An ape on a cross and a black Jesus

Will Christians find these works blasphemous?

The contemporary art world is descending on London in time for the opening of the Frieze Art Fair in Regent's Park on Wednesday. It will be interesting to see how much reaction there is to two works in a show timed to coincide with it, "The Age of Marvellous", which is on at a deconsecrated church opposite the park. One of the artists, Paul Fryer, caused controversy this year when his Pietà, a sculpture of Christ in an electric chair, was displayed in the cathedral of the Alpine town of Gap. Now he has taken this further in another work, in which the Christ figure is black and appears contorted and visibly suffering.

"The figure of Christ isn't just in the electric chair," explains Fryer, who has collaborated with Damien Hirst and whose work has been exhibited at the Tate and the Courtauld. "He's starved and he's black. Hundreds more black people have been executed in the chair than white people. More black people starve to death than white people by what you could call a significant margin, too." The work also makes the point that "we still execute people 2,000 years after Christ's death".

More edgy -- more likely to offend, at any rate -- is The Privilege of Dominion, in which a waxwork ape appears nailed to a cross. "At the rate we're killing them all, the lowland gorillas will be dead by the year 2020," says Fryer. "Do animals have souls? What a question. We should be asking the same question of ourselves."

Personally, I don't find either sacrilegious. But then perhaps that's not for me to say. Given that the clearly fantastical Jerry Springer: the Opera managed to arouse the ire of so many Christians, it's quite possible that Fryer's ape on a cross will provoke more than just thought.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.