As the former Duke of York's army barracks, the Saatchi Gallery in London looks the part—brick façade, columned entrance, sprawling grounds. When you walk up the stairs to the front doors, though, you see what appears to be a man consumed by a bundle of red balloons. Soon you realize that, despite its exterior, the Saatchi Gallery is not your typical museum.
Inside, the Gallery's stark, white walls, stainless steel lighting and wide, open spaces highlight the works of young British artists, part of the current Newspeak: British Art Now exhibition.
Oil paintings of New York Yankees hats and sculptures made from neon light rods are just a sample of the contemporary art the Saatchi Gallery showcases. Other works include "Madame Blavtsky," a lifelike sculpture of a purple-cloaked woman lying across the backs of two chairs, and "20:50," an oil installation that has travelled with the Gallery as it has moved.
"20:50," first constructed in 1987 by Richard Wilson, swallows the entire lower gallery with optical illusion. A layer of oil three centimeters thick sits atop a steel and wood structure, creating a perfect reflection of the ceiling and giving the illusion of a room much bigger than it is. A faint ripple in the oil after a rare breeze is the only clue that what you see is not reality.
"When I first saw it, I was very disturbed," said Emeline Gougeon, a Gallery employee. "I didn't know what I was seeing."
"20:50" is one of 200 works, worth nearly $40 million, donated to the British public by Gallery owner Charles Saatchi in an announcement made last week. The gift will be unveiled in three exhibitions in 2012.
Saatchi, 67, is giving the Gallery and its works to the public because he is "thinking about the future," said Rebecca Wilson, the editor of the Saatchi Gallery's online magazine. "He wants to make sure London has a fantastic contemporary art museum."
Unlike the Tate Modern, one of London's most famous contemporary art museums, the Saatchi Gallery is not "an archive of history" but a "living museum," which showcases young artists and new trends, she said.
The Sensation exhibition in 1997 helped launch the careers of the now-famous artists Tracey Emin, for her work, "My Bed," and Jake and Dino Chapman, for their work, "Tragic Anatomies." These two works, although not currently on display at the Gallery, are part of Saatchi's gift.
Tracey Emin said she is "thrilled" with Saatchi's decision to give his works to the people.
"I wish more people had that kind of vision," she said.
Saatchi believes contemporary art should be accessible to everyone, which is why admission is free, Wilson said. And from the looks of the visitors, it seems he has achieved his goal: elderly couples, school children, and posh fashionistas all engage with the art.
From "20:50" in the lower gallery, you can hear a slight hint of music. Follow the sound up the stone-and-glass staircase and enter Gallery 10, in which the air from a vacuum cleaner is powering a piano. The sound shoots out of 300 speakers, piled high in the far right corner and positioned in the room. Visitors meander through the speakers— there are no ropes or barriers to block off any art in the Saatchi Gallery—to catch a better glimpse of the piano at work.
Although a vacuum-powered piano is, superficially, really cool, there must be a deeper meaning. According to Saatchi Gallery intern Jungmin Lee, however, understanding the deeper meaning is not what's most important.
"Anyone can appreciate it because it's contemporary," she said. "It makes the fantastic ordinary."