Shock tactics

Although some of the works at the Royal Academy's autumn show are deeply disturbing, others have strong links with the past. Michael Clarke reports.

Charles Saatchi began buying contemporary art in the Seventies and opened a gallery in which to exhibit selected works from the rapidly accumulating collection in 1985. Now, many of the works that have been on show over the years at the Saatchi Gallery can be seen at the Royal Academy, in their autumn show Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. (They are also the subject of Sarah Kent's book, Shark Infested Waters: The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the '90s, Zwemmer Pounds 25.) Sam Taylor-Wood's large "Wreck-ed" photographically reinterprets da Vinci's "The Last Supper". The lineage of the life-sized trompe l'oeil horse in the four canvases of Mark Wallinger's "Race Class Sex" can be traced back to one painted by George Stubbs in the late 18th century. Glen Brown's "Dali-Christ" could easily be mistaken for the Catalan Surrealist's "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans", were it not for its inflated proportions and subtle manipulations. And with more up-to-date but still art-historical reference, Gavin Turk's "Pop" casts himself, in Madame Tussaud fashion, as ex-Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, adopting the pose of Warhol's iconic portrait of Elvis Presley.

All these items offer readily recognisable frameworks for interpretation, and in other ways so do many more. In both subject (the female nude) and technique (a very painterly realism), Jenny Saville's work would easily meet the criteria of a present-day academic jury. One aspect of Fiona Rae's exuberant canvases is her juxtaposition of almost every markmaking device associated with 20th-century movements in art. And anyone with the most superficial experience of a natural history museum is well-prepared for Damien Hirst's animals preserved in formaldehyde. The sometimes provocative aspect of these pieces lies in the way the familiar components are used.

"Sensation", therefore, may be a calculated media-attracting title. Yet despite its manifest diversity, this exhibition remains a single person's view. The popular press, however, has chosen to focus attention on a single work: Marcus Harvey's uncharacteristic monochrome portrait of Myra Hindley, reminiscent of police mug-shots but composed of innumerable imprints of a child's cast hand, which was attacked last week and has now been withdrawn.

This highly contentious picture, nevertheless, does reflect a repeated concern with sex, suffering and death, much of it articulated through an obsession with the human body. The tabloid pornographic dimensions of Sarah Lucas's "Sod You Gits", like the perversely mutated children in Jake and Dinos Chapman's "Zygnotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model" or the eroticised "Bullet Hole" of Mat Collishaw are deeply disturbing, but the printed material prepared by the academy's education department maintains a consistently sobre approach. Sex, suffering and death are among the most persistent preoccupations of all art.

Although the exhibition is not recommended for under-14s, there is a students' pack, Shaking and Stirring, for 14 to 18-year-olds. A handful of the exhibits may only be viewed by over-18s.

The teachers' pack acknowledges the Thatcherite self-promoting strategies so successfully adopted by this generation, and, while the Introductory Guide reminds us that each work of art reflects the culture in which it is made and is ultimately determined by our responses, both texts question the influence of patrons and collectors in the character and evaluation of contemporary art.

For information on the accompanying education programme, tel 0171 300 573233 or fax 0171 300 5781

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