LONDON — Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus,” dedicated to the now-green giant standing in New York’s harbor, famously requests:
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, your homeless tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Gavin Turk, a formerly-young British artist, is more succinct. His piece “American Bag” (2015) consists of a bulging trash bag painted bronze. Elsewhere in Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery, a dirty sleeping bag, emptied of its resident but still suggesting the form of a body in uncomfortable repose, rests upstairs — the piece is titled “Nomad” (2002). Fifteen years ago, such a work could have been tongue-in-cheek, maybe even subversive, but given the uncertain status of refugees in Europe and much of the rest of the world, it feels downright depressing. This is neither to put too fine a point on the political situation regarding the status of migrants in the United States and abroad, nor to blithely condemn Turk for something that’s clearly beyond his control — the show is, after all, a retrospective of his work over the past 25 years. It is the nature of retrospectives that the works contained within them adopt new meanings in alternative social and political climates. The heyday of the YBAs was characterized by a sense of eternal promise buoyed by a tumescent art market that rewarded artistic excess. In Turk’s case, his works take on an air of historical artifact, but without much of a history to appeal to.
The works in Who What When Where Why are all drawn from Hirst’s personal collection, and Turk had a hand in curating the show, including the 1991 work “Cave.” At Newport Street, like in previous iterations, it is installed high on a blank white wall in a blank white room as an homage to Plato’s allegory of the cave. Modeled after the ‘historical blue’ informational markers located around London, the circular ceramic plaque cheekily commemorates the three years that Turk spent studying for a Masters at the Royal College of Art, from which he infamously was refused a degree. This failure on his part was a blessing in disguise; Charles Saatchi immediately bought up much of the young artist’s work and included Turk in his exhibition Sensation, enshrining him among the Young British Artists, alongside Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Tracey Emin.
Evidence of Turk’s art historical education, however, runs clear through the retrospective. He is a master of the homage, the pastiche, and the citation. The museum’s ground floor contains a room whose walls are lined with very convincing renditions of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings as well as four large, Robert Morris-esque glass cubes. Upon closer inspection, each painting contains one of the letters of Turk’s signature. In another gallery, Turk’s signature is rendered in stainless steel, dotted with sponges soaked in Yves Klein Blue. The entirety of the scribbled name is only visible from one angle, a riff on Hans Holbein’s famous memento mori that haunts his painting, “The Ambassadors” (1533).
Everything in the Turk retrospective is a matter of being in on the joke. References pile up but ultimately lead to the same conclusion, that, to borrow Andy Warhol’s wry encapsulation, art is “what you can get away with.” There’s been speculation about what has happened to the YBAs now that they’ve grown up — Jeremy Cooper’s 2012 book, Growing Up: The Young British Artists at 50, tackles this directly — but of more concern is who exactly Turk imagines as his audience. For someone who is fixated on, as the gallery claims in its press release, “ideas surrounding origin and authenticity,” Turk seems intent on eradicating not only the idea that artists are able to produce things that provoke new and original discussion, but also on eliminating the distinction between public and private discourse. A retrospective is perhaps not the best indicator of exactly how Turk thinks now, but the decision to host one, particularly at Newport Street, suggests that he is content with continuing his conversation inside its own bubble. This criticism isn’t to suggest that Turk is obligated to make — or that Hirst should necessarily exhibit — work that is germane to the politics of the day; aesthetic solutions aren’t designed for political problems. However, what stands to be critiqued is the fact that the exhibition is a celebration of Turk’s cleverness, not his growth. Resting on this achievement alone is an exercise in schoolboy smarm.
In a lecture titled “Andy Warhol’s Wig,” art critic Christopher Knight examined Warhol’s career trajectory and personal hairstyles to argue that Warhol was not concerned with critiquing US society and pop culture, but critiquing a more hermetic art society and art culture. He cited as an example “129 Die in Jet!,” Warhol’s 1962 painting that references the Air France flight to Atlanta that crashed, resulting in the deaths of many prominent art critics, collectors, and patrons of the High Museum. Knight also suggested that Warhol’s wig was a sly joke at Willem de Kooning’s silver hair, a dig at his more prominent and conventionally successful contemporary. An upstairs gallery at Newport Street contains walls plastered with a Warhol-esque screenprint of Turk’s mouth, effectively replacing Marilyn Monroe. Also hung on these walls are paintings after Warhol’s screenprint of Elvis Presley wielding a revolver, except this time it’s Turk dressed as Sid Vicious. Warhol argued for getting away with art, but he also commented notoriously on everyone’s 15 minutes of future fame. Perhaps Turk’s time is up.