Friday 16 October 2015

"DEAD - A Celebration of Mortality" Charles Saatchi

The poster on the London Underground (taken at Stockwell station)

Perhaps Charles Saatchi is losing his flair for advertising. Admittedly the poster for “Dead: A Celebration of Mortality” is striking;  a heavy but clever crop of a classic Bart Hardy photograph showing children playing in a Glasgow Cemetery focuses on a single boy leapfrogging a grave stone. It’s a great image, the all too fleeting triumph of life over death perfectly visualised. It made me go out and buy the book but I suspect that demographically speaking, consumers who can’t resist buying a product associated with death form a tiny target group in the general population. Even stranger was to hear an ad for the book on Heart FM sandwiched between Take That and Michael Buble.  Poster campaigns on the London underground and commercial radio stations don’t come cheap – Saatchi must have squandered a small fortune trying to sell his book to jaded commuters and desperate housewives. Perhaps he has taken to advertising after revelations from the Grillo sisters, former aides accused of defrauding him out of £600,000 between them, whose defence in court was that they spent most of the money buying copies of his books in Waterstones and on Amazon to boost their ratings in the best seller lists.

Bert Hardy's classic image "Leapfrog"

“Dead: A Celebration of Mortality” has the unmistakable air of a vanity publication about it. The cover is gimmicky, made up to look like a tombstone, down to the marbling effect on the paper edges. Even though the author is presumably underwriting all the expenses, publishers Booth-Clibborn Editions (run by an ex advertising crony of Saatchi’s) have managed to make the typesetting look amateurish and clumsy. If you want to read a review of the book you will have to go to Amazon, no newspaper or magazine has deigned to even notice the books existence. 5 of the 6 Amazon reviewers give it 5 stars. Barry Osborne says “it is much more amusing than I expected.” Barry has reviewed three books on Amazon (and nothing else), all of them by Charles Saatchi, and is presumably either that very rare creature, a Charles Saatchi fan or that slightly more common one, a Saatchi hireling pretending to be a disinterested consumer. J Kaufman says it is ‘dead good’ and   Benjamin thinks death is “an unlikely subject for a fun book.” Susan Jones who likes Al Jarreau and is perhaps the only Heart FM listener to have actually bought a copy of the book after hearing the advert, says “nothing to say; Mr Saatchi says all.”(?!!?). The only dissenting voice is Mr Harry Potter (not his real name one suspects) who comments “I've never read a book before where I felt I'd just wasted several hours of my life. Personally I'm glad I was given it and didn't waste money on it.” He counsels potential readers to “wait until you’re dead to read this.” 

Goshka Macuga’s Madame Blavatsky

Saatchi’s collection of ‘essays’ (his word, not mine) are only very loosely linked by the theme of death, and consist mainly of material clipped from newspapers or culled from too many hours browsing the net. We are given dubious factoids, (‘there were fewer gunfights in the wild west than in Detroit today’), spurious statistics (‘Greenland possesses the highest recorded suicide rate in the world today, with 1 out of 5 citizens attempting to kill themselves at some point in their lives’), stories of bizarre deaths (the woman who died electrocuting her nipples with a hair dryer), death related lists (most popular funeral songs), last words (James French to the journalists assembled to see him die in the electric chair ‘How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? French Fries?’), and the authors banal musings on his life experiences (‘the thought of becoming a centenarian is not necessarily a pleasant one’). The writing is leaden and humourless, the content a mishmash of poorly organised and undigested material with no plan or purpose. By page 242 Saatchi feels obliged to bring his opus to some sort of a conclusion so we get “Some lives leave a mark, others a stain”, a phrase he clearly feels is imposing because it occupies half a page by itself in 36 point bold type. It is followed by the equally inane ‘almost everybody lives a life of little consequence to mankind but wouldn’t you prefer to have spent your years rather uselessly but entertainingly?’ This is not a book I would recommend. 
Dallas Seitz’s Elizabeth Regina and John Hanning Speke 

The Saatchi gallery hosted an exhibition in the summer to tie in with the launch of Charles’s book. Four rooms on the top floor were filled with a random selection of art works retrieved from the Saatchi’s warehouses. Anything that seemed to tie in with the theme of death found a place. On the walls of Room 1 hung Denis Tarasov’s photos of the laser etched gravestones of Russian Mafiosi (also featured in the first of Saatchi’s essays in his book) and the floor was littered with corpses by, amongst others, Andra Ursuta (a grim blackened female covered in what look like squirts of semen), Terence Koh (a cast of the artists own body) and Alina and Jeff Bliumis (man buried under a cascade of books). Room 2 has paintings of car crashes by Dirk Skreber and photos by Vikenti Nilin and the Gao Brothers. Room 3 features Rafael Gomezbarros’ fibreglass ants, hundreds of them blown up to the size of a small dog and swarming over the walls and ceiling – great fun but I couldn’t see the connection with death. Room 4 had some of my favourite works. For example  Francis Upritchard’s ‘Travellers Collection’, a three shelved table with a mummy and funerary urns and mortuary objects made out of junk shop tat. Goshka Macuga’s Madame Blavatsky levitating between two dining chairs is very amusing. Dallas Seitz’s Elizabeth Regina and John Hanning Speke look like companion pieces, Speke being of course the African explorer who travelled with Richard Burton; during the course of their expedition the two men developed a mutual loathing and Speke discovered the source of the Nile. He died mysteriously after shooting himself in the armpit the day before he was due to take part in a public debate with Burton at the British Association in Bath in 1864. Plenty to enjoy then but this was not a carefully curated exhibition, instead it was simply thrown together from whatever was available. In essence it created to serve the same purpose as those adverts on the underground and on the radio, to publicise Saatchi’s tenth rate book.       

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