A kinder, gentler version of BritArt

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 June, 2011, 12:00am

The British are coming (again). Exactly 14 years after the handover, an exhibition is opening at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum entitled Made in Britain - Contemporary Art from the British Council Collection 1980-2010. It consists of about 150 pieces from the British Council's 8,500 artworks. The names of some of the artists on display - Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Gilbert & George - will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the British art scene over the past few decades.

This is not a re-run of the infamous London Sensation exhibition of 1997, when the British public discovered exactly what was meant by Young British Artist (YBA) and the Royal Academy of Arts was obliged to forewarn visitors of a nervous disposition. While one might hesitate to call the exhibition genteel - two of the Sarah Lucas self-portraits, for instance, are entitled Human Toilet and Human Toilet Revisited - the British Council's selection is on the decorous side. You'd need to be a deeply sensitive soul to find any of it sensational.

'Exactly,' says Delphine Allier, the British Council's visual arts exhibitions organiser in London. 'We haven't played it safe but we didn't want it so out-there that people would think they couldn't engage with it at all. We want to give them a flavour, not frighten them.'

Hong Kong is the exhibition's third port of call: it's already been seen at the Sichuan Provincial Museum in Chengdu and the Xian Art Museum, and in the autumn it will go to Suzhou. Naturally, the curators of each institution had distinct expectations so there was some lobbying when they gathered in London last June to discuss which pieces should be included.

'Some people wanted the bigger, showy works,' says Allier. 'We knew that managing expectations, and finding a selection that all the curators were excited about, was going to be difficult. And we had to select works that were robust enough to withstand travelling between the different venues.'

'It's lucky we were quite easygoing,' says Lo Yan-yan, the Heritage Museum's assistant curator who attended the London meeting. The Sichuan curator pressed, successfully, for Peter Doig - who has a painting and 10 etchings in the exhibition. Lo, however, was keen to choose one of Tracy Emin's drawings, There's Something Wrong.

'But it's a nude, and the British Council think the Chinese public will not accept this - they thought it was not suitable,' says Lo.

'We thought maybe she wouldn't be universally appreciated,' says Allier, carefully. 'And that work is quite slight, it might just get lost.'

Although the exhibition title suggests a span of 30 years, there are only six works from the 1980s on display, the most notable of which is Gilbert & George's Intellectual Depression. Even the press release refers to the past 20 years, ignoring the 1980s altogether, but you can see the point the British Council wants to make: it's keen to tell the story of how art and British society have become intertwined in the past three decades, and part of that tale involves the introduction of the Turner Prize (in 1984) and the launch of Charles Saatchi's gallery (in 1985) both of which fuelled the take-off of the YBA movement in the 1990s.

Anyone hoping to view pickled animals from Hirst is going to be disappointed. The Hirst contribution is his Last Supper screenprints in which medication packets are re-labelled as food (Cornish Pasty, Beans&Chips, Dumpling). There's also one of his spot paintings, Apotryptophanae.

'I think it's to do with the budget, not the politics,' says Lo. 'Shocking Damien Hirst work is too expensive for the British Council to have in its collection.' Neither are the horror-movie sculptures - depicting war, rape, cannibalism - of Jake and Dinos Chapman to be seen: the brothers are represented by untitled etchings from 2004.

Overall, however, the works certainly convey a specific era in British art. Clare Strand's 1997 Spice Girls' series and Turner Prize winner Wolfgang Tillmans' Concorde photographs have an almost fin de siecle quaintness, as do Cornelia Parker's 1998 meteorite works in which a real meteorite, found in Namibia in 1836, was heated and placed at various points (Houses of Parliament, St Paul's Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, the Millennium Dome) on a map of London.

Allier installed both the Chengdu and Xian exhibitions. 'The interest has been overwhelming,' she says. 'It's easy to think everyone knows about certain artists so coming to an audience that isn't used to this - that's seeing it for the first time - is nice. And what they want to know is very different from Western audiences . . . They usually ask, 'How much is that?'' (The British Council doesn't know exact prices but obligingly identifies the most valuable works: those by Gilbert & George and Damien Hirst.)

'But it's also interesting to see what people pick up on,' she adds. 'It's not necessarily the front runners. People get very excited by Matt Franks' Fooooom!! It's made out of cheap, available materials like polystyrene, it's fun and spontaneous, and it's such a contrast to Chinese sensibilities about art.' The Heritage Museum's Lo Yan-yan says: 'It's quite interesting that the colonial government did not put on exhibitions to show the works of British arts for many years. And after the handover, our motherland liked to show its big treasures to the Hong Kong public. Now we want to show the Hong Kong people how British artists have created artwork to show their true feelings.'

Made in Britain - Contemporary Art from the British Council Collection 1980-2010 opens at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum on June 30


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