Two draughtsmen of the Apocalypse

Next week the Royal Academy will attempt to outdo its 1997 succÿs 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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Where did you first get the idea for Apocalypse?

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.

MW: The point is that there are psychological aspects to the Apocalypse, there are political aspects to the Apocalypse and these allowed us to be secular about a religious story and to contemporise it and to come away with the conclusion that, actually, the Apocalypse is an everyday experience. I always talk about flicking through cable TV channels - there is the Apocalypse, right slap-bang in front of you. And all these things come together and allow us to negotiate this kind of space in the head, where the Apocalypse exists, and then to choreograph that out of the group of artists that we talked to.

How did you select the artists?

NR: The exhibition is in response to work made - the work was pre-existing, it's not about Norman's Favourite Artists. We haven't had any disagreements. That's why I like working with Max. We work on consensus, not on votes or scoring, that's not the idea...

MW: There are things in the exhibition which predominantly came from Norman, and there are things in the exhibition that predominantly came from me.

NR: Gregor Schneider, I'd never heard of. Max introduced me to Schneider and to his work and then we went to see him and there was absolutely no discussion.

MW: We always said to the artists we approached that the reason that we're here is because what you do fits into the show. We had a list of about 30 artists, and it stayed at 30 until March and then it slowly evolved out of that... some people had prior commitments, like Charles Ray and Cady Noland.

NR: There's also no secret that at one point we were hoping to include Anselm Keifer in the exhibition, but these things evolve organically, it's as important to let things happen as it is to be over-controlling... The order we've done is not arbitrary, but there's also a sense in which this is 13 one-person shows. We're trying to have our cake and eat it - and that's fair enough.

Is there not a risk that the throat-grabbingly immediate aspects of Apocalypse, the horror rather than the beauty, if you like, will dominate the show?

NR: In the end, you do these things for yourself. I always say this about every show - we are our own yardsticks, and at the same time we've had a good dialogue. People will come to this exhibition with different levels of information, different takes on what you might call the art discourse, and I think people will see that it's not about sensationalism for its own sake. After all, the Abyss is taken for granted in films, in literature or in drama - people think nothing of King Lear or Götterdämmerung.

MW: Or The Silence of the Lambs.

NR: Then there's this thing about being very socially and politically correct. I think that Intelligence [at Tate Britain] is a perfectly fine show and there are some very good pieces in it but it's all just so correct. Art is not ersatz sociology, art is not ersatz history, it's not even ersatz psychology - it's about many things. But it's about an individual's take on things. And respecting that take on things is inevitably complex: the Mariko Mori is incredibly complex, the Chapmans' piece is ideologically complex, and because it is ideologically complex then somehow it is not correct in some way...

MW: We use this word "serious" because what we're really talking about is: is shock real or is it fake? In a certain sense this does underline and go through this show - and one of the answers that we've tried to suggest is that shock is a material. It is actually a material. Artists live in a world which is populated by Poltergeist 5, Rocky-this, kill that - images of horrific violence that are around us everywhere...

NR: Which I personally reject. When I go to the movies and see blood, I close my eyes. I don't want to see it, I don't like it, personally, but what I do like is the beauty of shock.

MW: And artists respond to that. Basically there's nothing gratuitous in this exhibition - artists have chosen subjects that are difficult to deal with and they have dealt with them with a sense of immediacy because this is how art operates. You have a room, you are an artist, you are serious about what you do and you can't close your eyes to what is going on around you. There are many terrible art shows full of incredibly shocking things that are rubbish, but the artists in this exhibition understand how to incorporate shock as a material, to use it for a deliberate, intellectual effect.

Then there's the context of the Royal Academy, which also gives a very different kind of impact to, say, putting this kind of work in a large industrial space.

NR: The Royal Academy is a stage, it's a theatre.

MW: And it's there to be abused or not abused, worked with or worked against - I don't think that anyone is suggesting that putting art in the Royal Academy makes it more - or less - serious. More accessible, yes. What people forget is that the Royal Academy has no public money, is a registered charity and is an artist-run space. There's no taxpayers' money being used, there's no permanent collection to consider and there's nowhere better to show art. Within that context, there are certain things we can do - we can be a bit more hard-core, perhaps.

NR: I think that the Royal Academy is going to position itself not as a rival to the Tate, but as another important theatre of art. You have the Royal Opera House and you have the Coliseum, you have the Museum of Modern Art and you have the Guggenheim, you have the Centre Pompidou and you have the Musée d'Art Moderne - Tate Modern has affected the ecology of art so much that I think there's a consensus here that we're going to do more contemporary exhibitions as well as keeping on the great historic shows that we try to do. I am hoping that we are soon going to be in a position of doing big one-man - or one-person - shows of major artists who would enjoy the Royal Academy.

Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art, Royal Academy, London W1, 23 Sept-15 Dec

Louisa Buck is the author of 'Moving Targets 2: A User's Guide to British Art Now' (Tate Publishing £12.99). This interview first appeared in the current issue of 'The Art Newspaper'