20 years as Britart’s enfant terrible
Dinos Chapman is normally the quieter half of the Chapman Brothers. Naughty Boys of the 90s Brit Art scene, they’ve been denounced for years in the press as polluters of minds and merchants of perversity. Conventional wisdom has it that their challenging work manifests in themselves as arrogance and a predilection for confrontation. They’ve famously thrown journalists out of their studio for asking the wrong questions, and made all sorts of inflammatory statements about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to look at art (it was most recently children who were unceremoniously declared not welcome).
Aside from a shared art practice, each brother also has an extracurricular activity. Jake is, apparently, an enthusiastic writer of philosophical and critical texts; Dinos, meanwhile, is an unexpectedly accomplished recording artist. Last year saw his debut, Luftbobler, released on the Vinyl Factory label. A kind of techno album, Throbbing Gristle, Autechre and Aphex were all audible, luftbobbling around. It’s disarmingly good.
It is in appropriately apocalyptic weather that I sit down to interview Dinos. Not normally excessively prone to pre-match nerves, butterflies are making themselves known in anticipation of what I fear will be The Interview From Hell. However, these butterflies are quickly dispelled (along with any hopes of clever-clever pathetic fallacy allusions and intrusions in the text) as the artist reveals himself to be actually quite a charming interviewee. He’s spent the morning doing press for the show, and drawing tattoos on Guardian journalists (to be gone over by a pro with a gun). Later, he draws us one: a skull and crossbones. “Get that,” he says. “No, wait, get that, with a swastika on its head.” I don’t.
The occasion of our interview is the press viewing of In the Realm of the Unmentionable, the brothers’ latest (crowd funded) exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings. It marks a homecoming for the brothers, who have made no bones about the grimness of the place in the second half of the last century. Elsewhere, Jake has described the “odd characters” that lurked about, and a place on the railway where decapitated bodies would turn up. I ask Dinos about it, during our photoshoot. Squinting into drizzle, surrounded by rusty machinery, he describes its violence; subcultural groups battling out of boredom. One of his mates, he says, was stabbed in both thighs whilst sitting in the pub. And knocked off his scooter. “He was only little; the world’s smallest mod.”
“When people talk about our work, the thing they sometimes forget is that it’s 99% funny and 1% whatever else"
Back inside, the exhibition is spread across the ground floor of the Jerwood Gallery. Outside there’s a bronze, Sturm und Drang, a sculptural reworking of a Goya etching, one of those from the series collectively entitled The Disasters of War. A recurring source of inspiration for the Chapman brothers, they engaged directly with the material in 2003, drawing perverse clown- and puppy-heads over an historically significant 1937 edition of the prints.
The original Goya on which this sculpture is based depicts three mutilated men strung up on a gallows-shaped tree. One, partially obscured, is hung by his legs, one by his arms and the third, victim of the most extreme mutilation, is himself divided in thirds; inverted body, decapitated head and severed arms. All have been castrated. A previous sculpture by the Chapmans depicts the scene fairly literally. Time has clearly passed since then, and the decay is evident; this tree is writhing with maggots, the human forms reduced to bone. The severed head, in the original mustachioed and oddly serene, is a fiendish skull, with bat ears and a clown’s nose.
Whilst initially repulsive, Sturm und Drang in fact manifests a kind of bathos the Chapmans have been riffing on throughout their career. Its grotesquery is reminiscent of 80s splatter films, campy and melodramatic. The pop-cultural cliché of the scary clown further serves to distance the sculpture from true horror; it is outdated and loud.
“When people talk about our work,” Dinos says, “the thing they sometimes forget is that it’s 99% funny and 1% whatever else. The most obvious thing about it is that it’s funny, and what’s funny about it is that people want to take it seriously.” This sculpture comes from the same place as some of the most notorious works they’ve made. Dinos brings up Fuck Face (1994) unprompted. “A child mannequin with a cock on its nose. To take that seriously, you’ve got to seriously limit your mental faculties. Essentially, the thing that binds everything together is humour – the darkest kind of humour possible. Because that’s the way that you defend yourself from the horror.”
This is pure Freud; in a 1927 essay, Humour, he asserted that, “Humour has something liberating about it, but it also has something of grandeur and elevation… the ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.” As Dinos puts it, “If you can laugh at someone while they’re beating your head in, they’re not beating your head in.”
