Thursday, June 28, 2012

Gagosian's art police close ranks to protect Hirst's flayed saint

I visited the Masterpiece fine art fair in Chelsea today to report it for the US press. The fair is essentially a carbon copy of the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht but with the Dutch charm of TEFAF replaced by a hefty dollop of London snobbery. Where Maastricht comes across as stylish, welcoming, expansive and friendly, Masterpiece is snooty, stand-offish and socially constipated. But it's probably different if you're stinking rich. I guess it's all in the body language.

Earlier in the day I'd been wondering how the traders at Barclays and other banks spent all the cash they syphoned out of the system by fraudulently manipulating the LIBOR inter-bank lending rate. Now I know. They taxi over to fairs like Masterpiece and pump all their ill-gotten gains into Riva power boats, Rolls Royces and kitsch contemporary art. The Rolls Royce on display had lambswool carpeting in the boot to 'cosset' your luxury luggage.

The whole laughable jamboree is staged in a massive marquee the size of Ukraine, the façade of which is made to look like a Georgian terrace (above left).
The Ghost of St Bartolomew at Masterpiece

And then there's the art police. I emerged from one of the wide avenues to find myself in a huge open space in the centre of the marquee. To the left was a champagne bar the length of the QE2, to the right a neon sign for Le Caprice restaurant and everywhere there were banquettes on which the poor exhausted millionaires can languish and pour Ruinart fizz down their parched Ultra High Net Worth Throats (UHNWTs). It resembled the Business Class lounge at Heathrow.

Looking out over this elegant scene was a gold-plated écorché figure by Damien Hirst, way up on a pedestal. It's called St Bartholemew and the last time I saw him he was flat on his back at the Pangolin bronze foundry in Gloucestershire being lovingly burnished by one of the foundry's devoted staff. So I'm accustomed to the shiny flayed chappie with his skin draped over his arm, bless him.

I reached for my camera — not, I hasten to add, to photograph the Hirst, which I have enough images of already, thank you — but to take a shot of this incomprehensibly vast public space in the centre of the marquee. Where TEFAF would be heaving by 11am most days, this place was as deserted as a De Chirico piazza.

No sooner had I taken the shot when two unfeasibly well-groomed 20-something supermodel types materialised out of nowhere, hair flowing, Colgate fangs bared.

"Excuse me," they brayed in cut-crystal Manhattan Wasp accents, "You can't photograph that."
"Can't photograph what?" I asked, genuinely baffled.
"The sculpture," they said, gesturing towards the Hirst.
"I wasn't taking a picture of that," I replied. "I was photographing this huge public space."
"This is a project space," they hissed in unison. "If you want to photograph the sculpture you need to apply to the Gagosian Gallery for permission. We hold the rights. You can't publish it anywhere without permission."
"Ah, I see, you hold the rights. I'm very pleased for you," I said. "How much is it? The sculpture, I mean." (I knew they wouldn't tell.)
"We can't disclose the price."
"But if I was Brad Pitt and asked you, would you tell me then?"
"Brad Pitt wouldn't need to ask and we wouldn't want anyone knowing the price of the works he buys either," they sneered, entirely missing the point.
"Can I touch it?" I said, now determined to provoke.
"No, you can't. It would damage the surface of the work. It's gold-plated on solid silver and it's very fragile."
"Ah, so hang on, let me get this straight. I can't touch it, I can't photograph it, I'm not allowed to know the price of it. Are you sure I'm even allowed to look at it? What's the point of it?"

They looked me up and down as they would a dog turd that had suddenly materialised on the lovely Masterpiece carpet.

I strolled away. The two Gagosian shop assistants resumed their sentry positions on the nearby banquette, hauteur intact. St Bartholomew looked calmly out over the deserted champagne bar.

They really need to keep riff-raff like me away from the luxury goods.

(I have removed the St Bartholomew from the image above, not out of obedience to the delusional Gagosian Gallery, but because the scene looks better without it, illustrating the vacuousness of the contemporary art market.)

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