Chess appears to be quite the popular social pastime nowadays. Its appearance in the video for Prada’s A/W12 campaign has lead this rigorously intellectual game to replace Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit as the ‘go-to’ dinner party amusement. To fuel our newly found mental prowess, The Saatchi Gallery’s new exhibition ‘The Art of Chess’ showcases 16 contemporary artists’ re-interpretation of chess sets and its continued relevance to art. With strictly no touching allowed we had to hold back our desire to use Benko Gambit series of opening moves against each other.

‘The Art of Chess’ is the culmination of an ongoing project by London-based design company RS&A who, since 2003, have been commissioning leading contemporary artists to reinterpret the traditional chequered playing board and pieces. With an impressive list of artists including Maurizio Cattelan, Damien Hirst, Yayoi Kasuma, Gavin Turk, Tracey Emin, and Barbara Kruger, the resulting chess sets demonstrate how the game has retained its inspirational power centuries after the game was first created in the 7th century.

Art and chess have long been historically intertwined, with Surrealist Marcel Duchamp as the leading artist associated with this solitary and silent mental sport. Duchamp infused his artistic oeuvre with the theme of chess, either aesthetically or conceptually, which acted as a larger metaphor for his work itself. The artist also published a book with chess theorist Vitaly Halberstadt on rare endgame positions in chess – a problem with no solution. By commissioning contemporary artists for the project, RS&A had the intention of recreating the 1944 exhibition ‘The Imagery of Chess’ which had chess sets designed by Max Ernst, Joseph Hartwig and, of course, Duchamp. All of the artists featured in ‘The Art of Chess’ have distinct and individual voices within the art world and their sets reflect the values and issues nearly a century later. We don’t think that the artists had any solutions to Duchamp’s endgame problems, but they were very resourceful when creating their individual pieces.

The designed chess sets are as individual as the artists themselves. Damien Hirst has created an eerie, sterile playing environment with glass and metal casts of medicine bottles as playing pieces. Rachel Whiteread’s piece continues her investigation into ‘unhemlich’ domestic sculptures, with miniature dollhouse furniture acting as playing pieces on a patchwork-quilted set. Barbara Kruger, meanwhile, created the first-ever talking chess set where each piece is specifically programmed to either ask a question or make a statement when moved. With messages like ‘don’t even think about it’ and ‘why prolong the pain’, the pieces do not instil us with the confidence we required to prevent our Queen from being knocked out. American artist Paul McCarthy, a keen chess player himself, made his set from random objects discovered in his kitchen. If a dinner party guest fancies a game, simply whip out your coffee grinder and ketchup bottle to act as Rooks. It’s that easy. Yayoi Kusama turned her set into a red and white spotted pumpkin, creating a fairy tale setting reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland or Cinderella. No word yet if one of her Louis Vuitton designed shoes will make an appearance at midnight – we’ll have to hide in the Gallery closet to find out.

We’re not sure if Bobby Fischer would react favourably if he would have been asked to use Whiteread’s miniature couch as a pawn, but we would give it a try any day. Although we would probably use it to hold our chips, as we grabbed the ketchup bottle off of McCarthy’s piece.

The Art of Chess is on until 3 October. For more information [click here]

Words by Zoe Alexander.

Tim Noble and Sue Webster ‘Deadalive’. Photography by Norbert Schoerner. Courtesy RS&A.

Damien Hirst ‘Mental Escapology’, 2003. Glass, silver, wood, enamel and stainless steel + 2 medical stools. Trolley/board: 88 x 74 x 74 cm. Cabinet: 65 x 82 x 16 cm. © Damien Hirst, 2003. Courtesy RS&A

Yayoi Kusama ‘Pumpkin Chess’, 2003. Porcelain, wood and leather
Case/board: 75 x 200 (diameter) cm © Yayoi Kusama, 2003. Courtesy RS&A