The art of the Chapman brothers is cynical and morally bankrupt
Like Laurel and Hardy, Flanagan and Alan, Gilbert and George, the artists Jake and Dinos Chapman have realised that being part of a duo is a good career move. The audience get two for the price of one and there is always someone around to act as a foil. The self-appointed bad boys of British art, they came to prominence as part of the notorious YBA generation. Now they have produced Bad Art for Bad People and the more they shock us, like pigs wallowing in their own muck, the happier they are. “We are sore-eyed scopophilliac oxymorons …our discourse offers a benevolent contingency of concepts, a discourse of end-of-sale remnants, a rationalistic hotbed of sober categories…” belligerently declares a mud spattered manifesto plastered on the gallery wall. But what are they really up to with their infantile penile-nosed manikins and their obsessive scenarios of death camp horror made from myriads of tiny plastic bodies like those used by small boys for air fix models?
Great Deeds! Against the Dead, 1994
For ‘nothing loses its effectiveness more quickly than shock’ wrote Peter Bürger, in his account of the avant-garde. Provocation cannot be repeated indefinitely without either losing its muscle or upping the anti. One generation’s shock – Impressionism, for example – becomes another’s tea towel decoration. Shock is nowadays, mostly, to a shock-hardened generation, not very shocking at all but it is all good PR and its a legacy stretches back from the Chapman’s copulating dolls via the Surrealists to medieval visions of hell. But does the Chapman’s work reveal or criticise anything or is it simply excreta emptied from the bowels of an impoverished society; sterile, commercial diarrhoea for profit and titillation? They may occasionally make us laugh but is it gallows humour, the jeers of the crowd at a gladiatorial contest through which, as spectators, we become complicit in their end-of-everything schadenforh humour? For theirs is a scornful, cruel, caustic wit that rejects all forms of enlightenment morality and humanist endeavour and where the viewer’s involvement and discomfort leaves the last laugh with them. For shock is part of their agenda, part of their manifesto, along with cynicism it forms the dual prongs of their credo. At the very end of postmodernism when God has been dead for more than a hundred years, these heirs of Nietzsche and Bataille play with the shards of a morally bankrupt society like children in a war zone picking over gruesome remains.
Sex I, 2003
The Champman brothers are fully versed in the critical scaffolding that supports their position, one minute nodding in the direction of Walter Benjamin and his arguments about repetition and reproduction and the next towards critics such as Rosalind Krauss who have dismissed the notion of innovation or genius as a ‘modernist myth’. To create work (to use their own words) of ‘vertiginous obscenity’ they have repeatedly returned to Goya, particularly his series Disasters of War, in which he portrayed the atrocities he had witnessed in the Peninsular War between Spain and France (1808-14). Yet while Goya’s unflinching aesthetic was born out of moral anger at the politics of his time and his despair at man’s bestial treatment of man, the Chapman’s aesthetic grows not from outrage but out of post-moral ennui. Goya’s men, mutilated and bound to their tree like flayed versions of Christ may well have called out to a God whom they believed had forsaken them yet for the Chapman’s the image represents a celebration of the abject. For as Jake (the articulate one) has written ‘We’ve always argued that pornography is the perfect representation of twenty-first-century sexuality because it hints at sex through an act of reproduction and repetition’. Provocatively, he added, that Goya’s copper plates for this series are scarred ‘with indelible signs of auto-eroticism’.
Token Pole, 1997
They would, no doubt, argue that their work reveals the ruptures and hypocrisies within modern culture and that they are interrogating what we value as art and that their subversive strategies question the role of the artist within contemporary society. They may also add that at the end of history, as utopian modernist values crash around our ears, that their encrusted skeletons dangling from a tree in a pastiche of Goya’s image, but now crawling with luminous worms and putrid maggots, is the only possible response to this moment in history. For this vision of putrefying decomposition, rendered with painstaking detail, offers a disquietingly ambiguous response to the horrors of violence and the total loss of any belief system. For as Julia Kristeva has written: ‘Abjection is above all about ambiguity’. Here, through the pornography of violence and death, Eros transcends the abject horrors of Thanatos. As with the erotic violence of de Sade the visual pleasure the piece offers is in direct correlation to the pain it evokes.
Such sadism is evident in their investigations of evil, where a mass of squirming, uniformed and torturing figures made from tiny models has turned into a version of Dante’s Hell or a Nazi death camp. No other of their images so signals the failure of Enlightenment values. For this theatre of cruelty represents a world of perpetual torment where the title Arbeit McFries conflates the totalitarianism of Fascism with that of contemporary commerce. In another glass case a writhing mass of tiny soldiers decapitate one another and place the dismembered heads triumphantly on spikes in an evocation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the once benevolent Kurtz, corrupted and coarsened by the endless brutality in the Congo, cries out against his native workers, ‘Exterminate the brutes!’ Ill with “jungle fever” and almost dead, Marlow seizes Kurtz and endeavors to take him back down the river in his steam boat. As Kurtz dies he utters the immortal words, “The horror! The horror!” Examining ideas of the struggle between good and evil, light and dark, savagery and civilization, Conrad, nevertheless stresses through the novel the importance of restraint in balancing the destructive impulses of the Dionysian Id. For those who break its boundaries are doomed to an endless existential cycle of destruction. Whilst Conrad observes the collapse of a moral frame work and illuminates its dangers we do not know whether the Chapman’s are critics or advocates of the present state of society, or whether like bullies watching a victim being mugged, they are simply standing on the side lines laughing.
Jake and Dino Chapman Bad Art for Bad People is at Tate Liverpool until 4 March 2007
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2007
Images © Jake and Dino Chapman 1984-2003
Courtesy of the Tate
Published in New Statesman