The Young British Artist Movement (YBA): 10 Famous Artworks You Should Know

The Young British Artists (YBA) shook up the British art world in the 1980s and 1990s with their provocative and unconventional works.

Jul 21, 2024By 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 Gary Hume are just three of the names that became famous throughout 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 often cited today as the birth of the group.


The Young British Artist Movement (YBA): Purpose of Provocation

“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. Source: Phaidon


The artistic throughline of the Young British Artist Movement was their common will to provoke. With animal carcasses, pornography, and works of art made from everyday objects and found materials, the artists positioned themselves politically within a conservative society and the art world of the 1980s and 1990s. Another important aspect of the formation of YBA is its entrepreneurial approach to showing and marketing the work of its artists. The fact that there was more than pure provocation behind the postmodern works was proven by nominations and the awarding of the renowned Turner Prize to several YBAs. Below are ten famous works of art by the Young British Artists.


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

The Physical Impossibilities of Death In The Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst, 1991. Source: 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 to come out of the YBA group. When the young artist created the work in 1991, he shocked many viewers. The artwork consists of a massive tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde. The work displays death unconventionally and explicitly. As the title 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.


The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst, 1991. Source: Fineartmultiple


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The tiger shark in this work, despite the knowledge about it, does not necessarily appear to be dead, but in a way also alive. After more than a decade on display, the shark began to decompose and 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)

My Bed by Tracey Emin, 1998. Source: 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 Emin, she had spent four days in this bed during the depressive phase of a break-up and consumed nothing but alcohol. Empty liquor bottles, used condoms, cigarettes, 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, with the angry public claiming that a messy bed was not art.


Details of My Bed by Tracey Emin. Source: Tate


The provocation of the work culminated in an action by Japanese performance artists Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi, who engaged in a fifteen-minute 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, but it also challenged the classic notion of the ‘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)

Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995 by Tracey Emin, 1995. Source: Widewalls


Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995 (1995) is another famous 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.


Interior of the tent by Tracey Emin. Source: Widewalls


The artist explained her work, saying, “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. When Saatchi’s Momart warehouse burned down in 2004, the artwork was destroyed, along with many other irreplaceable artworks.


4. Michael Landy, Market (1990)

Market by Michael Landy, 1990. Source: 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 covered in artificial grass in an exhibition space. With his installation, the artist referred to the impending 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 illustrates this thematic reference; Landy exhibited his work Market 1990 in an old cookie factory. In this case, too, the exhibition of everyday materials as art can be seen as form-critical. Perhaps because Landy is a man, his installation was met with far more understanding from the public than, for example, the feminist artworks of Tracey Emin.


5. Anya Gallaccio, preserve ‘beauty’ (1991 – 2003)

preserve ‘beauty’ by Anya Gallaccio, 1991 – 2003. Source: Tate, London


The work preserve (beauty) by artist Anya Gallaccio (1991-2003) also carries a feminist and critical-emancipatory approach. Hundreds of beautiful and bright red flowers woven into a carpet of flowers is how the installation first appeared in her initial 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 art history’s vanitas theme. Over time, the decay of the flowers became visible to the gallery’s visitors and perceptible to them via a musty smell. The work depicts a temporal decay in real-time, as Renaissance paintings on the subject only suggested back in the day. 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)

Pietà (first version) by Angus Fairhurst, 1996. Source: 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)

Details from Plan by Jenny Saville (1993). Source: Digital Museum


The painting Plan (1993) by artist Jenny Saville moves in a field of tension between classical technique and images of the modern body. 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 Saville 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)

The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili, 1996. Source: MoMA, New York


Chris Ofili’s work The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) was one of the most controversial in the Sensations exhibition of the Young British Artists in 1997. It represents 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. As one can imagine, the latter was considered irreverent by many viewers and critics. The artist Chris Ofili defended the integration of this material into his painting by saying that elephant dung in Zimbabwe, where Ofili spent a study visit, represents fertility.


9. Sarah Lucas, Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996)

Self Portrait with Fried Eggs by Sarah Lucas, 1996. Source: The Guardian


Sarah Lucas’ 1996 piece Self Portrait with Fried Eggs is a humorous and remarkable parody of the female body. In the artwork, Lucas has two fried eggs placed over her breasts and a pack of cigarettes sits on the floor by her feet. This work is exemplary of Lucas’ reputation in the Young British Artist circles as a “ladette.” She often created pieces in which she was depicted behaving in traditionally “laddish” ways, such as sitting on the toilet or smoking cigarettes. Lucas’ works were a challenge to the traditional stereotypes of femininity and masculinity, often causing viewers to consider social constructs surrounding gender norms.


10. Mat Collishaw, Narcissus (1990)

Narcissus by Mat Collishaw, 1990. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Narcissus by Mat Collishaw (1990) is a black-and-white photograph that depicts the artist lying shirtless on a muddy London street, staring at his reflection in a puddle. An urban interpretation of Caravaggio‘s portrait of Narcissus, Collishaw’s work adds a modern meaning to the centuries-old myth. Though his work is quite contemporary, the artist’s catalog is full of references to the old masters such as this one.


Summary of The Young British Artist Movement

Preserve ‘beauty’ by Anya Gallaccio, 1991 – 2003. Source: 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 ten artists makes it clear that all participants in this postmodern artist movement had their own unique approach, and yet there was a general consensus among them.


Originally published: October 17, 2020. Last update: July 21, 2024 by Elizabeth Berry

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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 you will find articles by me about art and culture, especially about topics referring to the 20th century and the present.