A new exhibition by British artist Chris Ofili has been greeted with rapturous praise – where once his work was surrounded by controversy. What’s changed? Alastair Sooke explains.

“Ambitious”, “vibrant”, “gorgeous”: these were just three of the adjectives marshalled by American art critics to salute the mid-career retrospective of the British artist Chris Ofili that opened at the New Museum in New York last month. Fifteen years ago, though, when Ofili participated in a group exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, the reception he received was anything but rapturous. In fact, it was downright brutal.

The opprobrium was directed at his unforgettable painting The Holy Virgin Mary (1996). In this lustrous yet provocative work, Ofili presents a black Madonna surrounded by fluttering putti against a yellow-and-orange background. In the tradition of Western paintings of the Madonna nursing her baby, her blue robe is parted to reveal one exposed breast. Yet unlike tradition, this breast is a ball of lacquered elephant dung adorned with glitter and carefully attached to the linen support. Similar lumps of manure provide two ‘feet’ for the picture. On closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the putti actually consist of material cut from pornographic magazines, enhancing the overall voluptuousness of the image.

The year after it was created, The Holy Virgin Mary appeared at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where it was one of five works by Ofili shown in the infamous Sensation exhibition that featured contemporary art owned by the British collector Charles Saatchi. Not long afterwards, it was exhibited in Germany, when the show travelled to Berlin.

Yet it wasn’t until the painting arrived in Brooklyn, a year after Ofili had won the prestigious Turner Prize for art, that it finally became newsworthy. “B’KLYN GALLERY OF HORROR. GRUESOME MUSEUM SHOW STIRS CONTROVERSY,” ran the headline of an article in the New York Daily News that included an inflammatory description of “a painting of the Virgin Mary splattered with elephant dung”. (Actually, Ofili didn’t “splatter” dung at all, but deployed it with care.)

Things really kicked off, though, the following week. Ten days before Sensation was due to open, during one of his daily press conferences, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani lambasted the exhibition as “sick stuff”, and singled out The Holy Virgin Mary. “It offends me,” Giuliani said, despite the fact that he had not actually seen the painting. “The idea of in the name of art having a city subsidize art, so-called works of art, in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary, is sick,” he continued, before threatening to remove funding from the Brooklyn Museum unless “the director comes to his senses”.

‘Elephant in the room’

The furore that followed was deafening and intense, as everyone from Cardinal John O’Connor to First Lady Hillary Clinton contributed to the debate. Eventually, less than three months after Giuliani’s remarks, and following record visitor numbers at the Brooklyn Museum, a 72-year-old retired schoolteacher from Manhattan decided to vandalise the painting. Slipping behind a protective Plexiglas shield, he smeared white paint across the work of art’s surface because he considered it “blasphemous”.

Fast forward a decade and a half, though, and Ofili is no longer New York’s bête noire. The Holy Virgin Mary is hanging in the city once again – yet nobody seems especially bothered by its presence. So what can account for the revulsion it engendered when Sensation came to town in 1999? And what has changed since then?

“We wanted to bring The Holy Virgin Mary back to New York,” says the New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni, who has curated the Ofili exhibition, “because the first time around it caused a hysteria that had nothing to do with the painting in the first place.”

But if the painting wasn’t the problem, then what was? “There are different possible interpretations,” Gioni continues, “but perhaps the actual elephant in the room was that the Virgin Mary was depicted as a black woman. That is what made conservative critics most uncomfortable.” It has also been suggested that Giuliani denounced the painting in order to attract conservative votes.

Shock of the few?

This time around, Gioni points out, the painting is seen in the wider context of Ofili’s career: “To answer your question about what has changed, one thing we tried to do differently was show the painting with 11 other works from the same period. So it’s less of a UFO and more part of a body of work that offers a complex reflection on the role of images in both creating and criticising heroes and deities. What emerges is that Chris Ofili didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Oh, I’ll paint a blasphemous picture to piss people off.’ No. It’s part of a much wider reflection on religious painting. That makes a huge difference.” He pauses. “Fortunately after 15 years we can look at that painting less for its transgressions and more for its accomplishments.”

I wonder, though, whether the power of the painting is diminished if people no longer consider it transgressive. After all, one of the strengths of modern art used to be its knack for antagonising bourgeois values. As Picasso once put it, “Art is something subversive… If art is ever given the keys to the city, it will be because it’s been so watered down, rendered so impotent, that it’s not worth fighting for.” With the exhibition at the New Museum, in a sense The Holy Virgin Mary has been given the keys to New York City.

“Perhaps,” says Gioni, “but in art any transgression eventually gets absorbed and digested, and that’s not necessarily a form of surrender – it’s just what artists do: broaden the definition of what’s possible and what is accepted. Throughout the history of 20th Century art what was shocking at one point becomes normal after a while.”

Still, maybe something else is going on as well. Ofili belongs to a generation of artists that emerged in the 1990s and often attracted controversy in the media. Yet contemporary artists these days are much less likely to cause a stink in the news. Perhaps art has lost its capacity to shock?

“For better or worse, the generation that was working in the Nineties has been associated with a certain level of if not scandal then at least media exposure,” says Gioni. “Think of the YBAs or people like Maurizio Cattelan, and many others. In the following decade, though, younger artists started doing something different.”

Gioni mentions Anglo-German artist Tino Sehgal’s contribution to the annual Unilever Series commission in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in London in 2012. Called These Associations, Sehgal’s work involved nothing but “an assembly of participants” who would buttonhole passers-by and engage in moments of group choreography. In other words, it was a performance, with nothing to “see” in terms of tangible artwork.

“Rather than having a central spectacle in the manner of Olafur Eliasson [whose awe-inspiring Weather Project filled the Turbine Hall in 2003], Sehgal went for something that could not be photographed officially and that refused media-friendliness,” says Gioni. “You could say the same for the current Turner Prize [at Tate Britain]. Three out of the four shortlisted artists are more self-reflective and less interested in final, grandiose statements. It’s an exhibition of voices mumbling in the dark.”

If that sounds like a demolition of this year’s Turner Prize show, Gioni doesn’t mean it that way. “If I were to say I want art to be loud and media-friendly forever, I would be lying,” he says. “The beauty of art is its continuous renewal. Maybe this is the ultimate provocation: that the very definition of art will constantly be renegotiated. That is what pisses some people off, because it makes art almost impossible to define.”

Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph.

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