Studio International

Published 05/11/2000

Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art

Royal Academy of Art, London W1
through 5 December 2000

Internationalism at the R A

The exhibition contains the work of thirteen artists (or partnerships) allocated thirteen separate spaces. The artists are international, with three Americans, one Dutch, one German, one Italian, one Japanese and eight British. The subtitle, Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art, suggests some dedicated searching for the sublime, which regrettably must be said not to be achieved in any respect.

   Norman Rosenthal, Exhibitions Secretary at the Royal Academy, and architect of a dramatic financial recovery through exhibition takings over the past five years, admits to seeking to engage the public in art, and his current estimate that some ninety percent of visitors do engage with the work on display seems hard to challenge, however. But it is here already a different interaction than was the case with Rosenthal’s 1997 precursor in this show "Sensation". Then the opportunity naturally to engage, rather than submit to shock, was limited, and the work was more immediately confrontational. Apocalypse seems by contrast to rely heavily upon "the word", the explanatory text, substantial catalogue explanations to relive direct confrontation, or to mediate this by easing the passage of the bemused.

Leitmotif

Inside, the keynote pieces seem to be a vast "tableau" of models. The text advises that the whole is in the form of a swastika, which is not at all apparent visually. Hell is a vast set piece of nine model landscapes, vignettes of horror, which collectively revisit the experience of twentieth century holocaust. In this one, the Nazis are persecuting other Nazis.

So much Bosch-like activity and Bruegelesque persecution is in process (and we are obligingly provided with an illustration in the Catalogue, of Bruegel’s "The Triumph of Death", to prompt us. As Daniel Libeskin, architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin has reminded us "the holocaust was an everyday event". But the Chapmans, authors of "Hell" here, reduced their ultimate message exactly be charging up the fantasy factors and so discounting that realism.

Cavorting Figures

By contrast, and without any text mercifully Chris Cunningham’s film "Flex" shows two human figures, male and female, turning through a vortex of horrors, flaying each other in blood lust, then slowly cavorting, embracing, and making love. Visual effects dramatically used, enhance this unreality.
   Next door, Wolfgang Tillmans, fashion photographer turned artist, seems all too slick, belying the emphasis on a seamless transition between these two worlds. In another space, Maurice Cattelan has as his subject the current Pope being floored by a meteorite; is it shocking, or merely juvenile to see a contemporary hero of the struggles against totalitarianism in the twentieth century waggishly ridiculed?

Cellars without Aroma

In interview, Norman Rosenthal has claimed that there is a different aim in the exhibition that simply to shock; a work may, incidentally, prove shocking, but that is not the main point. Nor was any art exhibited actually created specifically for the show. Perhaps fatefully, there is this element of play: as if one had broken into a warehouse of horror by chance. It feels somehow freeze-dried, safer than reality.
   The spectre of Fred West lingers in the English folklore, in company with the murderers of small children, still at loose. Not a particularly English show: and yet an English perversity that plays with shock-horror pervades the selection of works here. Beauty is conspicuous only by its absence as the phenomenology of perceived horrors wins out. Groggier Schneider’s work "Cellare", of an abandoned house conveys this negative aesthetic.
    Such unease cannot compensate the visitors for the pungent insincerity behind the show. As Will Self said, of Noble and Webster’s pile of rubbish "The Undesirables", "it didn’t smell…it should have stunk to high heaven". Curators please note and correct.

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