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Monday, October 4, 1999 Published at 20:51 GMT 21:51 UK

World: Americas

Sensation: Critics give mixed response

Chris Ofili's picture of the Madonna draws interest

Controversy has once again proved itself the oxygen of publicity.

Sensation, the controversial art exhibition that became a civil rights debate in the run-up to its opening in New York, is drawing in the crowds.

This is not an indication of rave reviews, but an innate desire by New Yorkers to see what all the fuss is about.

[ image: A shark in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst]
A shark in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst
The show hit the headlines when New York mayor, Rudolph Guiliani, called it "sick" and "disgusting" and an affront to religion that should not receive taxpayer funding.

His decision to withdraw public funds for the museum sparked a row over whether this was a violation of First Amendment rights to free speech.

Yet on Saturday more than 9,000 curious individuals voted with their feet, and turned up to the first day of the show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It was the largest opening in the museum's 175-year history.

A further 4,000 queued for up to 90 minutes on Sunday, before parting with the $9.75 admission fee.

But critics have been less sure of the show, which consists of works drawn entirely from the collection of British art mogul Charles Saatchi.

[ image: Many viewers enjoyed the show]
Many viewers enjoyed the show
The New Yorker said it "offers plenty of targets for indignation - such as a rotting cow's head covered with flies and mannequins of little girls with genitals on their faces".

But there is warm praise for the piece which has been at the centre of the rumpus - a portrait of a black Virgin Mary, complete with elephant dung and cut outs from pornographic magazines.

The reviewer called the work, by Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili, "gorgeous, sweet and respectful of its subject".

Time's critic Steven Henry Madoff, took something of a jaundiced view of the exhibition's shock tactics. He called it a "sheep in wolf's clothing" and dismissed the Ofili painting as a "calculated come-on".

"In work after work you see the same calculation peeking its tongue-wagging little head out of the art [which is] lewd and long on visual pratfalls."


Au Naturel, a work by Sarah Lucas, which features an old mattress leaning against a wall with an erect cucumber and two oranges at its base, and two ripe melons, epitomises the sniggering schoolboy tone of the show, he concludes.

The portrait of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley, made up of thousands of children's handprints, caused few heads to turn.

It was this portrait which raised most hackles when Sensation opened at London's Royal Academy in London two years ago. However, Hindley's crimes are largely unknown in the US.

The controversial nature of the show, which extends to a work by Jake and Dinos Chapman, of girlish mannequins with phalluses for noses and sexual orifices in all the wrong places, pleased many of the gallery-going public.

Rachel Fedde, said the exhibit "was really well put-together, impressive, great, beautiful".

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