Jackie Wullschlager reviews Charles Saatchi’s latest exhibitions in Lille and London

London’s Saatchi Gallery opened two years ago and quickly established itself as the most talked-about private gallery in Britain. Its strengths – a state-of-the-art building with a masterly melding of old and new, a superb finish, a design sympathetically accommodating diverse media – were a delight from the start. But as with many trophy museums, its limitations soon became obvious, too: rarely does the quality of the art match the space.

Charles Saatchi has compounded the problem with a series of identikit installations: displays devoted to China, the Middle East, India, America, have been hung so similarly, the balance and placing of sculpture and paintings so closely parallel, that the shows all look the same – homogenous, predictable, weak. It is bitterly ironic that he has had to show outside London to recover surprise and dynamism. La Route de la Soie/The Silk Road, a selection of his Asian and Middle Eastern works at Lille’s Tri Postal, is Saatchi’s most impressive exhibition for years. It launched within a week of his new London exhibition, part two of a contemporary British showcase called Newspeak, and the contrast between the pair is startling.

The Silk Road is funny, energetic, pertinent to 21st-century life, and cohesive. It opens with a marvellous Indian-Chinese face-off: Subodh Gupta’s “U.F.O.”, a monumental assemblage of brass utensils soldered together to resemble a flying saucer, and a cascade of stainless steel pans called “Spill”, versus Zhang Huan’s affecting, stoic, crumbling “Ash Head No 1”, a giant half-face made from burnt incense with charred jah sticks replicating details of hair and eyelashes.

For both artists, the material is the message. Gupta’s trademark cooking pots transformed into shining conceptual sculptures reference the gap between impoverished Indian daily life and western consumer excess. Huan’s self-portrait head, and an accompanying ash-on-linen painting, “Young Mother”, are as democratic: built from ash collected at temples, they incorporate the very stuff of people’s hopes and dreams, but reconfigure to ponder the nature of iconography – how a man becomes a God, or a young girl a Madonna. Alongside hangs Qiu Jie’s lead-on-paper “Portrait of Mao” as a cat in a mocking style crossing pop kitsch with Chinese calligraphy.

These pieces, all from 2007, have been shown in London, but not together, and their juxtaposition here is inspired curating. Repeatedly and compellingly, Lille draws out common themes between Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern art: bold materiality; absurdist or futuristic fantasies responding to societies in dazzling, too-fast change; a harsh populist aesthetic, desperately inventive in its figurative vitality. Subject and tone resonate well, too, with the Tri Postal, a former mail sorting office converted into an urban, edgy, no-frills gallery next to Lille’s Eurostar station.

How a global conceptual language develops out of local colour, often sparked by images from religion and ritual, is traced here in exquisitely crafted works from distinctive cultures. Wafa Hourani’s “Qalandia”, a walk-through miniature cardboard city, illuminated and with a soundtrack of Arab music, imagines a West Bank apocalypse in 2067 and thrills for its mimetic precision and detail. Bharti Kher’s fibreglass whale’s heart with protruding veins and arteries, adorned with bindis, Indian women’s skin decoration, is a sensuous meditation on power, gender, man’s relationship with the natural world. Liu Wei’s “Love It! Bite It!” is a model city of architectural monuments – domes, columns, tower blocks – intricately constructed from edible dog chews: a satire on consumption and, in its wobbly elegance, a lyrical vision of global instability.

Nothing in part two of London’s Newspeak can compete with the power and wit of such installations, except Dick Evans’ “Black Grape”, a two-metre dark rising swell made from silicon carbide, a material used for grinding rocks, which recalls Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” but is an urban, disenchanted version, strewn with cigarette butts and a discarded logo-ed can (“Black Grape” is a popular soda brand). The piece looms above you like a tower of gloom; Evans says it was inspired by his east London neighbourhood.

Hackney meets Hokusai successfully, but most works in this show drenched in fusion culture and historical appropriation are as wearyingly derivative as those in this summer’s part one of Newspeak: worse, in fact, because this time there are more paintings, which Saatchi rarely chooses well, and fewer installations. Among cartloads of heavy inept canvases, even those few by artists who are technically skilful and make careful compositions are over-schematic: Arif Ozakca’s oil, screen print and gold leaf montages on linen setting Luca Giordano’s baroque figures against Ottoman tiles and Turkish references in an east London milieu; Edward Kay’s accomplished pastiche of George Grosz, “The Bon Viveur”.

As usual, Saatchi’s advertising background continues to shape his taste. Graham Hudson’s “All My Exes Live in Tesco’s” is a found-object installation of electric fans and plastic; Steve Bishop’s department-store decoration “Christian Dior – J’Adore (Mountain Goat)” is a taxidermied goat hugging a concrete scent bottle. A rock-bottom high-low encounter is Nicholas Hatfull’s splodgy mess “Superbidone Pizza Delivery”, for which, the artist says, “I was looking at Matisse’s ‘Le Bonheur de Vivre’. The bouncy-looking trees come from dog-food packaging and reminded me of Matisse’s foliage”.

Upstairs, a final room of pallid, mirage-like canvases by Maaike Schoorel and Nick Goss bring some cerebral interest and painterly sensibility: both are thoughtful if rather mannered young artists who work from photographs, tracing in paint the disappearance or disintegration of the image. Is this what Saatchi is referring to by titling his show after a reference in George Orwell’s 1984, where Newspeak is “the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year”? Is he aware that his British collection is diminishing into insignificance? How sad that last year he sold his entire Paula Rego holdings, including the masterpieces “The Policeman’s Daughter” and “The Maids”, to support such trivia.

In Lille, by contrast, extreme selectivity – The Silk Road shows only the plums from his vast Asian and Middle Eastern haul – reaffirms that Saatchi at best remains the insightful collector that he was when buying Young British Artists. Now as then, his flair is for installations, and for black humour. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s outrageous “Old Persons Home”, consisting of 13 life-size sculptures of decrepit, dribbling world leaders crashing about in dynamoelectric wheelchairs in a geriatic parody of world conflict, a Lille highlight, is a classic Saatchi choice: grim but oddly upbeat. Forget the King’s Road: if he hangs on to such works, rather than flogging them to fund the next whim, Saatchi could still leave a collection embodying the noughties’ global aesthetic.

‘La Route de la Soie/The Silk Road’, Tri Postal, Lille, to January 16. www.mairie-lille.fr

‘Newspeak: British Art Now’ (part two), Saatchi Gallery, London SW1, to April 17. www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk

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