Page 8, 29th September 2000

29th September 2000
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Page 8, 29th September 2000 — Art that shocks and eviscerates
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Organisations: Royal Academy
Locations: Washington DC, Sarthe

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Art that shocks and eviscerates

Art Patrick Reyntiens

LONDON is packed with "Modern Art" at the moment. Everybody is at it. Go to the Saatchi Gallery for the latest, well not quite the latest, acquisitions of the great publicity billionaire. (98 Boundary Road, N.W.8; entry £5, catalogue £12).

It's worth going to, because there are some rather beautiful things in it. And some duds. A round spot-on multiple dotty number by Damien Hirst reminds one of a Vasarely with migraine. After that there are some three dozen drawings by the Chapman Brothers, bordering all of them on the obscene, but nevertheless quite remarkable. The Chapmans have gained a reputation for general and confrontational obscenity (it's quite deserved) hut they are artists of very considerable knowledge and talent, and the drawings, owing something to Goya, Busch and Brcughel, are to be valued for their own intrinsic worth.

Not so Tracy Emin. Almost in the same room as the Chapman's are the collected bores of Tracy Ernin's oeuvre. Her "Bed" , needless to say, is there, and her "Beach Hut" and indeed herself — what other? — photographed in the nude. All are there to be stared at. It occurred to me then that the distinction between art and the sacred, so clearly understood in the Catholic Middle Ages, has become (like much else) completely blurred in the early 21st century.

Entin's "Bed" and "Hut" are malignly parallel to two relics which she probably knows absolutely nothing about. The first is that enormous double bed in which St Th6rese de Lisieux was born. It can be seen behind glass, together with all the appurtenances of a prosperous 19th century bourgeois bedroom, in the chapel attached to it in Alencon. Sarthe, France.

The second of course is the I loly House of Loreto. It is this confusion, totally misunderstood or rather completely non-comprehended, through the protestant cultural provenance of modern England. now largely godless, that gives conge for Tracy Emin to proffer such worthless objects as genuine works of art. They are blithely taken on her value by the intellectual cognoscenti of our day. What a pity. How foolish can people be?

BUT TO Tilt: Royal Academy. There the exhibition Apocalypse is geared up to shock, scarify and eviscerate the public, as from last Saturday. But (hush, we are observed!) it is a vacuous failure. It is not worth spending the money to see it. My guess is that Norman Rosenthal, the exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy was so smitten by the horror and impact of the Chapman Brothers' (them again) eight tableaux of prisoner of war camps. extermination camps and gas chamber elimination-camps, reminiscent of the Holocaust, that he determined to assemble an exhibition around them, an exhibition heavy in apocalyptic admonition, heavily political in empha

sis; hence the captivating title. The Chapman Brothers' tableaux, each some nine feet in length and four feet wide, glazed in, stand in some seven feet in height and with a table height of, say, four feet, are arranged in the form of a swastika. Each contains upwards of four to five hundred figures, some two inches high apiece in which the Nazis do the most horrible things possible to defenceless naked males. The result, closely observed, is horrifying in the extreme. But there is a difficulty. The scale is wrong, and what should grip the spectator in hopelessly suspended incomprehension does not do more than produce a sustained, but detached, curiosity and interest. Prior to publicity and hype has assured is of the quality of horror by exaggerating the scale of the image presented, but this preformed attitude of mind evaporates in front of the image, since the minuscule scale induces us to squirmy at the carnage, and the act of squinnying, as we all know, detaches observation from emotion. Hence the Chap roan Brothers' ghastly performance, in spite of the extraordinary craft employed. falls flat on its face.

Indeed the whole exhibition falls on its face, since there simply is not enough horror and apocalyptic mate

rial in the world-wide artscene to back up the theme as projected. Two other instances in the huge and vacuous show will suffice. The first is the bathos and

unconscious humour provided by Jeff Koons in the Wohl Rotunda. This is as grisly an artistic non-sequitur as you could believe, let alone see. In explanation of Jeff Koons (he rates himself as third in line in eminence in the modern art world after Andy Warhol and Picasso) we must remember the American scene of which unfortunately he is only too recently typical. Historically an inspection of the Jefferson Memorial, in its huge classical rotunda close by the Potomac River in the centre of Washington DC, gives one a clue. The spectator is simultaneously struck by the delicacy of the image — that of a Meissen or Nymphenberg shepherd boy — and the implacability of the matiere — that of a 20ft funeral effigy from the Ramasseum in Ancient Egypt. In the Jefferson Memorial you have to swallow the two experiences — of innocence and implacability — at one and the same time. It is incongruous, but inevitable. Something similar is posited by the Jeff Koons experience in the Wohl rotunda, except that the "innocence" quotient is just too unsustainably silly (it's a pink varnished, stainless-steel copy. of a party-toy blow-up balloon poodle-dog, 35ft in height.) The result is pathetic, and moves itself effortlessly out of consideration as art at all. The same goes for the fatuous paintings, on the hugest of scales, that surround his giant icon of infantile America. It is, to coin a phrase, utterly wincemaking.

And now to the bombarded Pope, the stained Pope, if you like. Well, it is in a room all by itself, and again the prepublicity gives one an impression of finality and tragedy that does not in the event come off. There the waxwork effigy is in a huge room with a red carpet and a hole in the skylight where the meteorite supposedly has come through and the whole thing doesn't begin to pass the "so-what" test. It is entirely pointless and unimpressive, political and insulting though it may be. Nevertheless I took out my huge rosary and knelt down and said a decade, much to the disgust and discomfurture of those passing by. But 1 was sincere in praying for the Pope, whose effigy was so degraded, even though the act did tend to send the whole exhibition up. Right; perhaps that's the thing to do. Let every Catholic who visits the show take out his/her rosary and say a few decades in Gallery Three for the Pope's intentions in spite of the public. That might put the whole silly exhibition into its proper perspective, come to think of it.




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