Champagne Life @ Saatchi

The Saatchi Gallery’s headline show at the moment consists of 14 female artists. The show is called Champagne Life and the title is probably a nod to the gallery’s thirtieth birthday. However, the selection of these artists seems awkward and forced. The display lacks cohesion and very little of what is on display seems to give any sense of celebration, in fact, a lot of it is quite the opposite.

The most memorable piece for me seems extremely sad. I am not quite sure what it says about an exhibition when the thing you remember most is because of the intense sadness it causes within you instead of a display on intense beauty. This sadness appears in the form of a papier mache model donkey lying on one of the gallery floors. He is positioned on his side with his limbs tied together with a rope and looks to be in crippling pain. The animal has been painted in a celestial blue and the white of his eyes are black. The piece was made by Mia Feuer in collaboration with Palestinian children as a tribute to the mode of transport used in the region where Palestinian’s have been unable to drive motor vehicles. Also on show in this particular gallery are work from two other artists from the Middle East – Iranian artist Sohelia Sokhanvari and Saudi Arabian Maha Malluh. Like Feuer, Sokhanvari depicts an animal, this time in the form of a taxidermy horse astride a blue balloon. The piece has been a favourite of instagrammers all over London, probably due to its strangeness. However, after doing a little digging, it seems that it also has a deeper social meaning, being a metaphor for the 2009 ‘Green Movement’ where demonstrations led a fraudulent election result to be annulled. Feuer and Sokhanvari’s animals are displayed against the backdrop of Malluh’s display of burnt bottomed cooking vessels. Food For Though – Al-Muallaqat, is probably a lot more mesmerising than it should be. The silver tones mixed in with black charcoal stains glitter like mosaics. Yet this three dimensional wall decoration relate to pre-Islamic hanging poems as well as the burnt out state of globalisation and consumerism.

What the works mentioned in the previous paragraph have to do with Champagne is a good question. This title has been taken from the work of Julia Wachtel, whose images impose celebrity culture with cartoon characters and bright colours. One image shows many repeated photographs of Kim Kardashi and Kanye West turned upside down and embellished with blue figures of Minnie and Mickey Mouse. While Wachtel’s work shows the world of celebrity however, it is more likely that the Champagne title has been chosen in homage to the exhibition’s sponsor, Pommery Champagne.

More sculpture is on display in the form of Alice Anderson’s larger than life copper sewing equipment and Stephanie Quayle’s clay figures. Quayle’s hybrid Lion-Man is particularly beguiling, if not a little scary. Virgile Ittah’s sculpture is also memorable. Her contorted figures lie against iron bedsteads as though they are waiting for death. The nude women look like they have been carved out of marble but have actually been constructed from wax. Their presentation is almost clinical and the work has a haunting quality to it.

Ittah’s wax figures share the same ageing quality present in the portraits of Jelena Bulajic who has several hyperrealistic paintings of elderly women on show. These portraits are grey and dusty, much like their subjects, in a vast juxtaposition to the images of Sigrid Holmwood in a nearby gallery. Holmwood’s work is bright and fluorescent, consisting of Swedish peasants who appear to have been transported into another world of neon vivacity.

Whilst the show does not make any sense, what is interesting about this exhibition is the lack of overt feminist rhetoric. If I didn’t know before going that all of the artist’s were female, I honestly would have no idea at all. That said, the selection of artist’s on display and the way in which they have been put together is just strange. Is gender really enough to group people together? I think not.

Champagne Life is on display at Saatchi Gallery until 6 March

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She is the founder of Gallery Girl - a London-based curatorial platform and website dedicated to modern and contemporary art from across the globe. Her work is primarily focused on supporting emerging female artists from the Middle East and the Caucasus. She has written for Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, Suitcase and Vice Arabia among other publications. Her exhibitions in London and Armenia have been featured in Vogue Arabia, The Art Newspaper, The Art Gorgeous and numerous other news outlets. Gallery Girl has also spoken in the UK, UAE and Belgium about the contemporary art scene in the MENA region, and is planning further events in London and Amman.

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