Wednesday, September 19, 2012


They’re back! After a triumphant opening nine years ago at Somerset House, and a world tour, the RS&A chess sets have returned to London for a show “The Art of Chess” upstairs at the imposing Saatchi Gallery.

The original five sets have been supplemented by another 11, all by artists working today. According to Julia Royse (one of the founders of the RS&A project, along with Mark Saunders and Francesca Amfitheatrof), in the Guardian on Saturday 8 September, “The chess sets were a kind of easy access to the contemporary art that these artists were making.”  But, she says, they are not going on to commission a full complement of 32. Shame! So we have to make do with this combination of 16 sets to unlock the door into today's mixed-up world of representational, conceptual, and installation art.

Strictly speaking, though, it is only 15 as Gavin Turk's is a video installation with just a single knight. The artist is masquerading as the 18th Century Turk (ho, ho!) chess automaton which  is shown cranking out (against a manic soundtrack of cogs and sprockets) a knight’s tour: it is a man pretending to be a machine pretending to be a man performing a chessic party piece – all on screen, so he/it is not really there anyway (ho, ho, ho!).

Some artists you will recognise without too much trouble: the Chapman brothers for example, who fashion their pieces and pawns as prepubescents each with signature protuberance - it could be a warning about the over-sexualisation of childhood; though, with their track record, I doubt it.

                        Pic by HAPPYFAMOUSARTISTS on Flickr

A number of the sets appear to play on the well-worn Goodies v Baddies theme, though some dissolve the distinction altogether. Yet others mess with the hierarchy of the pieces and you must decide for yourself which of the items on offer you might be take to be what. You could just about play a game - of chess, that is - even with sets such as these, so long as you remember where you started.

And do any of the artists actually play? Paul McCarthy is an example of a devotee. When the show was in Moscow Gary Kasparov played a game with his found-about-the-house bits and pieces set (shades of Duchamp), and the story goes that Kasparov "said that in fact he liked the added element of the absurd as it transformed the game into an entirely unique and original experience.”  That's "absurd" as in a “copper kettle with a miniature Santa Claus head...placed in check by a tiny rubber duck” (according to Mark Saunders' interview with McCarthy, in the highly informative catalogue to the Reykjavik edition in 2009).

If Matthew Ronay plays with his set, then it must be outdoors, dodging the showers. His “Over There in the Bushes”, spread out on a pretty pink gingham table cloth, takes the biscuit. Just don't invite Rueben Fine.

Sometime bad-girl Tracey Emin might also have enjoyed that bit of nudge, nudge. But she is now a proper Royal Academician, and from a distance her own chess-in-a-cabinet display comes up most fittingly demure. It has hand-moulded plasticine pieces in an approximation to a decent Staunton, and she has crafted a roll-up patch-work board. But get up close, and it's personal. Typical of our Tracey: it's about her - art as autobiography. On c6 there's a wee sketch of her (it could only be her) arching back, legs akimbo, and there's a "very wet" patch at c4. Same old Trace: shouldn’t it be called “Every Man I Ever Played With”?

She and a number of the artists reframe the game: chose your medicine in one; meet your shrink in yet another - a prescription taken literally by Yayoi Kusama's, whose set was born of her own therapy (and is obsessively focussed, perhaps as a consequence).

But in only one of the 16 works does the artist seem to engage with, or play upon, the process of the game itself, and so make the set play second fiddle. On the wall above Barbara Kruger's Bauhaus-style pieces you get a video of a real game - it’s a 19th century knockabout (allegedly*) – with a voice-over in the headphones. Each pawn has six recordings encoded in it, and each piece has a hundred. The game proceeds as normal but in parallel one side randomly generates a question as it moves, and the other a gnomic "answer": all heard (in this version) via the 'phones.

                                          Pic by HAPPYFAMOUSARTISTS on Flickr

It models the game as social interaction, unfolding in real time, with the same infinite and unpredictable possibilities. Kruger says, in her Reykjavik interview, that "conversations" seem to emerge pertinent to the action on the board, though whether her sources were chess players isn't known (she isn't, btw). It’s a nice idea, even if it’s a bit clunky in execution at the Saatchi, and you seem to get a demonstration of just one such chat show.

However, you may not get the subtext at all of this, or the other sets, as there are no explanatory notes. You have to try and work them out for yourself, which may let you miss the point an artist is trying to make. You the viewer, and they the artist, may pass like opposite-coloured bishops on the diagonal, and that could be counted a loss for both.

It is also a shame that the show as a whole is definitively positioned as art - don't touch the pieces! Compare this with the Somerset House event in 2003, which was as much a celebration of chess-as-played as chess-as-art-object. This time though, BBC radio had the wit to invite GM Jonathan Rowson to comment (listen via the link at the end of the post). But let's not look a gift horse…it's fun! Get along to the Saatchi Gallery... it’s free! And see for yourself. It finishes 3rd October.

While you are there don’t miss downstairs Gallery 1, because by the door you'll find a bonus set, an arresting piece by Korean/American artist Debbie Han. It shows 32 ceramic Venus heads : 16 victims of  oppressive effacement and, opposite, 16 casualties of disfiguring "enhancement".

It's a cultural face-off, a "Battle of Conception". Unfortunately the gallery hasn't overtly signposted the connection between the sets upstairs and this one on the ground floor.

In this year of prolific chess-art (remember the Royal Academy?) there was also a garden version of Yoko Ono’s “Play it on Trust” at the Serpentine Gallery. Whatever you might have made of her work inside, this outdoor installation catches the eye, and conveys a maximal message with the merest switch of black to white. 32 pieces, but a one bit wonder. And, you may play with it.

This couldn't have been Yoko’s original version as one pawn is, imperfectly, a tad small (it happens, here, to be on 'a2'). Such is the nature of contemporary art that this set is a re-creation, upon which she was unlikely to have laid a finger. But it’s the thought that counts. Trust me.

Listen to the short BBC interview with Jonathan Rowson at around the 10 minute mark here.

[Skáklist. 32 pieces: The Art of Chess. Reykjavik Art Museum 2009 ]
[The Art of Chess. Gilbert Collection. London 2003]
[Thanks to Jonathan B, and ejh for tips]
[*See the thread on the ECForum]
[Unattributed pics by MS. They let you take photos at the Saatchi - hurrah! For a good view of all the sets see the RS&A site]

Chess in Art Index


Jonathan B said...

You have to try and work them out for yourself, which may let you miss the point an artist is trying to make.

Call me a Philistine if you will, but should art need explanatory notes?

Martin Smith said...

Another Philistine replies: it's like having annotations to a chess game, I always think. Not necessary, but it helps (well, anyway, it helps me).

Jonathan B said...

Isn't it a bit like the director of a film hanging around outside a cinema handing out pamphlets to people as they leave. "this is what I meant" printed on the top?

I suppose it isn't. I shall bow to your greater experience