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Wednesday, 20 September, 2000, 10:41 GMT 11:41 UK
Art's shock treatment

Following the success of its "scandalous" Sensation exhibition in 1997, London's Royal Academy is to open Apocalypse - a show it hopes will shock visitors. By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley.

"You're just out to shock people!" visitors to the Royal Academy's Apocalypse exhibition may bluster.

"Yes, we are," might come the shockingly curt reply.

Maurizo Cattelan's La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour)
Catch a falling star: Will Cattelan's pope stir anger
The show is being unofficially billed as a sequel to 1997's highly controversial Sensation exhibition, whose pickled animals and Myra Hindley painting provoked public outrage and attracted 300,000 visitors.

Apocalypse boasts a sexually explicit video, which could see the Academy hauled up on an obscenity charge should minors catch a glimpse; a model pope struck by a meteorite; and a pile of rubbish.

The curators' avowed aim is to explore the way contemporary artists "respond to beauty and horror in everyday life".

Scare tactics

Rather grandly using the Biblical Book of Revelations as its jumping off point, the RA warns visitors not to expect much on the "uplifting" front - indeed it says "for some it might be disturbing and frightening".

The Academy's irrepressible boss, Norman Rosenthal, defends the tone of exhibition. "The shock is not gratuitous. The shock is always serious."

Tim Noble and Sue Webster's The Undesirables is made from rubbish
What do you think of it so far? Rubbish?
Peter Blake, pop artist and RA council member, is not so sure. "I'm worried, though, that Apocalypse seems to be setting out just to be controversial."

Cynics might accuse those behind Apocalypse of employing "shock" tactics just to boost ticket sales.

"Shocking" Sensation was indeed a success on the gate, but it was the far more sedate Monet show last year which really helped the cash-strapped institution climb out of the red.

In scenes of 24-hour "Monet mania", some 813,000 people trouped past the impressionist's far from apocalyptic paintings.

Monet spinner

Indeed, it is not only the likes of Monet, who can draw a crowd to put the so-called Young British Artists (YBAs) of the Sensation show in the shade.

A show of sedate works by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones attracted 400,000 visitors to Paris's Musee d'Orsay - making it last year's fourth best attended exhibition in the world.

Marcus Harvey's Sensation painting of Myra Hindley
Sensation struck a raw nerve
Apocalypse differs from Sensation immediately because its participants are not necessarily young (their ages range up to 50), not necessarily British (five other nationalities are represented), and nor necessarily artists (Chris Cunningham, whose video Flex prompted the obscenity row, has never exhibited at a gallery before).

Also, whereas Sensation was merely a survey of contemporary art, Apocalypse is built around a somewhat contrived theme, intended to engage visitors on the emotive issues of violence, religious belief, sexuality and genocide.

Shock in trade

According to Mr Rosenthal, "shock" is here employed in a good cause.

But shock is not what it used to be. The British public are quite used to the word "controversial" preceding the word "art", and have perhaps become a little less shockable as a result.

Jake and Dinos Chapman's Hell
New model barmy: The Chapman's vision of Hell
In 1972, the Tate Gallery's purchase of Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII caused a storm, with many papers asking why public money had been spent on "bricks". A recent Andre exhibition in London garnered considerable critical and public support.

Tracey Emin's Turner Prize-nominated "bed" - soiled and strewn with vodka bottles - provoked a wave of criticism last year. This year the newspapers have only half-heartedly attacked her latest work - a beach hut.

Apocalypse, despite its grand aims, may fail to stir the same emotions witnessed at the RA when Sensation, in effect Charles Saatchi's personal art collection, opened its doors.

Sensational sequel?

Where Marcus Harvey's Sensation portrait of Moors murderer Myra Hindley touched a raw nerve in the British psyche, Maurizio Cattelan's Apocalypse crushed pope is unlikely to provoke many in this largely protestant nation.

Hell, a series of toy Nazi soldiers viciously turning on one another, by Jake and Dinos Chapman - is said to have been the inspiration for the entire show.

Jeff Koon's Moon
Shiny, happy people: Will Apocalypse depress visitors?
Though graphically violent, the eight dioramas where Airfix meets crucifix, will not "shock" those familiar with the works of Hieronymous Bosch or Francisco de Goya - or even those who played with model soldiers as a child.

Indeed the gruesomeness in which the Chapmans revel is a staple of much "traditional" art. Since most saints met cruel ends, galleries and churches around the world abound with similarly grisly scenes.

Even Cunningham's video piece, with its stylised sex and violence, comes at a time when the British film censors are relaxing their line on such subject matter, in line with public sentiment.

Art trouble

Apocalypse is perhaps more arduous, than shocking. Visitors enter the exhibition through a crawl way into Gregor Schneider's installation, Cellar.

Dusty, disorientated and hot, the public can then expect a battery of other physical sensations.

Gregor Schneider's Cellar
Cellar beware: Visitors enter through a tunnel
They will be corralled past the crushed pope; confined in Mariko Mori's smoke-filled Dream Temple; chilled inside Darren Almond's re-creation of the modern bus stops at Auschwitz; dwarfed by Jeff Koon's balloon sculptures and made giant by the Chapman's toy legions.

"Are you shocked?" the RA's curators might ask those leaving Apocalypse.

"Not really," may be the unexpected reply.

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See also:

23 Sep 99 | Entertainment
Sensation sparks New York storm
19 Apr 99 | Entertainment
Monet show leaves big impression
20 Oct 99 | UK
The Turner Prize draw
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