YBA’s and Conceptual Art


Pharmakeia is set in the iconic year of 1997, when Tony Blair came to power with Nu Labour and Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. The late nineties were when conceptual art really took off in the UK. ‘Sensation’ was held at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997, exhibiting the contemporary art of Charles Saatchi. Yong British Artist, Damien Hirst, exhibited his shark suspended in formaldehyde solution, entitled ‘The Physical Impossiblity of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. Another YBA, Tracey Emin, exhibited that infamous tent, ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With’, and Marcus Harvey’s ‘Myra’ (a portrait of child murderer Myra Hindley) was also on display.

The penultimate chapter of ‘Pharmakeia’ takes place at White Cube gallery, then situated in Duke Street, St James. It was famous for curating artists with international appeal and YBA artists. This, of course, is where Mahvand exhibits his shocking and blasphemous pieces of work, including a fibreglass statue of Christ being buggered by a shepherd’s crook. It was important that the works of art were transgressive as they were the culmination of Sex Magick practice. (Read the book!) Although there were plenty of transgressive or blasphemous pieces of art at the time, including Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ and the Chapman Brothers ‘Fuck Face’.

 ‘Piss Christ’ by Andres Serrano

In some of these pieces of art, and indeed the pieces of art conceived of between Mahvand and Jean-Baptiste, one could argue that it is the collision between the profane and the sacred that provokes or outrages, depending on one’s sensibilities. One could also argue that it is this artificial division between the profane and the sacred, the body and the spirit which is harmful. After all, if God is not in the bedroom, where is she? Up in the clouds..? Whether the Christian Church is partly responsible for this splitting or simply reinforced it, is a matter for debate..

But to return to ‘Pharmakeia’ and White Cube gallery, I must say what a joy it was to meet up with Sohphie Grieg, then Head of Archives at White Cube, one afternoon. She talked about the vibe of White Cube back in the nineties and showed me numerous photographs of celebs who would visit – The Pet Shop boys, Janet Street-Porter, Jarvis Cocker etc. Some of these have cameos in the White Cube chapter of ‘Pharmakeia’. She made me realise how small the old White Cube was and filled me in with details such as the tradition of drinking bottles of beer, and not champagne, at YBA events!

However some of what happens in that infamous chapter is down to ‘poetic liscence’! The roof to the real White Cube was reached, apparently, via someone’s flat.. I thought this would be a tad too comical, so Mahvand just climbs a few flights of stairs before he reaches the roof.