Sex, psychos and sharks: did Britart change the world?

Now establishment figures, the YBAs were enfants terribles when they first caused a sensation, so why was their work deemed so revolutionary?

Twenty-five years ago Damien Hirst put a 13ft tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde and Marc Quinn created a frozen cast of his head from nine pints of his own blood. At around the same time the British adman and collector Charles Saatchi was turning his attention away from American and German art towards a ragtag bunch of artists emerging on his home turf. He paid £12,000 for Quinn’s Self and £50,000 for Hirst to translate his beer mat sketches of a shark into the reality of an Australian fisherman’s catch, eventually to enter the gallery space as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

The Young British Artists are today synonymous with celebrity and fortune – Hirst is the richest artist in the world and Quinn’s works sell for millions. But to focus simply on market success ignores the kaleidoscopic diversity of art produced by arguably the most important group to emerge in Britain since the pre-Raphaelites. “Suddenly it felt like there was this home-grown movement, energy, art being made here, that was really relevant and in-the-moment,” says the gallerist Sadie Coles. “It felt like London could become a contemporary city instead of being a postwar, miserable, unsophisticated backwater.”

The Britart phenomenon began with Freeze, the exhibition precociously organised by Hirst in 1988 in a derelict Docklands warehouse, while he was still a student at Goldsmiths College. It featured now well-known names such as Sarah Lucas, Michael Landy, Gary Hume and Fiona Rae, and among the small number of people who attended were enough tastemakers for it to have a lasting impact. In a move as brazen as his art, Hirst invited the Tate director Nicholas Serota and brought Norman Rosenthal, then exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy of Arts, to the show in a taxi.

Bunny by Sarah Lucas (1997)
Bunny by Sarah Lucas (1997). Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

“It was a revolution,” the Serpentine Gallery’s co-director Julia Peyton-Jones says. “It really taught me something about vision, ambition, desire and attitude.”

This revolution expanded to include artists from other colleges, such as Rachel Whiteread, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Gavin Turk, Tracey Emin, Mark Wallinger, Douglas Gordon and later waves of Goldsmiths graduates including Sam Taylor-Wood (now Taylor-Johnson) and Gillian Wearing.

Shows began popping up every week in alternative spaces, from disused warehouses to empty shops. Drawing on recent art history, advertising and media, the artists created outlandish works made from blood, chocolate, waxworks, elephant dung, Time Out advertisements and kebabs. Sensing good copy, the mainstream press came on board, and as the artists’ fame grew their personalities became as widely covered as their art.

Early on they were promoted around the world by the British Council as a group, although there was no overarching aesthetic to their work. They quickly gained a reputation for being enfants terribles – and lived up to it. At the 1995 show Brilliant!, at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis (or in Emin’s words, “Minnefuckinghellholeshittingapolis”), Emin exhibited her tent sewn with the names of everyone she had ever slept with. When she tried to remove it, because it was installed in a noisy space, she was informed she wasn’t allowed to take it off the premises. “I was told by the curator that, with my attitude, I would never show in an American museum again,” she says. And his prophecy proved true for nearly two decades.

Most people in this small London scene knew each other, exhibited together and many slept together. “Damien did actually once do a chart showing how, if one of us was sick, we were all going to die,” jokes Liam Gillick, who went to Goldsmiths but was excluded from Freeze because of his rivalry with Hirst, who was going out with his ex-girlfriend, Angela Bulloch.

After the exhibition Hirst teamed up with his Leeds mate Carl Freedman and his girlfriend Billee Sellman to form a cosy menage-a-trois – both professionally and personally. They packaged themselves as “pop star curators” and located a cavernous former biscuit factory called Building One that would be the site of three influential shows in 1990 – Modern Medicine, Gambler and Market.

At Gambler Hirst presented what some critics consider his best work, A Thousand Years, containing a life cycle of flies within two vitrines, which can be seen as a metaphor for human existence. The painter Francis Bacon was reportedly mesmerised when he saw the piece.

Soon afterwards Hirst met the young dealer Jay Jopling, who was by that time working with Quinn, and their alliance was born. Although from opposite ends of the economic and class spectrum, Hirst and Jopling shared a magnetic charisma, fierce ambition and zest for risk. Their bond survived Hirst stealing Jopling’s girlfriend Maia Norman. So strong was it that Sam Taylor-Wood, who was married to Jopling from 1997 to 2008, says ‘I always described Damien as Camilla [Parker-Bowles] … he was the third person,’ referring to Princess Diana’s much publicised comment about her failed marriage to Prince Charles.

Self (1991) by Marc Quinn.
Self (1991) by Marc Quinn. Photograph: Marc Quinn Studio

Jopling opened his White Cube gallery in St James’s in 1993, and hosted shows such as Emin’s first solo exhibition, My Major Retrospective. Equally important was the dealer Karsten Schubert, who put on a string of must-see exhibitions such as Anya Gallaccio’s Stroke, for which she coated the gallery walls in chocolate. Lucas and Emin opened their Shop on Bethnal Green Road for six months as a sort of performance-cum-studio-cum-social-venue for making art and lots of drinking. In Shoreditch the idealistic young impresario Joshua Compston staged bohemian village fetes in which many of the artists participated.

