Not just monkey business

02 November 2006



SINCE the 1990s, the Young British Artists have shocked the world with their artworks featuring unmade beds, pickled sharks, sexualised mannequins, and heads made from frozen blood. They have pushed at the boundaries of acceptability, making society’s taboos and secrets the subject of their work.

Amazingly, however, within these extreme manifestations of the secular world we find regular incursions of the sacred: Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Mark Wallinger, Sam Taylor Wood, the Chapman Brothers, and Chris Ofili have all used Christian iconography and stories as a subject, or source of inspiration.

One of the largest and most ambitious of these religious works is Chris Ofili’s The Upper Room (2002), recently and controversially bought by the Tate Gallery. In 1998, this Turner Prize-winning painter’s The Holy Virgin Mary was singled out by the Mayor of New York for its profanity when it was exhibited as part of the "Sensation" tour to Brooklyn. It was an unsurprising response, since Ofili had used images of genitalia torn from pornographic magazines to depict the Virgin Mary, and given her a breast made from elephant dung.

The debate about the Tate’s purchase, however, was focused not on the subject or its construction, but on the ethics of the decision to buy. It was bought for around £700,000 when Ofili was a trustee of Tate Britain, and at a time when he had publicly called on British artists to donate their works to the Tate because of funding difficulties.

Nevertheless, this is a powerful and beguiling work that warrants a visit to Tate Britain. It was first shown in 2002 at the Victoria Miro Gallery in the East End of London. There, visitors had to climb a flight of stairs to an upper gallery to see the work. They entered a specially constructed space designed by the rising young star of British architecture David Adjaye. In it were 13 paintings representing the Twelve and Christ at the Last Supper.

The act of walking upstairs and then entering Adjaye’s wooden "chapel" gave the visitor an experience of pilgrimage, of journeying into another realm. It reinforced the sense of otherness that surrounds this subject.

At the Tate, there is no ascent, no physical journey upwards and away from the surface of this world. Instead, the work is placed in a temporary gallery off the central hall, and its entrance is hidden within the hustle and bustle of the shop and ticket sales. Yet, as soon as the visitor ventures into the gallery, he or she is embraced by a distinct sense of otherness. The bright lights outside are replaced by a warm semi-darkness; the stark white of plaster and stone becomes the honeyed tones of walnut veneer.

Stepping stones of light lead down a tall corridor that runs to one side. After the riot of visual stimuli up to this point, this bare corridor becomes a passage of preparation, depriving the senses of anything but the most minimal stimulus. As a result, when you finally turn the corner and enter the "Upper Room" itself, the impact is all the more spectacular.

In the semi-darkness of a wood-lined room, 12 large paintings explode with a cacophony of colour, scattering shards of coloured light around them. Like stained-glass windows, they seem to pierce the solidity of the walls to reveal a vibrant world beyond. The apse at the end of the space is occupied by a slightly larger 13th painting, its Christ-like presence presiding over this artistic Last Supper.

A different colour dominates each of these dynamic works, offering its own contribution to the jewel-like space. Their surfaces are complex and exciting — not flat canvases, but almost sculptural works, where patterns, colours, and drips of paint are caught within thin layers of resin. Dots of glitter and paint bejewel the outer layer, not only providing decoration, but giving definition to the forms that lie below the surface.

Rather than hanging on the walls, the paintings rest against them, supported by two pieces of the elephant dung for which Ofili is famous. Another lump of dung, covered in dabs of paint, is attached as an adornment for the surface.

Despite the psychedelic energy these paintings bring into the space, there is also a palpable sense of mystery: a sense of otherness which inspires a reverential hush. It is as though we have entered a medieval shrine of pilgrimage, a meeting-point of heaven and earth. But in this Upper Room, things are not what they seem. The subject of these paintings are monkeys — rhesus macaques — not the apostles, and not Christ. The coloured light that floods the space does not come from some external source, but is a reflection of the paintings’ own surface. The wood is veneer, and the joins between each sheet are clearly visible. This is a simulacrum of the Upper Room, a model that makes no pretence at reality.

The monkeys are identical. They sit, facing the end, wearing a waistcoat and hat, with a long curling tail, and holding a goblet. The monkey that takes the place of Christ is larger and seen frontally. It also holds a goblet. They echo the iconography of the Last Supper, but they undermine it as well.

For Ofili, as a black British artist, these monkeys also speak of colonialisation, cultural identity, and continuing European attitudes to Africans. They are alien, inhuman impostors, occupying the place once taken by the white disciples of Renaissance art. The world that is revealed behind them is not the placid tranquil landscape that can be seen in Western art, but an impenetrable jungle of colour and exotic plant forms, which not only threatens, but has invaded, the calm tranquillity of our world through the presence of elephant dung and the vibrant patterns of the walnut’s grain. The profound sense of otherness is reinforced by the titles of the paintings, which are in Spanish rather than English.

What I find fascinating about this work is that on one level it subverts the Christian iconography that it uses. The reality it creates and describes is an illusion. Yet, on another level, it is, I would suggest, deeply sacred. When we look past the iconography, when we forget the monkeys, we find ourselves in a space of colour, light, and natural forms, a transformed, energised space in which an encounter with divine otherness becomes possible.

This is not so much the Upper Room as the stable in Bethlehem, where the ordered construction of the human world was invaded by the intangible, uncontrollable, completely other presence of God — the blazing light that transformed the world’s darkness.

"Chris Ofili: The Upper Room" is at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1; phone 020 7887 8888.

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