8 Famous Artworks From The Young British Artist Movement (YBA)

The Young British Artists (YBA) stirred up the British art world in the 1980s and 1990s with their provocative and unconventional works. Here are their 8 most important art pieces.

Oct 17, 2020By Alexandra Karg, BA Art History & Literature
young british artist
The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst, 1991 (left); with Preserve ‘beauty’ by Anya Gallaccio, 1991 – 2003 (center); and The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili, 1996 (right)


The Young British Artists (YBAs) are a group of young artists who emerged in the 1980s. Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Garry Hume are just three of the names that became famous in the course of the movement. There has never been a manifesto or official association of the Young British Artists. Rather, it was external circumstances and an artistic consensus that united the group. Many of the Young British Artists studied at London’s Goldsmith College and exhibited their works in the Saatchi Gallery of art collector Charles Saatchi. The so-called “Freeze” exhibition, curated by the then 22-year-old art student Damien Hirst, is from today’s perspective often cited as the birth of the group. 


Young British Artist Movement (YBAM): Purpose Of Provocation

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“Freeze” opening party 1988, from left to right: Ian Davenport, Damien Hirst, Angela Bulloch, Fiona Rae, Stephen Park, Anya Gallaccio, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume, via Phaidon


The artistic consensus of the Young British Artist Movement was a common will to provoke. With animal carcasses, pornography, and works of art made from everyday objects and found materials, the artists positioned themselves politically – both within a conservative society and within the art world of the 1980s and 1990s. Another important aspect of the formation of YBAM is its entrepreneurial approach to showing and marketing their work. The fact that there was more than pure provocation behind the postmodern works was proven not least by nominations and the awarding of the renowned Turner Prize to several YBAs.


Here we present 8 famous works of art by the Young British Artists.


1. Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibilities Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living (1991)

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The Physical Impossibilities of Death In The Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst, 1991, via The Independent


Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibilities of Death In The Mind of Someone Living (1991) also known as “The Shark” is probably the most famous artwork of the YBA group. When the young artist created the work in 1991, he shocked many viewers. The artwork shows a tiger shark in formaldehyde. The work displays death in an unconventional and explicit way. As the title already suggests, Damien Hirst also refers the viewer to his own death, or rather to the impossibility of imagining his own death – even with a dead animal in front of him. 

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physical impossibilites of death mind someone living damien hirst
The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst, 1991, via Fineartmultiple


It is in this sense that the tiger shark, despite the knowledge about it, does not necessarily appear to be dead, but in a way also alive. After the shark began to decompose after more than a decade, the animal had to be replaced in 2006. With the exchange of the animal and by changing the artwork, the artist provoked questions about the originality of a work of art.


2. Tracey Emin, My Bed (1998)

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My Bed by Tracey Emin, 1998, via Christie’s


My Bed (1998) is a work by the artist Tracey Emin that has generated a great deal of controversy. With the piece, which was exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1999, Tracey Emin brought her own bed in its original state into a gallery space. This was after, according to her own statement, she had spent four days in this bed during the depressive phase of a break-up and had consumed nothing but alcohol. Empty liquor bottles, used condoms and dirty underwear were gathered around the bed. My Bed is a typically provocative and personal work by the artist. When the work was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1999, it produced a controversial debate in the British media. 


The provocation of the work culminated in an action by Japanese performance artists Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi, who engaged in a pillow fight in Emin’s bed during the exhibition. The work My Bed not only turned the conventional notion of a work of art upside down by using everyday materials. It also challenged the classic notion of ‘appropriate’ behavior of a young woman in the 1990s in a postmodern manner.


3. Tracey Emin, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995 (1995)

tracey emin everyone i have ever slept with
Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995 by Tracey Emin, 1995, via Widewalls


Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995 (1995) is another work by the artist Tracey Emin. The work consisted of a tent in which the artist published all the names of people she had ever slept with until 1995, in a sexual and also in a non-sexual sense. A total of 102 names were found in the tent. 


The artist explained her work as follows: “Some I’d had a shag with in bed or against a wall some I had just slept with, like my grandma. I used to lay in her bed and hold her hand. We used to listen to the radio together and nod off to sleep. You don’t do that with someone you don’t love and don’t care about.” The famous art dealer and gallery owner Charles Saatchi bought the work back then. When Saatchi’s warehouse burned down in 2004, the artwork was destroyed together with others.


