The so-called Young British Artists caused a stir when they burst onto the art scene in the 1980s and their legacy is at the heart of an exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Yvette Huddleston reports.
The phrase was coined to describe a group of young artists which included Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Mat Collishaw, Gillian Wearing and Angus Fairhurst, who graduated from art school in the late 1980s and began staging artist-led exhibitions in warehouses and factories – their first show, Freeze, was initiated by Hirst in 1988 while still a student at Goldsmiths.
Their work was challenging, ground-breaking and frequently self-referential and a new exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, In My Shoes: Art and the Self since the 1990s, in part, looks at the continuing legacy of the YBAs who, it is acknowledged, reinvigorated the British art scene and have remained hugely influential.
The show, in the YSP’s Longside Gallery, features work by more than 25 artists – including Emin, Lucas and Wearing, Grayson Perry, Jonathan Monk, Gavin Turk and Marc Quinn – and explores the ways in which UK-based artists have represented themselves in their work.
“We have done a few exhibitions looking at a particular moment in time and I really wanted to look at the 1990s as a period,” says Natalie Rudd, senior curator of the Arts Council Collection at the YSP. “I wanted to think about the impact and influence of the YBA’s and what they bring to the present. At first we were thinking of figurative art and painting, then we thought about film and photography as newer media. Then it became a project around the self and this idea of artistic identity, and what that means, which was a strong element of the YBAs’ work in particular.”
The show is also an opportunity to showcase younger artists to demonstrate the renewal of the Arts Council Collection and the latest developments in self-representation. “The YBA’s belong to recent history but, even though some people still think of contemporary art in terms of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, we wanted to show the some of the Collection’s more recent acquisitions too.” These include Rachel Maclean’s film Feed Me (2015) in which the artist uses costume, prosthetics and digital media to play every role in the piece. It is a challenging work focussing on childhood, with a surreal edge. Maclean herself describes it as ‘creating an uncomfortable blurring of the boundaries between innocence and corruption, the child and the adult.’ It is not easy viewing and may well have a similar effect on today’s audiences that Emin’s work did – think of the furore over her Turner prize-nominated My Bed – in the 1990s.
The works in the exhibition, which represent a broad range of media including painting, sculpture, film, drawing and photography, are arranged into four key thematic groups – the physical self, the artist’s world, the self as other and notions of the past. “We wanted to give the show a narrative and we felt it would give it some shape and structure,” explains Rudd. “I hope the groupings give people a way in and help to shape their thinking.”
The text alongside the works also allows an instant connection between the viewer and the creator as Rudd and her team decided to use the artists’ own words. “We realised that some of the works would be new to people, so we wanted people to understand the work but we didn’t want to over label it,” says Rudd. “With the labels it wasn’t possible to get all the artists to explain the work directly so we decided to look for artists’ quotes which would provide a little bit of context.”
Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing – whose sculpture of suffragist Millicent Fawcett was recently unveiled in Parliament Square – and Tracey Emin are all well represented.
Emin’s short film Why I Never Became a Dancer (1995) demonstrates her supreme ability to combine the personal and political to powerful effect. Confessional and candid, it tells the story of her entering a disco dancing competition as a teenager in Margate, where she grew up. She reached the final and the crowd were behind her all the way until a group of boys began shouting sexual insults and she ran off the floor, vowing to leave her home town and make her way elsewhere.
The story is told in voiceover, while abstract shots of Margate appear, until finally she confronts her abusers directly, saying ‘this one’s for you’ – and we see her dancing triumphantly to the disco classic You Make Me Feel Mighty Real in her studio, a successful young artist in her prime.
It is just one highlight in a very rich show. Today, in the age of ‘the selfie’ and social media, we are all constructing digital identities every day, so it also seems a very timely exhibition. Rudd says that one of the aims that she and her curatorial team had for the show was to appeal to young people in particular. “They are directly involved in the ‘selfie’ culture, so we were keen to target them and we have had good feedback from them so far,” she says.
“My childhood and youth was not spent on social media so there is a slightly sobering side to this exhibition in thinking about how there has been so much change in how we present ourselves and it feels like a good moment to reflect on that.”
In My Shoes: Art and the Self since the 1990s is at the Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park until June 17. There is a full programme of events running alongside the exhibition.
For details visit www.ysp.org.uk