Post Pop: East Meets West – Saatchi Gallery

The Saatchi Gallery really is one of the most relaxed art venues in London. It’s free, eclectic, random, inspiring and most of all liberating to visit. When it comes to displaying art, I want to have my cake and eat it; if I’m paying I want to see a sensibly curated collection of works that make a clear and substantiated argument about the artist or period the exhibition is claiming to reflect. As I walk around I want to see each piece justify its place and the sections build on one another so that I leave not just having seen some beautiful things, but actually knowing more about them. My major grip with so many paid exhibitions is that this almost never turns out to be the case.

The other approach is quite the opposite and one which the Saatchi Gallery excels at; thematically group pieces together and leave me to make what I will of them. The only signs I want to see tell me the name of the piece, its artist and maybe what it’s made of. In literature, whole schools of thought are dedicated to examining the concept of the reader and how your own background, experiences and influences affect the meaning you take from say a novel – meanings the original author may not have purposefully put there. There is a separate engagement between the reader and the page. The same is true of art; what the artist was expressing may not be what I then see. So, the Saatchi Gallery leaves you and the item together, with almost no artist in the way, and your interpretation is the focus.

This latest exhibition taps into a recent trend for Pop Art exhibitions – we’ve had Lichtenstein at the Tate and Pop Art Design at the Barbican. Here the Saatchi Gallery gives it a new twist by showing how Pop Art was interpreted and reflected by eastern artists, especially from Russia, Taiwan and China, mixing this with work from the UK and America. It’s arranged in  themes, across gallery rooms on three floors and displays pieces from all these countries side by side, regardless of year in what feels (appropriately for Pop Art) like a giant warehouse. I love this approach, if something catches you eye, stop and engage with it, if not pass by to something else; spend 30 minutes in there or 3 hours it’s that relaxed.

First up is ‘Habitat’ taking Pop Art’s focus on the mass-produced everyday item including Ai Weiwie’s marble armchair which looks both comfy and forbidding at the same time, as do Rachel Whiteread’s back-to-front shelf of burned books. Here the concentration is more on a crumbling consumer culture; everything is shabby, broken or not even complete – like a rusty hoover whose mechanical parts seem to have been expelled in front of it, or a deliberately unfinished dining room installation which is a mass of wooden boards, painters’ tools and boxes.  What is this telling us, well that’s up to you, but perhaps encouraging us to consider both the hidden parts and the process of constructing a consumerist society.

Then you move into ‘Advertising and Consumerism’ to see some video games from Taiwan and fake advertising posters for a white Circle, Square and Triangle sold as the latest piece of art for the office or home. In ‘Religion and Ideology’ the room is dominated by a number of bowing figures in black robes. They mechanically pray to the artwork in front of them, and each moving at different times is almost alarmingly real. Behind them is the bubbling Last Supper – a model immersed in a fizzy liquid (potentially urine like its neighbour!!) and photographed – which is imagined in black and white across 5 large prints, impressive and strangely appealing. The ideology section also plays with the image of dictators like Stalin who crops up a few times, most notably as a giant red sculpture holding hands with Mickey Mouse and Jesus.

The remaining sections are ‘Celebrity and Mass Media’, ‘Art History’ and ‘Sex and the Body’ – the latter not really suitable for children, although it does contain a piece made of bottles some of which are partially filled, so from above looks like a splayed figure; it was innovative and I really liked it. Remember to go to the top floor as there’s some pretty interesting stuff including images of cooked meats and bread on a table and plate, sounds random but the way they are arranged and photographed is really interesting. Also up there is Oleg Kulik’s tennis player in mid-serve suspended in a glass case which has been on some of the advertising which is fascinating in a Damien Hirst kind of way.

This venue has lots of different levels and galleries, so it’s easy to miss something; one spectacle to look out for (or not if you’re of a queasy disposition) is the room of United Nations flags. They have been arranged in ‘corridors’ that you walk around as well as being draped from the ceiling and main walls to enclose you. The caveat – each one is constructed from human hair which is disgusting and as clear a statement on the personal link to Pop Art as you’ll see in this exhibition.

Post Pop: East Meets West is an abundance of work loosely arranged some of which you’ll like, some not. The great thing about the Saatchi Gallery is that’s the point, you’ll come out feeling you’ve seen some interesting things, learnt a bit, been engaged, repulsed and fascinated. The best bit is it’s all on your own terms, just you and the art with nothing in between. Clear you mind and enjoy.

Post Pop: East Meets West is at the Saatchi Gallery until 3 March. Entrance is free. Follow this blog on Twitter: @cultualcap1

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog is for people looking for more discursive and in-depth reviews of a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. I am also part of the London theatre review team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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