I am lying in bed anxiously counting down the hours till dawn. I’ve given up trying to sleep, obviously. I’m awake because I’m pondering priorities. A close friend died last week, and I was told at dinner last night that a colleague and friend ‘only had hours left’. Here’s what I was thinking: instead of knowing that I had to arise, unrefreshed and disgruntled, in an hour, I imagined that the hour was all the time I had left to me. What would I think about? Kids and wife, of course, but also the future of my gallery, the future of my art.
When I opened Mona near Hobart my ambition was modest. I expected people to visit, but I thought they would be art people. To my surprise, my community, and the Australian community, claimed it as their own. And I started to care that they cared. Thus it was that I came to care about the future of Mona. And thus it was that the sleepless nights began.
Prior to Mona’s opening in 2011 I had collected art for years. First coins and antiquities, then modern art, then contemporary, but all the time interspersed with a smattering of random acquisitions that tickled my whim. Once the museum opened, I started to collect for the public. Would this look good on the wall? Would that make a point about why people make art? I wasn’t sure whether I should continue to satisfy my own foibles, or allow the museum to direct me, a character in a story writing itself. But with money in short supply, as it is for most of us, to buy often means to sell.
I’ve lived with works that inspire and challenge me and I can learn to live without them if it means buying for the museum
Selling isn’t easy. I love the things I own. When the Saville painting lived in a warehouse, I used to sneak in and study the paint, and I would catch myself hoping I could avoid the subject of the painting noticing my presence. And the Ofili: controversy played a part, but its raw beauty overwhelmed me. When we hung it in the gallery I put a throne in front of it. A painting fit for a king. Or queen. Or something in between.
And then there was the intense, plastic, tacky engagement in the history of art from the Chapman brothers. Every time I saw it, my faith in the future of Western art was renewed. To say something new, one must first know what has been said already. Or the Hirst, endlessly cycling, a triumph of pattern, but always avoiding complicity with creed.
As I said, selling isn’t easy. But I’ve lived with works that inspire and challenge me and I can learn to live without them if it means buying for the museum, and for those who visit, and for the sake of learning, and for the future. The proceeds of this auction (the Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in London on 30 June) will help to fund a wing to house a number of James Turrell works. They will be light and airy and engaging and, hopefully, provocative. And dark and mournful, and perhaps enthralling.
Before art, and its undeniable capacity to sponge up all available resources, I was doing pretty well financially. I made my money gambling. And here, at this auction, I’m gambling again. My gamble isn’t that you will pay enough for these works to justify my selling. My wager is that the future, for me and my museum, is more rewarding than the past. I could keep these great works. Or I could try new stuff, while remaining mindful that the new isn’t necessarily better than the old.
The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili
Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. Acrylic, oil, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins and elephant dung on linen. Estimate: £1,400,000-1,800,000. Shown at Sensation: Young British Artists from The Saatchi Collection, London, 1997. Photo © Saatchi Gallery London. This work will be offered in our Post War & Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 30 June at Christie’s in London
Originally acquired by Charles Saatchi directly from the artist, and first exhibited at Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1997, The Holy Virgin Mary found itself the centre of a major public debate when the exhibition travelled to New York two years later. It was the object of a savage attack by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who argued that its sacrilegious subject desecrated the Catholic church.
Igniting a lawsuit between Giuliani and the Brooklyn Museum, the work immediately found itself at the heart of a media storm. Ofili gave a statement expressing his surprise at the response his painting had provoked. ‘I don’t feel as though I have to defend [the work]’, he said. ‘The people who are attacking this painting are attacking their own interpretation, not mine. You never know what’s going to offend people, and I don’t feel it’s my place to say any more.’
Ofili’s inclusion in Sensation in 1997 propelled the artist into the public domain, and the following year he became the first black artist to be awarded the Turner Prize. Yet, arguably it was not until the polemic surrounding The Holy Virgin Mary that Ofili achieved global status as an artist. It is a work that encapsulates his multicultural practice, balanced on the knife’s edge between those essential yet polarised elements of human experience: the sacred and the profane.
As a child Ofili was an altar boy, an experience that reverberates throughout his art in recurring narratives and iconography. Growing up in Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s, Ofili’s personal iconography is infused with references to ethnicity and black culture. Hip-hop had a profound effect on the burgeoning multiculturalism that Ofili’s work reflects, drawing the urban black experience into a cultural territory that had traditionally excluded it. Ofili was inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film, Pulp Fiction, in which, in one famous scene, Samuel L. Jackson’s character, the hitman Jules, kills a man while proclaiming biblical verse. For Ofili, the synthesis of biblical catechism with a contemporary language that integrated violence and humour, was a revelation.
Evocative of the Western tradition of religious painting, in which the Madonna is often depicted with a suckling infant at her breast, The Holy Virgin Mary draws upon this repository of source imagery, with Ofili forming his Madonna’s breast from dried elephant dung. Applying dung directly to the canvas was, for him, a way in which to bring the environment directly into his painting. Used widely as a fertiliser, here it is a symbol of growth and motherhood. In this way, Ofili’s Madonna is at once of heaven and earth. Gilded with sparkling beads, the work becomes a metaphor for transformation: the humble material is elevated in the same way the Virgin becomes sacred with the birth of her son.
Great Deeds Against the Dead by Jake and Dinos Chapman
Jake and Dinos Chapman, Great Deeds Against the Dead, 1994. Fibreglass, resin, paint and wigs. Estimate: £400,000-600,000. This work will be offered in our Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 30 June at Christie’s in London
Made in 1994, and widely exhibited throughout the 1990s during the heyday of the Young British Artists, Great Deeds Against the Dead became an iconic headline work for the Chapman brothers. It was during this pivotal time of their career that the work was shown in the 1997 exhibition Sensation at the Royal Academy, London. As a result, and in recognition of its importance, Great Deeds Against the Dead has since been exhibited in every major retrospective on the artists.
‘A heroic feat! With dead men!’ from The Disasters of War (1810–20) by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes
Standing nearly three metres in height, Great Deeds Against the Dead is a life-size sculptural reworking of Goya’s ‘Grande hazaña! Con muertos!’ (‘A heroic feat! With dead men!’), the most recognised and gruesome sheet from Goya’s The Disasters of War. Created in 1810–20, the 83 prints depict the violence and inhumanity of the Napoleonic invasions of Spain.
The Chapman brothers took the decapitated and limbless bodies of the flat, monochromatic print and graphically brought them to reality in a three-dimensional form that transports Goya’s timeless theme of the horrors of war into the 20th century. The Chapman brothers fell under the spell of Goya early on in their lives, once confessing that they ‘even considered changing their surname to Goya’. This influence becomes obvious when comparing Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son, 1820–23, from the Prado in Madrid, to any one of the Chapman brother’s notorious Hell scenes.
But it was in 1993, with the creation of their first major collaborative work, that their obsession became a reality: in their Disasters of War, a tableau executed in 83 parts and now in the Tate collection, Goya’s entire portfolio is brought skilfully to life in the form of minute three-dimensional figures re-enacting all the gruesome, chilling details originally depicted by the Spanish master.
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