There is an ancient story about the beginning of the world that portends the human desire to create and destroy. The world began in a very small way — it was a rock floating in a dark ocean, and on that rock were a bull and a plant. Inside the rock was Lord Mithra, who, in order to set the world in motion, sprang from the rock and killed the only two living things in the world, sacrificing the bull and pounding the plant to a sappy pulp.
The Young British Artists featured in "END GAME — British Contemporary Art from the Chaney Family Collection" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston have taken a page from Lord Mithra, with their creative acts relying upon death and destruction as themes. Along with daughter Holland, Robert and Jereann Chaney began systematically acquiring the works of the YBA in the mid-'90s, inspired by the art presented by the White Cube Gallery at the Art Chicago fair, and by the notorious "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum.
"END GAME British Contemporary Art from the Chaney Family Collection"
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Caroline Wiess Law Building, 1001Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.
Through September 28.
Although I appreciate and actually like many of the works in "END GAME," I find it a depressing show overall. The exhibit takes its name from a Damien Hirst piece, End Game (2004), on long-term loan to the museum by the Chaney family. For those who have not seen this piece, End Game is a large, stainless steel display case filled with surgical equipment and a pair of male and female skeletons with their backs toward one another, as though in eternal conflict.
Works from "END GAME" the exhibit present us with an equally cold, nihilistic and violent world. Even the one piece that appears to be sexual — Tracey Emin's Blinding (2006), a pink neon image of a woman's body, sans head, with legs spread and genitals exposed — is instead nasty and caustic.
Many of Damien Hirst's pieces in the exhibition are made from things once "quick" with life. Sacred IX (2005) is lovely in a creepy Hirst sort of way. Sacred IX, a bull's heart preserved by 5 percent formaldehyde solution, is pierced by a silver-bladed, black-handled lance in a Persplex box. The two elements seem suspended in space but are held in place by visible monofilament fiber. From the side of the box, you see the objects in triplicate, thanks to the prismatic glass box enclosure.
The bull's heart recalls ancient bull worship and the more obvious Sacred Heart iconography (also seen in the 1997 work Toxic Schizophrenia by Tim Noble and Sue Webster). The Sacred Heart icon originally came from the Book of John, 19:31-37, in which Christ is pierced through his side by the lance of a Roman soldier, who checks to see if He is dead as He is removed from the cross. The symbol, often seen on the breast of Christ, Mary, The Lamb of God or some drunk chick, is meant to evoke strong feelings of suffering and sorrow. In Hirst's hands, the imagery becomes scientifically detached and stripped of emotion — the heart is white and devoid of blood, and the lines of the lance are clean and cold.
The Card Players — The City (2006) is made up of hundreds of varieties and sizes of butterfly wings, shellacked in household gloss and attached to a large canvas to look like a Gothic stained-glass window replete with roundels. It takes its name from a poem by Philip Larkin about an imagined Dutch genre painting. The colors and patterns on the wings are impressively varied — reds like fire and blues like ice, iridescent greens and blues reminiscent of dragonfly wings, leopard patterns and spots that mimic eyes.
The Card Players and a third Hirst piece, Carnage (2007), made from thousands of flies covered in resin on canvas, are modern-day vanitases, intended to remind us of the brevity of life. Seeing the two pieces next to one another, we are also forced to recall that, although the soul may fly onward to heaven, the body will certainly rot here on earth.
The theme is echoed by Sam Taylor-Wood in her time-lapsed DVD A Little Death (2002). The elements in her work — a dead rabbit and a peach — resemble a still-life; Taylor-Wood is believed to have taken inspiration from some paintings of dead hares by the French artist Jean-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). Her rabbit is tacked to the wall by his hind feet, attached in such a way that one foot is stretched high above the other. The rabbit's belly faces us, and his head rests (eternally) on top of the table. To the left of the rabbit sits a peach. Made over the course of nine weeks, A Little Death allows us to fully experience Peter Rabbit's rapid decay as maggots and cadaver beetles devour the bunny, save for its little cottontail and fluffy hair. Oddly enough, and perhaps intentionally so, the peach shows no sign of decay. Taylor-Wood does not shop at Kroger. By the way, the artist also has a show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston [see "Anything for Art," by Troy Schulze, August 21.]
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The wonderfully fun and horrific creation of Dino and Jake Chapman, The Model Village of the Damned (2007), is a re-creation of sorts of their Hell (1999-2000), which burned in the 2004 Saatchi Collection fire. Their model village sits upon a green wooden table, which is set on a wooden floor; the entire piece is held within a glass and rusted steel case. Throughout the village, little plastic Nazi soldiers, helmeted skeletons and terrific multiheaded, -armed and -torsoed monsters attack, maim, crucify, decapitate and kill plastic British soldiers. Out of graves, on a hill below an English cottage, undead Nazis rise up to begin a murderous hunt from which no one can escape. Vultures wait and watch as people are killed and otherwise violated below. Down in the ravine below, further mayhem ensues. The undead goose-step behind a tank, dragging a man to his death, while on the tank rides a monstrous creature rending itself in half as its torsos writhe in opposite directions. In every nook and cranny, on almost every oil barrel, pike and fence, are decapitated and decomposing heads, and under a tree a man sits casually tossing a head down the hill.
I felt strongly conflicted about The Model Village. Part of me wanted to run away and join the Chapman circus to melt and maim plastic figurines, but I also felt a sense of hopelessness and despair. Maria Marshall's 1999 DVD Once Up On reinforces these feelings of despair. A surveillance video shot from above shows an enclosed British playground at a school. In time-lapsed motion, children stream in and out of the playground, milling about, playing alone or in groups, and now and then picking on and ostracizing other children. Such is the nature of man.
Over the video, the artist's four-year-old son narrates the tale of Three Cuddly Wolves, who are threatened and set upon by the Big Bad Pig in a reversal of the ancient story. The tale is told in a loop: In order to protect themselves from the Pig, the Wolfies fortify their house with heavy padlocks, armored plating and barbed wire, which causes the Pig to resort to heavy-duty explosives, which leads to further reinforcement and, once again, the destruction of the Wolfies' home. Unlike the ancient tale, this one has no happy ending. The animals, like us, are caught in a never-ending cycle of fear and destruction.
The world is an ugly place, and "END GAME" is a commentary on that world. Although it is important for artists to make socially conscious work, it is also important to nourish what little good exists in mankind. Before you leave the MFAH, go look at some of the other exhibits to remind yourself of this — and to prevent yourself from throwing your body in front of a car as you walk out the door.