Britain’s ‘YBA’ have moved on, but they still inspire

by Stuart Munro

Special To The Japan Times

In Ben Wheatley’s recent film “A Field in England,” a group of deserting soldiers fleeing the 17th-century English Civil War escape through a field of mushrooms, only to be captured by an alchemist and descend into a nightmare of both body and mind — all against the backdrop of the English countryside.

Such madness and melancholia of Brits are themes apparent in the latest group show at Tomio Koyama’s 8/Art Gallery in Tokyo’s Shibuya.

“Five British Artists” introduces five individuals who, along with a small band of others, have helped to shape the cultural landscape of Britain for the past 20 years, and continue to do so. The much-criticized group, many of whom were supported by businessman Charles Saatchi, rejected the tag of YBA (young British artists), which they acquired in the mid 1990s, and redefined the contemporary artist as either entrepreneurs, inventors or modern-day alchemists.

This show presents a brief view of recent works by five of that ilk, all born in the 1960s, each having been involved in reinvigorating the artist’s role as both cultural critic and craftsman. A gentle introduction into the working practice of each artist appears as a list of printing techniques and descriptions attached to the wall next to the gallery entrance before the pieces inside then speak for themselves.

The work of brothers Jake & Dinos Chapman is a mixture of disciplines — sculpture, print, music and drawing — that covers themes of sex, violence and death, often grotesquely. They subvert the normal perception of things, placing modern cultural detritus among the troubled relationships of children, sex and war. “Hell” (1999-2000), for example, presents a miniature drive-through McDonald’s butchered and destroyed by hordes of Nazi storm troopers in a scene reminiscent of any Friday night out in East London. It’s a contemporary scene of blood and death.

In 2003, the Chapman brothers were nominated for the Turner Prize for their sculpture “Death” (2003), two interlocking bronze sex dolls painted to look as if made from inflated plastic. This show collates prints from the duo’s publication “My Giant Colouring Book” (2004), which is about image-making as much as it is about depicting fantastic horror. Loosely derived from children’s picture books, each illustration was photo-etched chemically onto copper plate. Dot-to-dot illustrations are also added to and elaborated, making what’s actually drawn indeterminate and mysterious.

Dots are no mystery to Damien Hirst, whose “New Spot Prints” showed at the same gallery last year. Attending London’s Goldsmiths Art College in the late 1980s, Hirst also worked in a mortuary, which would later go on to inspire his subject of interest — the dead and the living. He questions the nature of things, be it animals or basketballs, sharks in formaldehyde or bisected cows — and his complicated titles are works in themselves.

His famous “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991) had him preserve a 4.25-meter-long Tiger shark in formaldehyde. “It’s Beautiful Day” (2013), shown here as a series of prints, mixes memories of anthropological collections, diamond-encrusted skulls and butterflies suspended in blocks of color.

In contrast, Gary Hume expresses an indifference to the immediate world that surrounds his subjects. His recent series of block prints “London Fields” and “Paradise Paintings’” echo the same sense of “placelessness” visible in previous images of supermodel Kate Moss made using his trademark of gloss paint on polished metal.

“London Fields” and “Paradise Paintings” form opposing world views — one weary and unsatisfied, the other optimistic and visually content. Chosen to represent Britain at the 1999 Venice Biennale, Hume currently has a solo show at Tate Britain until September.

Glaswegian artist and a current Turner Prize nominee David Shrigley is perhaps the odd one out of this group. His humor, which, unlike the others, isn’t buried deep within weighty concepts, makes his work possibly the easiest to appreciate. But when seen next to the Chapman prints, the inclusion of Shrigley’s work makes absolute sense.

His drawings depict a malevolent violence that casts itself across the entirety of popular culture. It’s not the fact that his drawings are childlike that makes them fascinating, but that their narratives are derived from the mind of a 40-year-old. Nights out on the town and threats of violence as seen from a distance populate each drawing on show.

British culture and its genres have responded accordingly to such artists’ work, and it has clearly taken notice of the type of creativity on display here, borrowing from it, using it — even assimilating it. Shrigley directed the 2003 “Good Song” video for Blur, a band with several members who also attended Goldsmiths Art College; and Dinos Chapman’s own musical moniker Luftbobler is inspired by sleeplessness and horror films. Even this year’s “A Field in England,” could easily have been inspired by the fabled adventures into darkness of the Chapman brothers, just as Martin Amis’ 1989 crime-noir novel “London Fields” could have informed the background landscape to Hume’s ambiguous characters.

Dark matter aside, the artists’ playful manipulations of their observations and inspirations, are inspiring — if not to inform other works, then to at least encourage visitors to further explore their attitudes, their different approaches and the dark recesses of the British psyche they equally and vehemently inhabit.

“Five British Artists” at 8/Art Gallery/Tomio Koyama Gallery runs till Sept. 2; open daily 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Free admission. www.hikarie8.com/artgallery