For one working week, the Stylist team set up office in the Saatchi Gallery. The aim was to find an answer to the question: can a magazine ever become art? Alix Walker reveals what happened.
"Is this art, is it work or is it just weird English people?" asked the tour guide for a group of Italian students as they wandered past Stylist’s attempt at becoming an art installation.
They may have had little regard for our feelings (you try keeping a straight face when someone calls you weird within earshot), but they had a point. After all, a bunch of journalists pitched in the middle of a gallery space going about their daily business, cuts a stark contrast to the artwork of brilliant Korean artists Oh Jeong Il, Lee Gilwoo and Moon Beom which surrounded us.
If I’m honest, my leaning was definitely towards the weird Brits option. I’m not remotely arty and am downright sceptical about some of the works which pass for modern art. How Martin Creed could win the Turner Prize for turning a light switch on and off has always baffled me. I came up with that idea when I was 12 trying to recreate a school disco in my bedroom.
Our premise for this project was simple: can a magazine become art by setting up in a gallery, in this case the Saatchi Gallery on London’s King’s Road, and producing an issue? We wanted to challenge ourselves, our ideas and other people. Would we still be able to make a magazine with people watching us or would it all be a bit Truman Show? Would we have our best ideas or would we become inhibited? Would we be laughed out of the gallery or lauded as the next Louise Bourgeois?
I suspected gallery visitors would laugh at us, but far from it. Art lovers, it seems, are incredibly open to new things
Call this art?
On Monday 6 August the Stylist team arrived at our new offices: gallery six on the first floor of the Saatchi. Our desks were white. Our clothes were black (an imposed uniform to keep the office looking simple, and differentiate Stylist staff from the public). Our mission was to produce Stylist’s first ever art issue by the end of the week.
We were in good company. The Saatchi Gallery, set up by Charles Saatchi, is now 27 years old. During its history it has introduced Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol and Sigmar Polke to the British art scene, and launched the careers of numerous Young British Artists (YBAs) such as Sarah Lucas and Sam Taylor-Wood.
The pieces that surrounded us are part of a current exhibition on Korean art, which includes work from some hugely exciting artists. We sat next to the work of Oh Jeong Il, who spends months painting pictures of hair using a single strand brush, and Lee Gilwoo, whose technique of overlaying dots (a traditional Korean technique) over the faces of western icons like Audrey Hepburn is incredibly powerful. And then there were the 23 of us…
Admittedly the first few hours were bizarre. As people loitered around our computers, openly staring as we typed and listening in to our conversations about beauty shoots and fashion layouts, we all gained a lot of sympathy for the inhabitants of London Zoo.
Making a magazine is a mixture of the glamorous with the rather mundane. Sometimes that means confirming cover shoots with Beyoncé or commissioning Jeanette Winterson to write a feature. Other times it means stern reminders about deadlines – about as interesting as that light switch.
Three hours in, I witnessed our editor Lisa rugby tackle her iPad when she realised a male visitor was reading over her shoulder as she typed an email about lunch breaks. I became hyper aware that my thoughts on which model had the right ‘look’ for this issue’s wallpaper-print fashion shoot sounded horribly superficial. And you try writing a pithy, in-depth feature with a gaggle of Japanese students critiquing it behind you. Inevitably we all found ourselves censoring our work – not ideal for a magazine that thrives on asking challenging questions and being candid.
Gallery visitors were equally self-conscious. We had set up interactive stations to encourage people to join in and ask us questions but for the first hour or so, they remained untouched. But slowly, perhaps as we became less aware of the unusual situation ourselves, they started to react with the same curiosity as they would if we were any other piece of art.
When one woman joined in our daily 11am brainstorm it caused a domino effect. Visitors got involved while we debated whether Clare Balding should be our latest cover star, analysed why so many of our friends and colleagues were getting divorced after six months pondered why we were all having such vivid dreams and how much are they related to work stress. As our discussions became more animated and featured increasingly personal anecdotes from the team, one gallery visitor commented, “It’s just like a therapy session.” And I guess our brainstorms are. The best ideas come from sharing, which means conversations often end up entering personal territory. Admitting my recurrent anxiety dream while art enthusiasts looked on (and with the knowledge that this meeting was being streamed to over 11,000 people via our webcam) was quite terrifying. But when you consider that some of the best pieces of modern art, like Tracey Emin’s My Bed, triumphed due to the artists’ willingness to make themselves completely vulnerable, I started to feel like maybe our office did have a place in an art gallery.
As visitors began to interact with us, we began to field a lot of questions. The one which cropped up the most was why were we wearing black. Those watching our live feed commented on it, Twitter was awash with it: “Are you all wearing black on purpose? V arty indeed!”; “When did they ban colour in the Stylist office?!”; “Is there a dress code of black? If so, why?” Our reasoning behind it was that it would make things easy. We definitely looked smarter (our creative director Matt Phare would live in a monochrome world if he could). And we seemed to work more in unison. But I found it incredibly inhibiting, like we were a tribe of stagehands who paled into the background. Fashion is a great tool for self-expression and as someone who leans towards brights and prints, I found myself less inspired (oh dear, I’ve started to sound rather ‘arty’) and, dare I say it, more tired. The idea that simply changing my wardrobe colour palette could have an effect on how I worked and my energy levels really challenged my hardy, northern roots.
Despite our funereal attire, the reaction from gallery visitors was overwhelmingly positive. I had suspected they would laugh at our attempts to be the next Tracey Emin, but far from it. They stopped to chat – one visitor told me that our installation “really made him smile”, another that “it’s really challenged me to think about what constitutes art”. By the end of the week, 225 people had created a Stylist cover, 293 had voted in our Which Of These Artworks Is Worth £7.9million? quiz and many others had given their suggestions on future Stylist features and potential contributors. Art lovers, it seems, are incredibly open to new things.
As we grew accustomed to our new office (and appreciative of its vicinity to the King’s Road shops), we still hadn’t answered the overriding question – had we become art? I wasn’t sure. I needed a professional opinion, so I spoke to Paul Hobson, director of the Contemporary Art Society, whose philosophy is to help people to develop an enjoyable relationship with contemporary art.
“Art has to work hard now. We live in a visually saturated world where advertising dominates and that advertising makes life easy for us,” he says. “It tells us what to think without asking us to do any work for it. Art, on the other hand, challenges us to think. It has to become more creative, more landmark, more spectacular to compete with advertising. Theatricality is a trend right now and Stylist’s proposition definitely fits that criteria.”
So can we really consider ourselves art when there were no paintbrushes, oil paints or easels involved? “You can become art just by being in a gallery because you’re making a proposal to the visitors of that gallery,” explains Hobson. “You’re interacting with and challenging the audience and you’re creating something. That makes you art.
“Next time you go to an art gallery, don’t ask for a programme which tells you how to think as you’ll be missing the point entirely. Instead look at it and ask yourself the following questions: what is it, what is it made of, what colours is it, what does it make me think, what does it make me feel? Whether you like the answers to those questions is how you decide if you like the piece. Don’t base it on what someone else tells you to feel.”
Working in the Saatchi pushed us out of our comfort zone. There is no doubt that your surroundings, what you wear and who you meet influence how you work. It also challenged the people who came to watch us. And that’s exactly the point of modern art – to challenge how you think and feel, and to inspire new thought processes and ideas. And while I’m still not convinced that flicking a light switch on and off is art, I really do believe that we were art. Albeit for one week only.