There is a new display of contemporary British art at Tate Britain entitled Classified, whose title picks up on a number of predilections and inferences of the works it shows, all of which might loosely be termed Young British Art, and most of which has acquired the nostalgic hue of music you listened to as a teenager (of which more later). You know you shouldn’t like it, but you do. On one level, the title refers to the notion of classification and taxonomy, which so often forms the m.o. of contemporary artists that it might be time to send out a polite cease-and-desist letter to all artists everywhere.
Classified also refers to the idea of something kept secret, an esoteric nugget of knowledge. A cynic (I’m not one) would say that the YBA’s were and are (let’s stick with BA’s now, shall we? Or MABA’s) anything but clandestine. Their work for the most part grew out of an engagement with, even a dependence on, popular tabloid culture in the UK, making their sneery petulance as charmingly unorthodox and infinitely sellable to Americans as the Sex Pistols or Guy Ritchie films. And a separation from Americanness was as much a primary motor for the YBA’s as it was for the more or less contemporaneous Britpop bands. It’s just a coincidence that the glorious reformation of Blur at the Glastonbury Festival is taking place at the same time as this show, but there’s some satisfaction in drawing parallels between British bands’ rejection of the dominance of U.S. grunge in the early nineties and Hirst, Emin, and the Chapmans’ mussing up of the conceptual niceties and post-minimal good manners of U.S. art of the time. For all the fleetingly charming jingoistic bluster, though, “breaking America” remains the benchmark of success, in art and music, and several of these artists might euphemistically be referred to as “big in Japan”—in other words, not famous at all.
Obsessive classification was always a central part of British pop art in the late 1950s. Put any Blake, Paolozzi, or Hamilton next to any Warhol, Oldenburg, or Lichtenstein and the former looks like hobbyist tinkering—art made in the shed, not the studio. That’s not to belittle the British pop artists, many of whom (with the exception of the revered Hamilton, Duchamp’s self-appointed executor) never really made it across the ocean and consequently lose a spot in the art books (thanks, Yanks). However, many of the YBA’s took the taxonomic approach to ballsy new scales and heights, blowing up British tinkering to an American scale. Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy, the centerpiece of the installation, is a fully stocked pharmacy with wall-to-ceiling locked glass units containing stacks of medicines. On four rubberized stools in the center of the room, there are small bowls containing honeycombs beneath a baby-blue insect-o-cutor, playing out Western art historical themes (fleeting pleasure, ascension, transfiguration) through a disinterested, minimalist lens informed by Judd (those slick, flush shelves) as much as Flavin (those shimmering bars of light). It’s a Hirst b-side, as are the other works here—no sliced animals, no butterflies, rubbish paintings or blingy skulls, just stripped-down, unfussy, nervy nihilism. It’s a reminder of what made us bother about him in the first place.
The absence of signature works —no unmade beds, genital-sprouting mannequins, or elephant dung—makes the case for a quieter, more contemplative version of YBA history, and one that connects to the discreet, meditative 20th-century British art in the permanent collection upstairs; it’s more Ben Nicholson than Gilbert and George. The downside of that is the presence of Simon Starling’s painfully precious installation about bikes; the upside is the display of Tacita Dean’s extraordinary film Michael Hamburger. The film, displayed in letterbox format through a projector that rumbles and hums insistently throughout, follows the German poet and translator of the title, perhaps best known for his work on W.G. Sebald’s novels, in one of which (the amazing Rings of Saturn) he himself appears as a character. Sebald’s magpie version of history (his novels are composed of photographs interspersed through texts that meander across imagined and recorded time) remains a focal point of Dean’s career and here, Hamburger’s silent shufflings among windfall apples, the grass churning in the wind at his feet, has an eloquence akin to that of Sebald’s simply stated facts. In the second part, the translator turns the apples in his hands and names them, giving a brief description of their origin. Pale light from a gothic window limns his hands; that’s it.
Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Chapman Family Collection, the original display of which was shrouded in secrecy at White Cube in 2002, takes up the final room of the exhibition. Although its bite is considerably lessened once the gag is revealed (and the Tate can’t help but emblazon an explanatory wall text right at the beginning, which is a classic bit of institutional emasculation), it retains its stranglehold on the psyche well after you leave the gallery, which has to be good in some way. Top-lit plinths display apparently African sculptures in a darkened room, whose rough-hewn surfaces, splintered appendages, and worn-down edges attest to years of tribal use. You get grave. And then you notice, after a few minutes of well-meaning scrutiny (all the while panicking internally, if you’re me, about what you’re supposed to think or do: do I like these? Is it ok not to? Am I contributing to the White Male Hegemony of Post-Colonial Oppression if I wander out of the room too early? Or start thinking about lunch?), that they’re actually well-made fakes, infested with the go-to symbolism of Bad Globalization: McDonalds. A few have Big Mac heads, a couple clutch fries and cokes, and there’s even a Hamburglar with eyes made of conch shells. The air hangs with incense smoke from a faux-African holder, making the gap-year satire all the more leaden. But the connections that are being sloppily made here—between the aesthetic deadening and leveling of the museum space and the homogenization of American cultural imperiaazzzzzzzzz…whaa? How long have I been asleep for?…are made with intentional brassiness, steamrolling the sensitivities that surround debates on cultural ownership with a mad, hollow cackle. Things are bought and sold, whatever they meant once. There’s no other way. The laughter rolls around your head for a long time.