It is not easy to make small talk about chess. When people hear that I played the game professionally for several years they often ask what kinds of chess sets I like—ornate, sculpted, antique? The conversation doesn’t get any easier when I say that a cheap plastic set is often just as good, if not better. For an experienced player the design of the board and pieces, however finely conceived, feels like a distraction from the real wellspring of aesthetic charm: the pristine logic and beguiling geometry of chess.
So when Radio 4’s Front Row asked me to review “The Art of Chess” at the Saatchi Gallery I was intrigued, but I doubted that these distinguished artists could capture the art of chess as chess players experience it. In that sense the premise of the exhibition felt slightly obtuse to me, a way of playing at being serious rather than being serious about play. It is, of course, wonderful to have the enduring cultural resonance of chess celebrated in such a prestigious way. Yet I wondered whether these figures have a legitimate warrant to represent chess as a cultural reference point when few of them know anything about chess as a game.
On this point I have my own prejudices. Although my father is an artist, Borges captured my own experience of visual art when he suggested that “the immanence of a revelation that does not occur may in fact be the aesthetic fact.” I sense, perhaps wrongly, that I can experience such revelations more directly and intensely through playing chess than admiring other art forms. I think this is what Marcel Duchamp was getting at with his famous statement that all chess players are artists.
In case I sound like a philistine, I am conscious of missing out and confess to a kind of aesthetic impotence of my own making. However, at “The Art of Chess,” which features work by a range of famous names including Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, I was genuinely moved by visual art for the first time, perhaps because the boards and pieces on display spoke so directly to three decades of playing, teaching and writing about the game. Alas, I can only mention a few of the items here.
I felt particularly validated by Paul McCarthy’s Kitchen Set, a nondescript wooden chess board the size of a large kitchen table. Set on top of it are random objects from his kitchen, including a huge bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup (I think it was supposed to be a rook). This idea is powerful because chess is so consistently caricatured in popular culture as elitist and abstract, whereas for me it has always been inclusive and tangible.
McCarthy’s contribution shows that chess can—and perhaps should—be just another object, an extension of domestic experience. The game got into my soul as a teenager, when I would flirt with new opening variations on a board propped up by a chest of drawers in the alcove of my bedroom window in Aberdeen. I would sit there slightly uncomfortably, eating bran flakes and raisins, listening to U2 albums, and hoping my skin would look clearer the next day. Chess was part of the room, part of the home, part of the experience of growing up.
The game has changed since then, and chess computer programs have become so user-friendly that many young players may not even have a three-dimensional set in their homes. Paul Freyer’s Chess Set for Tesla looks like a powerful expression of this development: the electric lights on the pieces and metallic feel of the whole set represent, for me, the fact that chess is increasingly a game for cyborgs, a place where the boundary between humans and machines seems increasingly blurred.
One of the main factors behind my turn away from professional chess was the experience of a training camp with some of the world’s elite players. In that context, “chess” was experienced as the regular tapping of a space bar in a dimly lit room. The analysis engines churned out variations and assessment for us, the resident grandmasters, to filter.
Freyer’s piece is at least timely and relevant, but on reflection I felt let down. Although he had highlighted a key aspect of the modern chess experience, he hadn’t added any conceptual content to the kinds of basic computer chess sets that we have known for decades. In this respect it is blandly descriptive, even corny.
Oliver Clegg’s Nights Move has more of a narrative, biographical quality. He features a chess set situated in an exact replica of Freud’s office, with the twist that the pieces have been made out of copies of the Egyptian artefacts that Freud collected. Clegg confessed that Freud didn’t play chess, and said relatively little about it in his writings. I was disappointed, however, that the artist was unaware that hardened Freudians think of chess as a way of sublimating patricidal tendencies. On this account, the quest for checkmate—literally killing the king—is a thinly disguised means of managing our Oedipus complexes. Such an interpretation might explain why most chess players are men, and why many world champions have ambivalent relationships with their fathers. Then again, it might not.
Before the exhibition I was sufficiently aware of Damien Hirst to know that he is both controversial and celebrated. For what it’s worth, I felt his chess set, Mental Escapology, was several orders of magnitude more profound than the others on display. I initially walked right past it, not realising it was part of the exhibition. It is set aside, a flat table against a wall without an obvious chess pattern, while a kitchen cabinet above contains what first appear to be glass medicine bottles. The exhibit does not respond to your mind’s first search for a pattern resembling chess.
Wonderfully, when you examine the table closely, 64 squares start to emerge. There are subtle shadings that require you to look carefully before a stable board emerges in perception. And then as corollary and epiphany, you see that the medicine cabinet is comprised of chess pieces that are standing to attention in all the appropriate sizes and numbers.
Hirst not only captures the unconventional truth that chess functions for many as a tonic, a medicine for the soul, but he also offers a glimpse of its phenomenology, and simulates the joy of chess experience. The game comes alive not through the board and pieces as such but through the effort your mind makes to establish order out of the initial chaos of perception. Hirst’s chess set is profoundly true to the spirit of the game because it only exists for the mind that seeks it out.
It is this magic of search and discovery that characterises my deep love of chess, and I feel grateful to Hirst for revealing this core aspect of the game to me in an entirely fresh and original way. In this sense at least, chess can be trumped by art.
“The Art of Chess” is at the Saatchi Gallery until 3rd October
Dr Jonathan Rowson is a grandmaster and three-time British Chess Champion. He is currently director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA. You can follow him on Twitter at @jonathan_rowson
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