A Sculptor’s Army of the Absurd

Jim Neel's 50-piece "Babel" installation (Photos by Jim Neel)

By Carolyn Mooney

An art professor from Birmingham-Southern College has created his own army of terra-cotta warriors—with a twist.

With their missing limbs and headpieces resembling B-2 bombers, Jim Neel’s 50 ceramic warrior-chimpanzees are doomed to repeat the mistakes—and wars—of the past. The installation, part of an exhibition series on animals, is on display through April 24 at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis. A soundtrack of 50 disparate voices reciting Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” plays alongside the sculptures. Because each voice starts at a different point, the poem, inspired by the declining empire of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, is a chaotic, unintelligible jumble. Hence the exhibit’s name: “Babel.”

Neel sculpted his army during a 2008 artist’s residency at the nearby Kohler Co., using the same porcelain material that the manufacturer’s craftspeople use to make sinks, toilets, and other bathroom fixtures. “I couldn’t have done it without their help,” he says. Using chimpanzees allowed him to avoid choosing an ethnicity for his sculptures, but also conveyed universality and roteness (and fascinated visiting children who imagined an army straight out of The Wizard of Oz).

Which came first, the poem or the idea for the army? (Or the ancient Chinese statues themselves, which the artist has seen only in the United States?) “It’s really hard to say,” says Neel, the chairman of Birmingham-Southern’s deparment of art and art history. “While I was at Kohler, the poem percolated up. I remember reading it in high school. It’s about the human hubris of power, and how we continue to make the same mistakes over and over.”

Just in case you haven’t read it since high school, here it is:


Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The nonprofit Kohler arts center, named for the company’s late founder, and the Kohler company have hosted artists in residence since 1974. Each year the arts center selects 15 to 20 artists, who work alongside Kohler craftspeople. “The projects are a two-way street,” says Leslie Umberger, senior curator of exhibitions and collections for the arts center. “The artists gain technical knowledge and a body of work, and the artisans helping them learn what parts of their job are creative.” The “Babel” exhibit so perfectly embodied the possibilities of the residency program, she says, that the arts center ended up purchasing it, with help from the Kohler Foundation, Inc.

Neel, who documented wars in Central America as a photojournalist in the 1980s, is now working on a group of life-sized child warriors, in terra cotta and iron, called “Enfants de la Terre”—children of the earth. His art wasn’t always political, he says, but that has changed: “Now, I pretty much take a stand.”

He’s got an army to back him up.

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