By Charles Thomson.
Gregor Muir, Lucky Kunst, Aurum Press, 2008
There is only one thing we are meant to associate with the combination of the English synonym for “fortunate” and the German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian and Estonian word for “art” in the title of Gregor Muir’s book, Lucky Kunst, so I thought I would get it out in the open from the outset. It takes me back to sniggering in the school classroom, but then this is a tome with the subtitle The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, so the infantile is a level of mentality for which one has to be prepared.
However, the book is not about the purported subject at all, which is probably the main reason it is highly readable and not an awful 237 page dirge. It should be re-subtitled The Rise and Fall of Gregor Muir, whose rite of passage takes place through an infatuation with Young British Art, the major proponents of which pop up in cameos throughout to support his starring role. Don’t act with animals, children or Gregor is the lesson to be learnt here, or at least, if you do, then don’t let him get his hands on the script afterwards. The compelling story line is not how the Goldsmiths’ students became Turner winners and Venice Biennale exhibitors, but how Muir is constantly broke. That he should be so at the beginning of the tale as a recent art graduate in 1987 is no surprise, but regardless of his increasing presence as a writer in the right magazines, a curator of art stars, and sponsorship by the British Council for art junkets abroad, he remains astonishingly impecunious.
In 1992 on page 52, he is “totally broke” with holes in both the heels and toes of his socks. By page 136 (his date alignment can be a tad erratic, so page numbers are safer) he is a regular diner at the hip and louche Atlantic in the West End, but is still “stoney broke”, rejoicing to find a fiver on the pavement, followed by a tenner and a twenty pound note, as they drop from the pocket of a careless tourist. Five pages later he is a regular at the Venus in Old Compton Street, but has to wait till the first tubes start running in the morning, because he has spent all his taxi money on beer. By page 170, he has moved from Notting Hill to Shoreditch, and, lacking any heat in his warehouse accommodation, spends his winter days getting warm in the Barley Mow pub and being fed by the owners on egg and chips, when he, predictably, has “no money”. It is not until 1997 and page 204, when he comments on the Sensation exhibition: “The unimaginable was happening; history was being made, and I finally had a few quid in my pocket.” Note the confident equality of the two events.
Alternating with his egocentric historical pocket, there is an engaging and disarming humility and self-deprecation. Having stated in the introduction with the modesty of prefect in the school magazine that “to suggest that I went on to become a leading figure in the development of YBA would be misleading … However, as an occasional spokesman my input was not entirely without merit,” he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge – indeed seems not even to realise – that he has achieved a position in the art world which most aspiring careerists will grovel towards for decades and never attain. He sees himself forever in the shade, after abandoning from the outset his own ambitions as an artist, when he is overawed by a rotting cow’s head and several thousand dead flies plonked by Damien Hirst in a glass box.
In latter days, exiled at his computer keyboard to reconstitute the intoxication of the wild unmissable wasted days of his youth, Muir comes not to bury Damien, but to praise him, yet has managed to wreak a brilliantly funereal revenge, as the Pooterish pedestallisation of every activity in the YBA orbit gives rise to an entirely different – though doubtless not consciously intended – reading of the text as a hilarious satire on the upstart idiots that populate it. Muir’s plain-spoken self-put down as “a bit of a nerd in that I kept all my press releases, invite cards, catalogues and newspaper articles” touches a human nerve and makes the Chapmans look like pretentious twats, when they proclaim themselves to be “sore-eyed scopophiliac oxymorons”, although the last two syllables strike home. Muir’s stunned disbelief at his perceived good fortune to be present during the bean-feast results in recurrent absurdities, such as this classic summary of Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living: “While the shark remains a remarkable sculptural effort, it also confirms the importance of a single telephone call” – an aspect of its significance hitherto overlooked by the most penetrating of contemporary critics and an astoundingly Zen insight into it.
This is followed by Muir’s curatorial decision in 1997 to present at the ICA “an exhibition that, to the uninitiated, didn’t seem to contain any art at all,” the highlight of which is Sarah Lucas’s giant wave in a minuscule brain to go, says Muir, “one step further” than Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 disconnected urinal and upstage the upstart Dadaist by displaying “fully operating toilets … as one might expect to encounter them in everyday life.” A toilet was duly plumbed in as the star attraction of Lucas’s display. When Charles Saatchi encountered it, “his face visibly lit up” and he was “amazed”, looking at it “from every angle,” smirking and sometimes letting out “a grunt of mild amusement”. I am, by the way, not making this up, though I did begin to question if Muir was, when he wondered anxiously whether Saatchi might not have “quite grasped the piece in its entirety”, and suggested helpfully, “You know it flushes?” – at which the multimillionaire collector tentatively pulled down the lever to produce the remarkable result of water swirling into the pan. Muir notes with evident satisfaction and with every indication it should be read at face value: “Saatchi looked at me wide-eyed with astonishment and mouthed the word wow.”