4. Michael Landy, Market (1990)

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Market by Michael Landy, 1990, via Thomas Dane Gallery, London


The installation Market (1990) by artist Michael Landy, one of the Young British Artists, is a socially critical work. For the artwork, Michael Landy arranged parts of typical London market stalls with artificial grass in an exhibition space. With his installation, the artist referred to the extinction of typical London food markets and a tradition of individual sale and purchase of food products. The exhibition space in which the installation was originally exhibited once again illustrates this thematic reference: Landy exhibited his work Market 1990 in an old cookie factory. Although in this case, too, the exhibition of everyday materials as art can be seen as form-critical, this installation met with far more understanding from the public than, for example, the feminist artworks of the artist Tracey Emin.

5. Anya Gallaccio, Preserve ‘Beauty’ (1991 – 2003)

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Preserve ‘beauty’ by Anya Gallaccio, 1991 – 2003, via Tate, London


The work Preserve (beauty) by artist Anya Gallaccio also carries a feminist and critical-emancipatory approach. Hundreds of beautiful red flowers woven into a carpet of flowers – this is how Anya Gallaccio’s installation first appeared in her first exhibition in the Karsten Schubert Gallery in the 1990s. By exhibiting her installation object, the artist exposed the flowers to decay, thus explicitly alluding to the vanitas theme in art history. Over time, the decay of the flowers became both visible to visitors to the gallery and perceptible to them via a musty smell. The work depicts a temporal decay in real-time, as Renaissance paintings on the subject could only suggest. With Preserve (beauty), the artist also refers to human decay and makes the viewers of her artwork think about their own process of decay.


6. Angus Fairhurst, Pietà (First Version) (1996)

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Pietà (first version) by Angus Fairhurst, 1996, via Tate, London


Even though the Young British Artists regularly sounded out the boundaries of previously existing art with their art, their artworks were not entirely detached from traditional art. Anya Gallacio’s Preserve (beauty) already proved this and Angus Fairhurst’s Pietà (1996) also shows this. 


The Pietà is known as a classical religious motif in art history, which has been used in works by a wide variety of artists over the centuries. With his self-timer photography, artist Angus Fairhurst also plays with this motif. Naked as Jesus, however, he is not lying in the arms of the holy mother, but on the lap of a disguised gorilla. In this ensemble, the visible cable of the self-timer acts as a technical sign of liveliness, while the artist’s closed eyes are supposed to convey lifelessness. The gorilla is a recurring motif in Fairhurst’s works.


7. Jenny Saville, Plan (1993)

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Plan by Jenny Saville, 1993, via Art Market Monitor


The painting Plan (1993) by artist Jenny Saville moves in a field of tension between classical technique and modern body images. In her painting, Saville looks down on the viewer and, by applying topographical lines, turns her body into a map that the viewer can explore by looking at the painting. What the viewer sees is by no means polished and perfect like many people are used to seeing in painting. Instead, the body in the picture shows soft shapes and dents. The art collector Charles Saatchi became aware of the painter in the 1990s, bought all her paintings that were presented in an exhibition in Edinburgh and then took her under an 18-month contract to give her the opportunity to paint new pictures.


8. Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996)

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The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili, 1996, via MoMA, New York


Chris Ofili‘s work The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) was one of the most controversial in the so-called Sensations exhibition of the Young British Artists in 1997. It is a representation of the Holy Virgin Mary, a multi-media work made of rather profane materials: glitter, images from pop culture and a breast formed out of elephant dung. You can imagine: the latter was considered irreverent by many viewers and critics. The artist Chris Ofili, on the other hand, defended the integration of this material into his painting by saying that elephant dung in Zimbabwe, where Ofili spent a study visit, stands for fertility.


Summary Of The Young British Artist Movement

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Preserve ‘beauty’ by Anya Gallaccio, 1991 – 2003, via Tate, London


Unconventional and provocative but also explicitly political – this is how the work of the Young British Artists (YBA) can be briefly summarized. This selection of eight artists makes it clear that all participants in this postmodern artist-movement had their unique approach, and yet there is a consensus among them.


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By Alexandra KargBA Art History & LiteratureHey! I am Alexandra Karg. I am researching, writing and lecturing on topics in the field of art and culture. In my hometown of Berlin I completed my studies in literature and art history. Since then I have been working as a journalist and writer. Besides writing, it is my passion to read, travel and visit museums and galleries. On TheCollector.com you will find articles by me about art and culture, especially about topics referring to the 20th century and the present.