Pausing outside the Saatchi Gallery before going in, and feeling in a thoughtful new-year mood, I found myself comparing this slick new version of the Saatchi set up in Chelsea with the lovable old one in Boundary Road, NW8. What a difference. Saatchi Chelsea has a martini restaurant at the entrance and a rack of pseudo-Greek columns for a portico. The entire estate smells of lunching footballers and Russian oligarchs. Entering Boundary Road, on the other hand, through that stern, grey industrial gate, was like visiting a borstal. Instead of seeking to entice you in, Boundary Road appeared keen to keep you out. There was a whiff of strict corrective ambition about the place: someone was trying to change something. Which is why it altered the course of British art and was the most propitious private gallery space in our post-war cultural history. Whereas Saatchi Chelsea is just Saatchi Chelsea. Plush. Corporate. Paperchase-y.
On that glum thought, I strode past the mock-doric columns to see how the new version of Richard Wilsonís 20:50 was behaving in here. The Wilson piece, originally shown in the 1990s, became Boundary Roadís signature artwork, the one everyone remembers. Entering an austere warehouse space, you found yourself confronted by an indoor lake of shiny black sump oil. The oil was super-reflective and seemed to clone the space around it perfectly. The roomís reflections shone back at you with added precision and symmetry. Extending into the middle was a kind of pier in reverse, a gangway, below the surface of the oil, up which you tiptoed to the centre ó where things became strangely unpleasant. The presence of this much oil pressing in on you from all sides made your body instinctively nervous. What if the walls give way? It felt dangerous and claustrophobic. This combination of danger and beauty is what made the piece unforgettable.
Buying 20:50 was among the most inspired bits of collecting Saatchi ever managed. Wilson has never made anything nearly as good. The installation has now been re-created in the basement of Saatchi Chelsea, where its char≠acter as an artwork has been halved and its potency quartered. The big problem is that you can no longer walk up the gangway. Not without making an internet booking far ahead of your arrival.
Finding my route barred, I tried emailing the appropriate office, but nobody ever answered. Eventually, I flashed my press card and they reluctantly allowed me in. First, I had to sign a form absolving the gallery of any responsibility for any damage to my clothing or possessions. The danger of visiting Russian molls dripping the sleeves of their sable coats in sump oil was presumably too actionable to risk. By the time the emailing and negotiating and form-signing was done, I no longer gave much of a damn about 20:50. However fine a work it used to be, its point had gone. Chelsea one, Art nil.
All this is deeply disappointing. The role of art is to conjure up fresh experiences by hijacking the senses and surprising them. Saatchi knows this. Even at Chelsea, his decision not to have barriers around any of the exhibits is a commendable feature of the display. Art doesnít work with safety nets and get-out clauses. Itís a mano a mano thing. If Wilsonís 20:50 cannot be viewed in the way it is supposed to be viewed, it should not be put on show.
But then: redemption. Just when I thought all was lost, that this great collectorís sad transformation into a corporate slubberdegullion was complete, I wandered upstairs into the project rooms, where a powerful installation by Emily Prince, with the self-explanatory title American Servicemen and Women Who Have Died in Iraq and Afghanistan (But Not Including the Wounded, Nor the Iraqis Nor the Afghans), has just been unveiled.
I have encountered the piece before. It was one of the more memorable artworks at a recent Venice Biennale. By bringing it to London so pertinently, Saatchi proves he can still be ahead of the game if the spirit takes him.
His next big show at Chelsea ó a survey of faddish Indian art that opens at the end of the month ó already feels some years out of date. But Princeís installation is certainly au courant and on the money. Buying it shows Saatchi at his best: ambitious, provocative, decisive and politically ambiguous.
If this grim memorial to wasted life does not move you, then you have no heart. It consists of 5,158 tiny portraits of the American servicemen killed in the Middle East so far. As the numbers of the dead keep rising, Prince is continuously updating the piece, so we should, I suppose, call it a work in progress that will be finished only when Iraq and Afghanistan are over. Prince is 28. God knows when sheíll see the end.
Her tiny portraits, drawn delicately in pencil, are about the size of a calling card. All are based on official likenesses, released by the American government, of soldiers who have fallen. How fiercely Prince battles to find individuality and difference in every single face as she seeks to rescue this innocently smiling cast from the mass grave of statistics. A momentís genuine remembrance is her gift to each and every one of them.
To the beautifully drawn faces, she adds the barest available facts: age, place, date of death. Sometimes a little extra information, gleaned from newspaper reports, is squeezed onto the tiny cards. Thus, we learn, chillingly, that David S Mitchell, who was killed in Iraq on October 26, 2009, was known as Mr Personality in high school. And that Clinton C Blodgett, who died in May 2007, joined the army to follow in the footsteps of his father, who had fought for the Oklahoma National Guard in the Gulf war.
The cards are colour-coded, so they also summarise the dead soldierís racial make-up: white, brown, black. In Venice, the piece was shown in the shape of an American map, and you could see where the fallen came from as well. Here, the Saatchi ceilings are too low to allow the mapping of half a continent, so the portraits are arranged instead along a grid that allows you to follow the chronology of death, rather than its geography.
It actually works better this way. I found myself peering ever closer at the tiny faces arranged in convenient lines before me. Itís only when you step back from a momentís tangible involvement with a real person, and see how many others are pictured and filed ahead of you in this vast graph of death, that the piece achieves its final impact.
On the train home, I opened the newspaper to find a photograph of Tony Blair taking up a post as adviser to Louis Vuitton, makers of the poshest luggage. How dare he.
Text by timesonline.co.uk
Images by saatchi-gallery.co.uk