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, was on display at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis. A soundtrack of 50 disparate voices reciting Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” played alongside the sculptures. Because each voice started 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).