Charles Saatchi’s first ‘public’ gallery was in London’s St John’s Wood and opened in the 1980s in an old paint factory, not too far away from Sigmund Freud’s final home. You couldn’t have hoped for a more telling symptom of the times. Here was the advertising guru who had helped Margaret Thatcher (with her espousal of a return to Victorian values) get into power, and here he was collecting and curating avant-garde art. It was like watching epochal change on fast-forward. The old factory that once manufactured paint for industrial and domestic use, produced for painting walls and ceilings, was now being repurposed so that visitors could look at paint in a very different form, and one that was way out of the price range of ninety-nice percent of the visitors.
The first time that I visited the Saatchi Gallery was for a press opening that I had somehow managed to wangle an invite for (perhaps I intended to write something about the exhibition of American art that was on show). The floor and the walls had all been newly painted with heavy-duty white emulsion. I had been to white cube galleries before, but none that took it quite so literally and none that realised the de-materialising space so completely. At one point in the gallery there was a step between two levels of the gallery. It was almost impossible to see and you would watch journalists regularly tripping over it as they tried to balance canapés and notepads while negotiating this invisible obstacle. The step was a little touch of the real in a space that seemed to have lost all contact with the ground, or with any sense of place or reality.
It must have been my second visit that I saw and experienced Richard Wilson’s installation 20: 50. The artwork is a room that you enter via a walkway that feels as if it is carved into a solid dark mirror made of oil that completely covers the rest of the room. Wilson’s installation must be the most perfectly realised site-specific artwork for the Saatchi experience: even though the gallery has changed premises a number of times, this work is perfectly suited to the Saatchi ethos. It offers both an immediate embodiment of the Saatchi world – a de-realised space of reflective surface made out of that number one commodity, oil – and an imminent critique of that very same world. This is an art work that un-grounds you while making you dirty. The reflective surface is so perfect, so unworldly, that people can’t help themselves they have to touch the mirroring material. And here is the second touch of the real. What looked sleek and impenetrable turns out to be used sump oil that immediately ruins clothes and saturates skin. There is a legal warning from the Saatchi Gallery that accompanies the exhibit. Should you dirty yourself then Saatchi is not legally responsible for your dry cleaning bill.