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Young British Artists Collage

Young British Artists

Started: Late 1980s
Young British Artists Timeline

Summary of Young British Artists

The Young British Artists (YBAs) are a loosely-affiliated group who met in London in the late 1980s and participated in two of the most shocking exhibits of the late-20th century: Freeze (1988) and Sensation (1997). The group is known for their entrepreneurial spirit, their use of shock tactics, and their wild partying - especially during their 1990s heyday. The most financially successful YBAs are now some of the richest artists in the world, and remain brash and incredibly media-savvy - their choice of subject matter and perceived lack of artistic skill makes their work postmodern, but has been widely criticized in the media.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • The YBAs are notorious for their willingness to shock audiences with gratuitously violent imagery, brazen use of pornography, and their desire to push beyond what many consider the limits of decency. Derogatory UK tabloid press coverage was an important component of their success, as it was all most people knew of the group.
  • The works of the various YBA artists are characterized by their open approach to process and materials, something that can be attributed to the structure of the B.A. Fine Art program at Goldsmiths College where many of them studied. Their courses abandoned the traditional segregation of artistic training into painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture classes in favor of mixed studios.
  • YBA works fit well with the many postmodern experiments that dominated the art of the 1980s and 1990s in both Europe and America. Postmodernism is characterized by the breakdown of distinctions between high and low culture, the use of appropriation, a rejection of fine art materials, and a focus on spectacle. All of these elements can be found in the works of YBA artists.

Overview of Young British Artists

Young British Artists Image

London in the 1980s lagged far behind New York and West Berlin as an art center. Architecturally dilapidated and widely economically deprived despite the growth of its finance industry, the British capital had far fewer contemporary galleries and little in the way of a postmodern art scene compared to its wealthier, more culturally edgy American and German counterparts. Artists in these countries were involved in cutting edge postmodern movements such as the Pictures Generation, Street art, and Neue Wilden, with nothing similar in London.

Key Artists

  • Damien Hirst is a British installation and conceptual artist, and in the 1980s was a founding member of the Young British Artists (YBAs). His best known work is Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), comprised of a dead tiger shark suspended in a vitrine of formaldehyde.
  • Tracey Emin is a British artist and a member of the famed YBA's (Young British Artists). She is best known for her provocative and sexually-charged works, often in the form of personal traumatic events exhibited in an unapologeticly and willfully to the public.
  • Rachel Whiteread is an English sculptor, which typically take the form of casts. She is probably best known for Ghost, a large plaster cast of the inside of a room in a Victorian house, and for her resin sculpture for the empty plinth in London's Trafalgar Square.
  • Sarah Lucas sculptures feature found objects, collage, photography, puns, and "bawdy" humor through which she critiques misogyny, voyeurism, and society's view of the female body.
  • Gary Hume is a Young British Artist making abstract, minimal, and often wryly narrative visual artworks.
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Do Not Miss

  • Institutional Critique is the practice of systematic inquiry into the workings of art institutions and their connections to the development of art. Institutional Critique focuses on the relationships between the viewer, language, process, the consumption of art.
  • Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
  • The Pictures Generation was a loosely knit group of artists working in photography, and video who utilized appropriation and montage to reveal the constructed nature of images.

Important Art and Artists of Young British Artists

The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of Someone Living (1991)

Artist: Damien Hirst

Probably the most emblematic work of the movement (it's now often referred to in art circles as simply 'The Shark'), The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of Someone Living consists of the body of a tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde. The monstrous fish floating in its tank appears alive and dead at the same time, and is typical of Hirst's brashly conceptual postmodernism and unapologetically direct style in the tradition of Dada. The piece was commissioned by Charles Saatchi for the Young British Artists show at his gallery in St John's Wood, London in 1992, and was sold in 2004 to collector Steven Cohen for a reported $8 million. After the original shark started to deteriorate, Cohen paid for a replacement, raising the philosophical question as to whether it could now be considered the same artwork. Hirst, as a conceptualist whose focus is on the intention rather than the piece itself, argued that it was, while traditionalists (especially art conservators) had a different view.

The piece is one of the most potent examples in popular culture of an artwork that deals so unashamedly with concepts of death and the greatest human fears (following in the footsteps of artistic greats such as the romantic artist Francisco Goya and figurative painter Francis Bacon). It has entered the public imagination and become one of the most recognized examples of contemporary art because it symbolizes all that the YBA movement stood for - huge production value, the use of shock tactics to produce an instant reaction in the viewer, and the use of non-art materials.

My Bed (1998)

Artist: Tracey Emin

My Bed is Tracey Emin's own bed and its surrounding detritus, removed from her home and installed in a gallery space. Emin claims it is a faithful reconstruction of the scene she witnessed after coming round from a four-day stint of depression caused by a relationship breakdown - complete with used condoms, dirty underwear, stained sheets, old Kleenex, and cigarette butts. The piece is typical of Emin's distinctive brand of confessional art, where even the darkest and most embarrassing details of her life are used as artistic fodder for drawings, installations, and sculptures. My Bed caused huge controversy in the British tabloid press when it was nominated for the Turner Prize for contemporary British art in 1999. Japanese performance artists Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi enhanced the piece's notoriety when they jumped and pillow fought on it while it was on display at Tate Britain, London.

While the media frenzy around the work has assured My Bed a place in the artistic canon, the piece is also seen as a significant postmodern artwork in its use of non-art materials and its exploration of what it meant to be a young woman at the turn of the 21st century. It follows in the footsteps of other important feminist works such as Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro's Womanhouse installation of 1972 - similarly challenging traditional expectations as to how women should present themselves by blurring the boundaries between art and life, public and private.

Market (1990)

Artist: Michael Landy

Michael Landy's Market is an installation constructed from typical London market stands draped in fake grass and plastic crates stacked in various arrangements. Resembling an eerily abandoned market, the likes of which were quickly disappearing from British streets at the time, Market captured the spirit of social reform and rapidly changing commercial activity in London at the dawn of the 1990s. For centuries, the British housewife (or her maid) had bought groceries from street markets where produce was fresh and grown by those owning the stalls. With the corporatization of food production in the 1980s, this dynamic began to change. The impersonal, sterile quality of Landry's Market captures the lack of personal relationships and the absence of long-standing tradition. The work was originally installed in Building One, a vast, recently vacated biscuit factory in Bermondsey, south London - a location selected by Landy to add further weight to the work's social commentary. Landy has been widely praised for his democratic, uncompromising, and straightforwardly political approach that Market encompassed so eloquently. As a viewer, it is not difficult to read the artist's ideas on the state of consumerism at the time, with one critic describing it as "public in practice and spirit." This was a work that could truly resonate with the ordinary Londoners who were likely to see it, without involving art historical references or theory that would only appeal to art world types.

Useful Resources on Young British Artists

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Young British Artists Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 18 Feb 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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