What are we to make of Sensation, 25 years on?
Historians of modern art tend to get a little giddy about certain incendiary exhibitions – such as the first Impressionist show of 1874 – that changed the course of their subject. For followers of British art of a certain vintage, Sensation, which opened at the Royal Academy of Arts 25 years ago today, belongs to this notorious lineage.
Featuring 42 of the so-called Young British Artists (YBAs) collected by the advertising executive Charles Saatchi, it certainly – as its title promised – provoked an intense reaction. Here were 110 controversial artworks by a new generation of raucous, on-the-make self-starters, who, thanks to prolific coverage in the tabloids, were already in the public eye. Damien Hirst’s tiger shark suspended in a tank of turquoise formaldehyde and Tracey Emin’s appliquéd tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 (1995), were both on display. So was Sarah Lucas’s Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992), arranged on a table like a crude pictogram of the female form: a grungy, throwaway gesture, deliberately debasing Western art’s grand tradition of the nude into a sort of last-orders odalisque.
And they weren’t even the most “shocking”. Remember Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad (1996-97), a terrifyingly realistic silicone sculpture of a naked paternal corpse? Or Jake and Dinos Chapman’s mutant mannequins, with penises for noses and anuses instead of mouths? Perhaps you’d rather not.