Hell is a massive tableau of 10,000 tiny contorted figures, some mutilated, some with limbs or genitals removed, in various contortions of torture. Joined, these create a giant swastika representing the horrors of 20th-century genocide.
This "monumental" work, being created by controversial young artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, is the future of the Royal Academy of Arts, says Norman Rosenthal.
It has prompted Apocalypse, successor to the controversial and commercially successful Sensation exhibition, which will signal the once-patrician Academy's new future as a champion of contemporary art, the RA's exhibitions secretary said yesterday.
Mr Rosenthal said he had long been looking for a successor to Sensation, which three years ago dominated arts headlines with its controversial works by young British contemporary artists, loaned by the arts patron Charles Saatchi.
"Jake and Dinos Chapman rang up and asked my opinion about a certain work of art, an extraordinarily moral picture of 20th-century genocide which consists of 10,000 small figures set out in tables which form a swastika," he said.
"It was so extraordinary and terrifying that the moment I saw it I knew the kind of show we should have. It will be a central piece of the exhibition."
Apocalypse, which will open at the RA in Piccadilly, central London in September, will be "about extremes", allowing each featured artist a whole room. The RA describes it as a "contemporary, secular interpretation of the biblical story of St John the Divine which contains elements ranging from the horrors of genocide to the beauties of Utopia".
Many of the works, such as Hell, are still being worked on and there will be a contribution from the controversial Jeff Koons. Others will include Maurizio Cattelan's figure of Pope John Paul struck down by a meteorite. Lest that should provoke the same response in devout Catholics as the visitor to Sensation who threw paint on a depiction of child-killer Myra Hindley, the RA said Cattelan's work referred back to the artists Botticelli and Titian, both of whom had portrayed Papal figures struck down.
Another artist, Darren Almond, has permission to remove the bus stops for prisoner transport at Auschwitz. He will replace them with newly designed ones after they have appeared in the exhibition. The originals go to a museum in Germany.
British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster will exhibit a huge sculpture created from household rubbish, set against specially created shadows.
Japanese artist Marika Mori's Dream Temple, some 10.5 metres (32ft) across will provide a more spiritually calming environment, having been "blessed" by the artist at the exhibition's opening. Visitors will enter one at a time to be surrounded with a "dream sphere" and short film.
Chris Cunningham, a film maker who directed videos for Bjork and Madonna, is to collaborate on a "disturbing" video installation about relationships between men and women.
The exhibition will inevitably spark accusations that the Academy is chasing controversial art to boost attendances. But Mr Rosenthal said some of the controversy generated by Sensation had been "constructive". He added: "I would say, watching people in the gallery, the overwhelming majority didn't come to mock or be shocked but came to be engaged in the same way that they would if they went to a movie."
He admitted the sensational nature of the exhibition meant he had been unable to secure corporate sponsorship and would be looking for a consortium of private individuals to help put it on. "People find it difficult to get contemporary art sponsored by corporations," he said. "They like to sponsor art which won't be in danger of offending their clients, which is understandable."
The layout of the rooms should ensure security guards are able to prevent a repeat of the protest vandalism experienced by the Myra Hindley exhibit. But David Gordon, secretary of the Academy, said there were no single pieces that carried the "emotive resonance" of Hindley's image, and the Academy is not expecting need for extra security.
It's all a long way from the once-gentle images of the Summer exhibition. But faced with the imminent arrival of Tate Modern, perhaps the biggest thing to happen to Britain's contemporary art scene in decades, and a new president, Professor Phillip King, the RA said "everything is going to change".
While keen to extend a public welcome to the art world's much-hyped upstart gallery yesterday, there is no doubt that the extra challenge to visitors and sponsorship created by Tate Modern will make Mr Rosenthal's professed warm welcome of it a bittersweet one. "The RA will inevitably have to adapt (to Tate Modern)," he said. "You can't pretend it doesn't exist. You can't tell what the future will hold."
But he said the "new" Royal Academy would actually be closer to the original ideals of its founders, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir William Chambers.
"We need to go back to where we were in the 18th century, which is defending the cause of contemporary art," he said. "The Summer exhibition will also change. The RA will do contemporary exhibitions with a much greater frequency. But September is going to make a statement about contemporary art with Apocalypse ... (it) will announce the RA's intention to stand up for the idea of contemporary art in all its many facets."
In its annual report, also launched yesterday, the Royal Academy said it had enjoyed an "outstanding" year, with its Monet in the 20th Century exhibition achieving the highest daily attendance for any art exhibition in the world in 1999.
This, and other high-profile exhibitions, meant last year the RA was the 8th most popular charging venue in Britain, says the English Tourism Council.Reuse content