Along with Muir’s ongoing impecuniousness is the story line of his painful progress from being an outsider at the end of exhibitions – when the insiders slope off for the invite-only after-show dinner – to being the recipient of such invites himself, until finally in 1995 he receives his pass to the Holy of Holies, the Turner Prize dinner: “I gasped in disbelief and immediately called my mother.” It is hard not to empathise: I am sure I would do exactly the same, although inexplicably the occasion has not yet arisen, despite my dutiful presence outside the Tate for the last eight years. Maybe it was the placard saying “The Turner Prize is crap” that let me down.
A third theme which accompanies the narrative, like the beat of a bass drum, is getting drunk. It would seem to be the main mode of social interaction for anyone in the YBA entourage, presumably in the absence of the minimal intimacy required to have a conversation. Getting drunk occurs on every possible occasion in every possible location, sometimes rendering its participants incapable of finding their way to a bed and having instead to make use of a park bench or once, at the Cologne Art Fair in 1993, what turned out in the morning to be a shop window display overlooking the main street. This is the occasion, as Matthew Collings in The Observer and Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times both recount in their reviews, when Jake Chapman swapped around the paintings from the stands of two rival art galleries. What Collings and Januszczak fail to mention about this heroic intervention is its immediate slump into bathos, when Muir sees the action as being “very unwise indeed” and possibly leading to their being deported (though that seems unlikely), and Chapman promptly puts all the paintings back where they were in the first place.
Andrew Renton, currently Director of MFA Curating at Goldsmiths College, gets a quick mention to establish his pedigree as a fully paid up member of the art establishment as far back as 1991, when he curated a show at the Anderson O’Day gallery in Notting Hill with YBAs, Abigail Lane, Sam Taylor-Wood and Jake Chapman. Renton has continued his career with sycophancy sufficiently guaranteed to make him one of the few people to have been granted an interview with Charles Saatchi, and in 2004 in the Evening Standard managed to exonerate Tracey Emin’s churlishness and Stella Vine’s waywardness with the rationale that we should permit artists “to be unreasonable and selfish”, while in intervening paragraphs damning me as “confused”, “complaining” and a few other things for reporting Saatchi to the Office of Fair Trading. The Standard published my letter in response enquiring if there were two sets of rules, one for Saatchi artists and another for Stuckist artists, which of course there are.
In 1994, the British Council, a registered charity and non-departmental government body (i.e. with similar standing to the Tate), whose job is to promote British culture abroad, involved Muir (still penniless of course) in a show of YBAs, General Release, which was staged at the following year’s Venice Biennale. The exhibitions officer of the council was Ann Gallagher, ex-Anthony Reynolds gallery (which represents Mark Wallinger), “much liked by everyone” and a habituée of show openings, but – we are reassured – despite her government employment “she continued to speak the same language as everyone else.” Muir doesn’t say exactly who “everyone” is (but presumably not everyone), nor what “same language” Gallagher continued to speak (was she in danger of trotting out Swahili perhaps?), but I have some insight into both conundrums thanks to one of her colleagues, whom Muir names as Brett Rogers.
In 2001, when I stood in the General Election as a Stuckist candidate in Islington South and Finsbury against then-Culture Minister, Chris Smith, I was contacted by a surprised journalist from the Jornal do Brasil, a leading Brazilian newspaper, and informed that he had phoned up the British Council and spoken to Brett Rogers, the then-Head of Visual Arts, who – doing her best to give a good impression of the open-mindedness of British culture and its acceptance of challenging diversity – told him that he should not be writing about the Stuckists, because they were an aberration in the art world. When I then phoned her, she told me that the Stuckists were a joke promulgated by Billy Childish and me, that we had painted all the pictures ourselves, and that we had made up names to do so – such as “Joe Machine” – which were obviously not real.
The Jornal reported she had called the Stuckists “grotesque”, as they only wanted self-promotion and publicity. This is obviously not a flaw of the YBAs, since even by the mid-nineties, as Muir records enthusiastically, the British Council had supported “an impressive number of YBA group shows worldwide, including Copenhagen, Baden Baden, Houston, Melbourne, Minneapolis, Paris, Rome, Sydney, Tokyo, Venice and Wolfsburg.” Joe Machine told me he was happy to meet with Brett Rogers “to settle any reservations she might have that I am a work of fiction”, and thought her name sounded like one made up by an out of work porn star.
It is odd that the book promises the rise and fall of Young British Art, as the YBAs have risen but not fallen, and are now ensconsed as impeccably-credentialled establishment figures, carefully putting their finishing touches to the complete domination of, amongst other places, the Royal Academy, though I suppose that is the place where artists are traditionally put out to graze. The notion of the fall of the YBAs is in fact a wonderful conceit, as the only thing it applies to is Muir’s change of mind towards them. Throughout the book he expresses a schizoid ambivalence. The positive side is recurrently affirmed as excitement, such as the time Jake Chapman solved the problem of a key stuck in the lock by smashing his fist through the window, the consequence of which was a jet of blood arcing into the gallery within, and the aftermath of which was everyone present getting blindingly drunk (of course) and trashing the place, somehow managing at least to leave the artwork intact.
