The definition of SENSATIONAL – causing great public interest and excitement [not necessarily in a good way].
The last time there was this kind of disturbance in the art world, one that I was part of anyway, was the Sensation Exhibition back in September 1997.
A contemporary collection of 110 art pieces by 42 artists, owned by Charles Saatchi, displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. A collection that launched the career of the likes of Tracy Emin, Sam Taylor-Johnson (then Taylor-Wood), Chris Ofili and Damien Hirst, the latter two going on to win the Turner Prize.
The exhibition created a media ‘frenzy’:
“…gory images of dismembered limbs and explicit pornography…”
The collection challenged the boundaries of the art world, causing great offence with its vulgar wax works of children, mutilated animals, defacement of religious deities and a portrait of Myra Hindley by Marcus Harvey. Children’s handprints forming the face of notorious child serial killer vandalised by protestors. I remember the latter all too clearly. The room was cordoned off. As I walked past, her cold eyes looked right back at me. A monochrome face awash with blood red. At the time, I was indifferent. Fast forward 23 years and two kids of mine own, I understand the outcry. I understand why, when the exhibition travelled to the Brooklyn Museum, it was met with protests and petitions.
I often wonder why my super cool art teacher exposed us to something so incredibly grotesque? Was it to shock? Was it, for him, a fun day out? Or was it to exploit and question our own artistic expression? He even managed to get us in to the one gallery that was not open to under 18s, though we were 17 at the time:
“There will be works of art on display in the Sensation exhibition which some people may find distasteful. Parents should exercise their judgement in bringing their children to the exhibition. One gallery will not be open to those under the age of 18.”
The Royal Academy Disclaimer
I like to think it was a catalyst to learn about ourselves. To evoke emotions that will evolve as we get older.
I recently moved house and I came across my own ‘Sensation’ piece that we were asked to do as part of the project. The idea behind my piece was to expose the viewer’s tangible fears of murder and death. Now, what with the Black Lives Matter and Me Too Movements, more awareness on mental health, suicide and bullying, the evolution of terrorism, and the rabbit hole that is social media, what is ‘Sensational’ now?
Did Saatchi’s Sensation Exhibition pave the way for contemporary art to be more inclusive by desensitising us to the darker sides of humanity? Can we be shocked? Or would there be the same reaction today as in 1997? I guess, we’ll have to wait and see for the next sensation.