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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Meet the MyWaymen

By Norman Lebrecht / September 21, 2005

The adrenaline rush is irresistible. Enter the room and the senses are instantly engaged by colour and light and a faint whiff of decay - either overpolished floors, or very old animal ordure.

The shapes are altogether familiar. Animals are dancing off the walls, but dancing with such dignity that there is no possibility of condescension either on the part of the artist towards the beast or by the spectator towards the artist. This is clearly a man who respects wildlife.

We knew that much from a flood of media reviews of his limelight show at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Any element of surprise in encountering Chris Ofili's work for the first time in The Upper Room in Tate Britain is ruled out by the anticipated parade of friendly animals - no longer his trademark elephants but a family of rhesus monkeys, each panel abutted by a lump of elephant dung by way of artist signature.

Yet, and it's a big yet, seeing Ofili's work on the wall is nothing like the reports I have read, and seeing him embraced this week as an establishment trophy - artist in residence at the National Gallery, no less - is no shock at all. Rather it is a moment familiar from cultural history: the day the controversial became conventional.

Ofili, British born in 1968 of Nigerian descent, is not an obvious insider. Where others cling to the Young British Artists name-tag like middle-rank executives at an international sales convention, Ofili has declared most modern art to be 'a load of bullshit' and works away contentedly in a small studio with a fresh pile of droppings, courtesy of London zoo, just beside the door. He met his first elephants on a British Council travel scholarship to Zimbabwe in 1992 and plunged both hands into their mess as a way of incorporating Africa into his art, or so he said.

Against the herd mentality of the YBAs, a phenomenon defined by the impulse buying of extremely rich collector-dealers and the collusion of public curators who benefit from their bequests, Ofili stands apart, secure in a method that serenely hints at the wild side of his heritage while, at the same time, the solemn spangle of Pearly Kings and Queens upon his canvases reflects an echo of milky British rituals.

That makes him a classic Sinatra: a My Way man. He may have come up by way of the Tate-stamped 1998 Turner Prize and the Saatchi-owned Sensation show, but the difference with Chris Ofili is that where most YBAs are driven by a cynicism that claims to be irony, his stock in trade is a naturalism whose exuberance is simple, consistent and physically irresistible. Compared to Damien Hirst, whose penis-less pose in the new David Bailey collection shrinks him to self-caricature, or to Tracy Emin whose utterances grow more sour with middle age, Ofili makes no attempt to offend, to progress or to play-act.

The Tate has endowed him with a pseudo-religious halo, likening the 13 moneys of The Upper Room to a contemporary Last Supper - an impression reinforced by the hushed aisle and high ceiling designed by architect David Adjaye, themselves a homiletic refutation of the horror that was manufactured in America where rightwing ranters maintain that Ofili 'smeared' an image of the Virgin Mary with elephant waste.

None of this controversy relates to the work, whose impact is organic and tells us nothing except that Chris Ofili is a single-minded artist who revels in the joy of life and likes to make us happy. I make no claim for it as great art, being a music writer not a visual specialist. Nor am I much bothered about where it 'fits' in our cultural kaleidoscope, which file or page it occupies in our overloaded image banks. The point, it seems to me, is that Ofili is a precious one-off, and there are never enough of those in all the arts to fill a four-door hatchback.

Harrison Birtwistle is a My Way man, without a shadow of doubt. Hear two minutes of his music and you will never mistake him for any other composer. Birtwistle once suggested to me that everything he wrote stemmed from a sound he had heard in his head as a kid while kicking stones across bleak Lancashire scrubland, the keening of a clarinet with a Greek chorus as backdrop. Stretched across a formidable opus that extends from the furious Earth Dances - surely the most violent orchestral score since Rite of Spring - to the intimacy of Pulse Shadows, the defining thumbprint of clarinet and Greek chorus allows Birtwistle to stand above the contemporary-music hubbub and all its attendant cliques, unique and inimitable.

Mark Antony Turnage has something of that quality in the next generation, a sonority fuelled by rage and sorrow. Harold Pinter has it in his stunning pauses, Bob Dylan in his fadeout lines. Michel Houellbecq, the bete noire of French letters, mines sexual revulsion as Ofili digs dung. Gunter Grass uses modern Germany as his material in much the same way. All are liberated, not confined, by a deliberately limited scope.

There will doubtless be screams of sacrilege when Ofili enters the National Gallery in 2008, the elephant man up there with the Turners and the Raphaels. And while there is an element of attention seeking and institutional repositioning in the appointment - the National's director, Charles Saumarez Smith has spoken of 'a sense of unease and anxiety' about Tate Modern 'usurping' his gallery's central role - there is also a surefooted certainty that Ofili can reside at the National as no other living artist can, simply because he is self-confining and self-repeating. What you see is what you see.

He has no debt to other movements, no affinity, no pretence at philosophy. Where creators of infinitely greater importance felt a need to huddle in groups - the Fauvists in art, the Second Vienna School in music, the Kitchen Sink in British theatre - Ofili exploits a quirk in virtual communication which allows an artist to stand alone in the public mind by means of a defining material. Yet, when seen in three-dimensional display, he transcends the gimmick and delivers a direct blow to the five senses. Ofili will do the National Gallery credit, of that I am sure, but they cannot use him as a template for renewal because there is no other like him.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001