London's Art War

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The south bank of the Thames is a dignified, flourishing cultural waterfront, home to national centers for theater, film and painting. It seems an unlikely spot for a battle. But last week a major salvo was fired, as advertising millionaire and art collector Charles Saatchi launched his much anticipated new gallery just a riverside stroll from his archrival, Tate Modern, which opened to huge acclaim in 2000.

Saatchi is one of the art world's most notorious figures, having used his wealth to shape a generation of British art. He favors works that make big, confrontational gestures, like Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (an entire preserved tiger shark), Tracey Emin's unkempt My Bed, and Richard Wilson's room-sized lake of sump oil, 20:50. They can all be seen at his new gallery in County Hall, just across the river from Westminster.

Tate's director Nicholas Serota (he headed Tate Modern until early this month) and Saatchi have long been compared as giants of the British modern-art world. Saatchi's holdings mean gaps in Tate Modern's coverage of British art. Saatchi has bought up most of Hirst's work and the gory output of Jake and Dinos Chapman. Serota hasn't commented on the new Saatchi Gallery beyond issuing a short statement welcoming it to the South Bank, and accepting an invitation to the opening party, to schmooze with Jade Jagger, David Bowie, Jimmy Choo, Chelsea Clinton and the featured artists - though not Saatchi, who is, by all accounts, no party animal.

He may want to avoid his critics. Philip Dodd, director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, recently said the Saatchi Gallery was "dedicated to the recent past" and called the Young British Artists (a Saatchi coinage) "a very '90s story." London art critic Brian Sewell finds it "extremely difficult" to regard the Saatchi collection as art at all. But, he says, Tate Modern can't stand up to the new Saatchi sideshow: "I've always thought Saatchi was doing what Serota should be doing" - showing off works of art that represent the late 20th century. Sewell thought Saatchi intended one day to hand over his collection, but now "he's gone off on a trip of his own. He realizes that his connoisseurship is so much more exciting" than Tate Modern's. Saatchi Gallery director Nigel Hurst says that Tate Modern looks after the last century, whereas the new gallery focuses on the last 20 years: "It's very much art of the moment."

Saatchi has donated some works to the nation, including gifts to the Arts Council Collection and to hospitals. He will continue to give bursaries to art schools, and sponsored young artists will show their work in the County Hall Boiler Room, a former storeroom. But sometimes it looks as though Saatchi is weeding out unwanted works, purging his collection of movements that never traveled anywhere, like New Neurotic Realism.

County Hall is already home to two hotels, the London Aquarium and the Dalí Universe - a museum dedicated to the works of the great Spanish surrealist - but the 3,700 sq. m leased by the Saatchi Gallery had lain empty since 1988. Designed in 1907 in an overblown classical style, the building, with its pillars and wood-paneled interiors, is imposing. When the gallery moved in, the dust of 17 years was waiting to be swept out - as well as the carcases of 50 dead pigeons in the chandelier.

The opening show is a Hirst retrospective, with his works, including Love Lost - a submerged gynecologist's office containing 20 live carp - distributed among those of other artists. Most visitors will enter at the front through a passage framed in white marble. The back entrance leads into a grand hall containing hyperrealistic Duane Hanson figures. (Don't disturb that exhausted tourist slumped by his luggage - it's art.) Hirst's spotted Mini is roaring down the stairs as if in a scene from The Italian Job.

The staircase takes you to Hirst's sliced-up cattle, Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything, brooded over by Ron Mueck's London Angel. A corridor, giving a distant view of the shark, leads to the double-height circular conference room, now filled with Saatchi icons. Offices that once held bureaucrats - each with its own marble fireplace - now contain single works like Hirst's giant (full) ashtray. It's not the only work that assaults the senses: the miasma of Wilson's 20:50 is all-pervasive. The work is genuinely terrifying; the waist-high oily surface is so reflective that it's invisible as you look "down" into the roof and the sky.

The art all has immediate impact - and a dark side. Is this the equivalent of a mild man owning a savage dog? Or does Saatchi just like the stuff? Critic Sewell believes he has "developed a boyish passion" for his collection. And Saatchi says his gallery director Hurst "goes to every show in town." Plans are to follow up with the Chapmans' mutilated war victims and Sarah Lucas' sexually suggestive vegetables, as well as work from outside the collection. Hurst is confident the British art scene "still has legs. But we also collect contemporary American and international art. The idea originally was to bring work of U.K. interest to our audience in the U.K. Now with our proximity to [the Eurostar terminal], the audience will be much wider. We want people more used to watching EastEnders than going to galleries."

The collection is undeniably striking, the location couldn't be better, the venue will be open seven days a week, until 10 p.m. on weekends, and there's no reason why art-loving TV-soap fans shouldn't pour in. Now the only question is: What will Tate Modern do to fight back? - With reporting by Lauren Goldstein/London