The Arts: Two Draughtsmen of the Apocalypse ; Next Week the Royal Academy Will Attempt to Outdo Its 1997 Succes De Scandale, Sensation. the Exhibition's Curators, Norman Rosenthal and Max Wigram, Talk to Louisa Buck about Their Vision of the End

By Buck, Louisa | The Independent (London, England), September 13, 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Arts: Two Draughtsmen of the Apocalypse ; Next Week the Royal Academy Will Attempt to Outdo Its 1997 Succes De Scandale, Sensation. the Exhibition's Curators, Norman Rosenthal and Max Wigram, Talk to Louisa Buck about Their Vision of the End


Buck, Louisa, The Independent (London, England)


Where did you first get the idea for Apocalypse?

Norman Rosenthal: It's quite simple, it was seeing this extraordinary piece by the Chapmans [Hell 2000]. They rang me up and asked me to come to their studio, and I was completely unprepared for what I saw... I nearly fainted. It's one of the most amazing artworks I've ever seen - it's on a level with Bosch or Brueghel. Then I knew exactly what I had to do. I didn't know who the artists would be, but this piece became like a kind of measuring rod. Then Max appeared. These things are sort of meant...

Max Wigram: I wrote you a letter - I'd written a couple of letters to large institutions saying I wanted to get back into curating, and Norman was the only person who replied.

NR: Max had been an artist, and he ran that gallery IAS [Independent Art Space], which was a very good gallery that I'd visited a couple of times, and he came to see me in my office at 3.30 on a Wednesday afternoon.

MW: And we went on trail, didn't we? We went on a road trip to Venice and Basle...

NR: As the odd couple...

MW: We went, and we started to discuss things, and really it was in the course of those three weeks that we actually decided that we were going to be able to work together and that we agreed on the large picture of the show.

NR: We agreed that we didn't want to do a Biennale-type show which, in the Royal Academy, however good the art was, would tend to look like a kind of student show. Max and another colleague of mine, Simonetta Fraquelli, had suggested a show with an artist per room, and that idea had lodged in my mind... it's not Norman the Genius, these things come through a sort of osmosis. I try to be a sort of conductor of ideas.

MW: We decided together that we wanted to contextualise some of the things that had happened in Sensation, but on a broader scale. If Sensation was a show of British work, then Apocalypse is a show of some of the ideas that have persisted through British work in the context of other ideas from around the world - so it's contextualising British work in a global arena.

So do you view Apocalypse as the successor to Sensation?

NR: Sensation was such a huge and, I think, genuine success that they said, "Do it again, Norman". Apart from Monet, Sensation was the most successful exhibition we've had in recent years, we had 300,000 visitors and, above all, they were young visitors, and everybody likes young visitors. There's this perception that young people are more important, so Sensation gave a kind of buzz to the Royal Academy which was unique, and they said "Do it again". But it's not that easy to do it again. The stakes are high - it's got to be relevant and it's got to be esoteric, but not so esoteric that it doesn't appeal to a big audience. So, what to do? What to do to make an effect? One idea I had was to do a big exhibition about Europe, but London would have been so overwhelming in it that it would have been London and a few Euro-artists...

MW: It could have been done another way, but there's a sensibility to this exhibition which is British.

NR: First of all, it's about the idea of the Apocalypse being in everybody's head, all the time, in everybody's brain, however clever or brilliant they are. It's been a permanent thing since the beginning of literary and mental time, and probably before that - everybody has felt this sense of insecurity, not only about oneself but about the world, the world on the edge. It could happen at any moment, a mega-meteor coming from outer space, or whether man is going to blow up his world in whatever way, whether through the atom bomb, GM foods or some horrible virus...

According to the Book of Revelation, out of catastrophe comes renewal, a new, better world.

NR: The Book of Revelation is incredibly political, it's about Christianity versus the Roman Empire, it's about power.

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The Arts: Two Draughtsmen of the Apocalypse ; Next Week the Royal Academy Will Attempt to Outdo Its 1997 Succes De Scandale, Sensation. the Exhibition's Curators, Norman Rosenthal and Max Wigram, Talk to Louisa Buck about Their Vision of the End
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