Looking back, it is amazing how many memorable artworks came out of that period: Jake and Dinos Chapmans’ penis-nosed child mannequins may look like old friends these days, but many found Fuck Face shocking when it made its debut in 1994. Dinos was tasked with delivering the artwork to their genteel gallerist Victoria Miro. “I unwrapped it and I’ve never been in such a silent place,” he recalls. “I was told that as soon as I walked out she put a tea towel on its head.”

Lucas’s trademark “bunnies”, with their legs splayed on chairs like submissive secretaries, took form as she was hanging her off-site show The Law in 1997. She fished out a pair of stuffed tights from an aborted effort at making a tortoise and a hare. “I stuck them on a chair so I could have a look at them and just thought, ‘Fucking hell, look at that’. It was one of those eureka moments,” she recalls.

Britart is often associated with such in-your-face works, but its range was enormously diverse. It encompassed visions as distinctive as Michael Landy’s Market, an installation of empty stalls made from stacked bread crates; Gordon’s slowed-down 24-hour version of Hitchcock’s Psycho; Jane and Louise Wilson’s psychological explorations of historic buildings through film and photography; and Wallinger’s Ecce Homo, a sculpture of Jesus as an ordinary man that was the first piece on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London.

Wearing’s Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say, in which random people in the street were asked to hold up signs saying what they felt, has become a cultural trope, imitated innumerable times in adverts and social media.

The period is punctuated by markers such as Whiteread’s Turner prize win in 1993 for her cast of an entire house in London’s East End, the Royal Academy show Sensation in 1997 and the launch of Tate Modern in 2000.

Ecce Homo  (1999), a contemporary life-size figure of a shaven headed and beardless Christ by Mark Wallinger
Ecce Homo (1999) by Mark Wallinger. Photograph: Paul Hackett / Reuters

Sensation, showcasing Saatchi’s collection, was the high-water mark of the Britart phenomenon. A scandal erupted around Marcus Harvey’s painting of the child killer Myra Hindley made with children’s handprints. Tabloids whipped things up by involving the mothers of the Moors murder victims. Four Royal Academicians resigned in protest at its inclusion, there were demonstrations and the painting was vandalised twice. The show drew nearly 300,000 people, breaking records for a contemporary art exhibition at the RA.

Besides the controversy over Whiteread’s ‘House’, which was eventually demolished by Bow Council, the artist endured an even greater furore over her powerful monument to Holocaust victims in Vienna. Ostensibly a library lined with hundreds of books facing outwards for all the lost lives of the People of the Book, it also resembled a bunker. ‘Of course it was also meant to look like a bunker as well as being a library,’ Whiteread admits. ‘…but if I had said “Yes, this is what I”m doing because I’m absolutely criticising you lot,” it wouldn’t have happened. So I had to be very sneaky about how I approached it.’ However, if Whiteread felt in control in the early days, that soon changed. When the memorial was finally unveiled, snipers were posted on the rooftops. ‘I literally fainted’ says Whiteread. ‘My name wasn’t even mentioned at the opening of it. Because it wasn’t about me, it was about politics.’

In the new millenium, the Britart movement went out of fashion. Critics grew tired of the overexposure and commercialisation of the work, which in the more sober, politically conscious age started to feel too big, too brash and too ironic.

However, it’s clear that the movement had a profound impact, and democratised art by creating work that caught the public imagination. “An engagement with contemporary art in Britain was its massive legacy,” says Matthew Slotover, co-founder of Frieze magazine and Frieze art fair. Testament to this is the immense popularity of Tate Modern and dynamic new regional art venues such as the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. But despite its impact on the British cultural scene and the media, few would argue that Britart radically altered the direction of art. “Was the change as fundamental as some of the changes wrought by Picasso with cubism or Duchamp? No,” says Serota. “But was it a significant step forward? Yes.” The real revolution of the period was in attitude: the YBAs had confidence in their talent and felt entitled to show their work how they wanted. They also put to bed the perception of the artist as white, male and independently wealthy, as personified by the likes of Anthony Caro or Lucian Freud. “Essentially what was great about YBAs was just the sheer demographic of people who were making art,” says Jane Wilson.

In 2004 the YBAs’ one-time champion Saatchi embarked on a huge sell-off of his Britart collection, which was widely seen as the final nail in the coffin for the movement. The American hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen reportedly bought Quinn’s blood head for £1.5m and Hirst’s shark for £6.4m – a tidy profit on Saatchi’s initial outlay.

But the YBAs didn’t go away. Many are now grandees of the British art establishment – an extraordinary achievement considering the bleak prospects they faced setting out. Lucas represented Britain at last year’s Venice Biennale; Hirst, having created the world’s most expensive artwork with his £50m diamond encrusted skull, has just opened his own museum; Wallinger, the Chapmans, Wearing, Emin, Gordon, Landy and Hume are often included in major exhibitions in Britain and abroad. And among the new generation of artists, no comparable group has emerged to replace Britart.

“If you talk about pop art and minimalism, abstract expressionism, and then you look at the time frame, what’s really shocking is it was five, six, seven years and then that moment is over,” says Schubert. “What’s extraordinary about this one is that it carried on for the longest time. It feels like nothing has taken its place. Now that’s an odd phenomenon.”

• Artrage! The Story of the Britart Revolution by Elizabeth Fullerton is published by Thames & Hudson on 3 May. To order a copy for £19.96 (RRP £24.95) go to or call 0330 333 6846.

Elizabeth Fullerton

The GuardianTramp

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