlets, including the Independent, the Guardian, Time Out, and the Times. Finally, Phaidon Press has published two books, My Name Is Charles Saatchi and I Am an Artoholic (2009) and Charles Saatchi: Question (2010), in which the collector candidly speaks his mind on every possible art-related subject. As Saatchi has been a notoriously reclusive character, his sudden need to talk after two decades of silence is quite an extraordinary occurrence. But Saatchi wouldn’t be the advertising genius that he is had he not realized that this burst of publicity would do him a lot of good. After reading his comments, not a few people started seeing the tendency to cast him as the ultimate art villain as mistaken. No doubt the whole experience has made Saatchi realized that although silence is golden, clarifying your position in the press is not a bad thing, especially when there is a lot of controversy surrounding your persona. This public trip down memory lane must have also given him an opportunity to take a hard look at himself. Whatever personal or financial changes he is going through, Saatchi’s decision to depart from such a big part of his history is an indication of his desire to move on, not to retire. All those who think that the London Museum of Contemporary Art is just the last cash-in operation of a man creeping up on retirement had better take notice.

Michele Robecchi is an Italian writer and curator based in London. Former managing editor of Flash Art (2001-2004) and senior editor at Contemporary Magazine (2005-2007), he is currently a visiting lecturer at Christie’s Education and an editor at Phaidon Press, where he has edited monographs on Marina Abramovic, Francis Alÿs, Jorge Pardo, Stephen Shore, and Ai Weiwei.

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