Chapman is not shown to express any concern about any of this and there is no hint that anyone else does either, apart from Muir, who concludes the world he inhabits is “prone to bouts of complete craziness” and the constant search for free beer had turned them into “a bunch of demented monkeys.” The next morning he asks one of the exhibiting artists, who had missed the zoo outing, not to be angry with him, and buries his head in the pillow with a sigh. Perhaps there is a cumulative weakening effect on his commitment by such experiences, compounded by the turning against Brit Art of previous supporters such as Collings and The Guardian critic, Adrian Searle, as well as the emergence of the mocking art collective, Bank, though Muir remains completely oblivious to the existence of Stuckism, or rather, I suspect, he is prudently not oblivious of Emin’s vetoing the merest mention of its association with her. As she has, he tells us, managed to alienate most of her contemporaries through her “caustic tongue and hair-raising social skills”, he probably wants to spare her from being in the tragic position of having to discard one more of her few remaining friends for a major transgression of her imperative.
What finally breaks his addiction to the ersatz numinosity is not the fall of the YBAs, but their triumph, as Sam Taylor-Wood accompanies Jay Jopling into the airless stratosphere of the rich and famous, and, even worse, Muir sees a slide show of his comrades in full posing mode for the cameras at the launch of the Sensation show. This surprisingly surprises him; in fact he cringes at the back of the room with the thought that the YBAs’ association with “feckless celebrities would ultimately impact on their street credibility”, suggesting even that it could be a struggle to see “the connection between art and celebrity.” Muir is not quite on the same planet as most people, but he is not even in the same solar system as the YBAs.
At last he concludes that, being middle-aged, he can no longer continue living life as a teenager, and finds that all he owns, apart from his flat, is a decrepit computer and a malfunctioning 1970s television set. Finally we are let into the secret of his constant cash flow crisis: he doesn’t have a credit card. All of this is in stark contrast to the careers of those for whom he has given up his own creative endeavours in order to be a camp follower. He decides to join the real world, although some might find his solution somewhat at odds with his intention: he becomes a curator at the Tate.
It is a great shame that he stops short of detailing his time there, as it would have made a wonderful conclusion – following the extensive narration of his friendships with Angus Fairhurst, Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin – to have documented how, as the Kramlich Curator of Contemporary Art, he co-curated the show, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vidda, featuring Angus Fairhurst, Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst, and negotiated the acquisition of eight works – most of them, by the way, highly derivative of Billy Childish – by Tracey Emin for £250,000, as well as acting as the Tate’s spokesperson with such laudations as “There is no denying Emin’s importance within the history of recent British art.” I would like to get it on record that there is the denying of Emin’s importance, and I hereby do so: she has very little importance within the history of recent British art. I concede, though, that she has managed to inveigle a lot of slavering dupes into thinking that she does.
Muir’s grand finale is the 2004 Momart fire, despite the claim of the book’s press release – obviously written by someone who hasn’t read the book (and repeated in some write-ups, also by people who obviously haven’t read it either) – that it finishes with the Sensation show in 1997. Muir tells us that, on hearing the news the Chapman’s tableau Hell had been totally destroyed in the fire, “people gasped in disbelief” (and many more in relief, of course). Hell, with its thousands of plastic toy soldiers may well have been a fine achievement of labour in the chronicles of model making, but it was psychologically, conceptually and spiritually throwaway, as much as Emin’s cindered tent, Lucas’s prosaically flushing toilet and Hirst’s self-rotting shark.
It is ironic that, having dismissed his own ability in favour of the peddlers of ephemera, superficiality and gimmick, Muir has recycled his lost libido to create the only penetrating, insightful, analytical, durable, bearable, honest, mature and human work to have emerged from the dismal decade of the YBAs, when not only, as he put it, “art could be sold like cars or watches”, but the watches were fakes and the cars were write-offs. When that realisation dawns, as it inevitably will, on those who paid somewhat over the odds for their imitation Rolexes and clapped out Rovers, Muir’s text will still remain readable as an illuminating and often extremely funny voyage of Candide through the end of the twentieth century, not least because it seems to have been written by two people speaking to each other without, for most of the journey, listening to each other, but having no option eventually except to find a resolution to their differences or exhaust themselves. They have collaborated, regardless of their inclinations, not only on the book but on neatly synthesising their polarity with a transparently coded title. One of them mechanically squeaks like a Kylie loop that the dramatis personae within are lucky, lucky, lucky, and the other one plainly tells you they are cunts.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charles Thomson was the only person in 10 years to fail the painting degree at Maidstone College of Art. In 1979, he was a founder member of The Medway Poets, and then a full-time poet for 13 years, with work in over 100 anthologies. In 1999 he named, co-founded and has since been the driving force of the Stuckism movement, which now numbers more than 150 groups in 38 countries. He has demonstrated for eight years outside the Turner Prize, and in 2005 applied under the Freedom of Information Act for Tate trustee minutes about the gallery’s purchase of its trustee Chris Ofili’s work. This led in 2006 to the Charity Commission’s ruling that the Tate had been acting illegally for the last 50 years. His painting satirising Sir Nicholas Serota, whose face peers over a large pair of (Tracey Emin’s) red knickers, is a well-known image. He was briefly married to artist Stella Vine in 2001.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 2nd, 2009.