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Damien Hirst's Shark


It must have been quite something to be at Goldsmiths during the late 1980s. Out of their doors came a raft of artists, Hirst included, who, apart from a couple of exceptions, are still working and developing ideas within the art world today.

London Docklands, where Freeze was held. © visitlondonimages/ britainonview
From their ways of self-promotion and bringing their pieces to the attention of the world superficially without the help of the established art world figures, there emerged a new breed of gallery and gallery owner. While many have closed, some of these galleries are still operating – promoting and extending the range of contemporary artists being given their big break into the art world and market. One of the most significant today is White Cube owned by Jay Jopling.

And if this were not enough, the way of working of the YBAs and the products of their imaginations created debate among critics and fellow artists. This is not so very surprising perhaps. However, this debate leaked into the tabloids, which are never normally associated with art criticism and opinions on artistic movements.

But first, who or what were these Young British Artists?

The term YBA was first coined in 1992 by Saatchi, when he began staging shows displaying his collection of work by artists who had featured in a student show called Freeze, put on in some disused offices in July 1988.

Freeze showcased the work of 16 Goldsmiths students (although 17 were listed in the catalogue). While Hirst was a mere second year, he did have more time on his hands than the others, so, although Freeze wasn’t his idea (that accolade can go to Angus Fairhurst who died in 2008), Hirst became one of the primary organisers.

The show was staged in the East End away from the West End art galleries and dealers – a case of rebellion that fitted the era perhaps. For instance, if you wanted to have a party in those days, you didn’t hire a hotel ballroom and a local DJ, you took over a warehouse and did it yourself.

Reminiscent of the atmosphere of the Swinging Sixties, what became known as the rave scene synthesised not only its own drugs (in the belief that Es were ‘good’ and could be manufactured by most average chemistry students). It also made its own music, art, fashion and ways of life. With such self-help and a culture of DIY, it comes as no surprise that art students were at the vanguard of such a culture.

However, it is not as if the Freeze organisers actually wanted necessarily to make a stab at self-promotion in a derelict building. The show that was to become Freeze was originally offered as an idea to several commercial galleries, who for some reason failed to show interest in presenting a bunch of undergraduate art students.

So the choice to house Freeze in an empty Port of London Authority office building at Surrey Docks was a reaction against this rejection, but also showed determination to do what they had set out to do.

Freeze also seems to fit in with the political mood of the time, with Thatcher’s grip on the nation spawning counter culture, fed by frustration among young people who saw their liberties under attack under the liberty of the free market and a growing lack of social cohesion. Thatcher had made it clear that public art funding was not a priority – art, like everything else would be open to the rules of the market place. And in hindsight, that proved in Hirst and Shark’s case to be very true.

A second irony involves the area in which Freeze was staged. This was becoming a hot spot for regeneration. Michael Heseltine, Thatcher’s secretary of state for the environment, had set up the London Docklands Development Corporation back in 1981. New homes in old warehouse properties and new developments on derelict sites were being converted or built, such as the Baltic Quay development and Canary Wharf.

The Surrey Docks area, where Hirst and his friends found the space for Freeze, was due for redevelopment under the auspices of this very organisation. Some of the gloss of this time of shiny office blocks and loft living was lent to Freeze through the sponsoring of the show and its catalogue. The London Docklands Development Corporation and Olympia and York, who were one of the property developers working in the area, each contributed funds.

While the young artists were trying to give the art establishment a kick with their new ways with realism and metaphor, the same art establishment was also represented at Freeze. One of the lecturers at Goldsmiths, Michael Craig-Martin, arranged for two leading figures of the public art world to attend. Nicholas Serota, who was and still is director of the Tate, and Norman Rosenthall, exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts, went along.

Rosenthall recalls that the “persistent young Hirst” came to pick him up in an old car early one morning to visit the show.

This was not the last occasion, however, that either Serota or Rosenthall were to be firmly linked into the history of the YBAs.

So, superficially, Freeze looked like a deliberate attempt to buck the trends and ways of the established art world and the art market, by being organised out of a sense of self-doing and a rejection of the mainstream. It appeared to be a kick against capitalism and the free market.

A closer look reveals that, just as the free market in drug counter culture made some people rich at the expense of the kids just wanting to have fun, so the Young British Artists were actually working within the same rules of the commercial art world - just under different guises. And as their story progressed, they made a mint out of art.