Any research into the Chapman brothers will highlight their familiarity with ‘controversy’. The charge most frequently levelled is that they’re out to shock. Their response ranges from evasion, to pedantry, to emphatic denial. During our interview, Dinos errs on the side of the latter two; “We’ve always been accused of being scare mongers, and out to shock people [but] I don’t think art has ever had the ability to shock people. Shock is something that is applied to real things, like seeing a photograph of a child starving to death whilst a vulture waits to eat the corpse. That’s fucking shocking, but it’s not the photograph that’s shocking, it’s the fact that it’s a real thing that’s happening in the world and nothing is being done about it.” If art fundamentally consists of Form and Content, Dinos suggests that only the Content should provide the shocks.
The issue is that this is a semantic point too nuanced for most to bother engaging deeply with; it’s clearly frustrating that people keep coming back to it. “You realise that it’s not the answers that are wrong, it’s that the questions are coming from a point of view that’s resentful and reactionary.” Asking instead about provocation elicits what is probably a more honest, certainly a more straightforward, answer: “Provocation is different. I think knowing that someone is liable to be shocked by something doesn’t mean that you are trying to shock someone. It means that you are appropriating an effect, or a perceived effect that might be misinformed. If you know that the middle classes, or middle England, are going to crap themselves because they’ve just seen a mannequin with a cock on its face, doesn’t mean it’s shocking. It means that those people have a very poor set of responses, which you can use.”
The Content of much of their work is, as Dinos would have it, playful. It is the vulgarity, gore, aggression or outright nastiness of their Form, which – mistakenly, though understandably – causes shock and outrage. Their riffing (and ripping) on the conservative social mores of middle England (both the indignant, harrumphing UKIP Home Counties kind and the chin stroking, Guardian-reading bourgeoisie) is as defensible as prodding a sore tooth.
Their goading is encouraged by the national attitude towards contemporary art, for which the artists have to shoulder some, if not most, of the blame. As part of the YBA crowd, they’re responsible for its popularisation in this country and the elevation of its appreciation (and criticism) to a national pastime. It’s their own fault if “what’s happened recently is that everyone has become interested in art, but generally at an unqualified level.”
The relentless questioning around ‘shock’ has, of course, led to introspective discussion on the part of the brothers. “Jake and I have talked about it a lot, and have thought about it a lot, why it can’t shock, or why its prime objection is not shock. You end up having to go around the back of the question: is it more that the question is misinformed? Is expecting art to be shocking misinformed?”
This redirecting, or inversion, of the question also offers an insight into the other major original sculptural work in the exhibition. The Sum of all Evil is located in the same room as its cousin in resurrection. In 2004 a fire destroyed the Momart (an art storage, shipping and handling company) warehouse in east London. Among the works lost were Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Fucking Hell and Tracy Emin’s Everyone I have Ever Slept With 1963-1995. Fucking Hell was a sprawling, nightmare world. A diorama that mixed Bosch with Warhammer, it depicted thousands of tiny Nazis doing diabolical things to each other. Rather than remake it in its entirety, the Chapmans instead opted to make a few, smaller and different. The Sum of all Evil is one of these. In a moment of unusual malice, they also remade Emin’s Everyone… and are exhibiting it here, with the title, The Same only Better.
The Sum of all Evil demands the attention in this room, though. Fronting as the opposite to Sturm und Drang, far from repulsive it looks funny; obsessive and nerdy. Vitrines filled with models in a table- top game landscape. Close up, details emerge and funny they indeed are; a field of Ronald McDonalds being subjected to crucifixion by zombie skeletons with Swastika arm-bands; God’s severed feet standing proud on a hill, clad in socks and sandals (the ineffectual beard-stroker). In one corner, the B-Movie visual tropes that inspired them in their youth are again checked, though here they’re more like an Ed Wood film than a Video Nasty, as dinosaurs crowd in beside spaceships.
Here, though, we begin to experience a shift in perception. Where Sturm und Drang unfolded bathetically, this, like the Chapmans approaching the question of shock from the other side, flips. Humour starts to give way to something really quite nasty. The relentlessness and detail of the carnage depicted is tiring to look at. No single flicker of hope is offered for any figure in the diorama; it is nihilistic. Dinos explains: “Post Vietnam there’s an incredible increase in Zombie films. Zombie films as a social comment; normal horror films have a kind of morality that zombie films don’t have, because zombies aren’t personified – they’re oceanic. There’s no vampire that you can kill, everything is fucked.” The scale of the zombie apocalypse film diffuses any sort of ‘badness’ to such a point that it re-jigs morality; zombies are neither bad nor good, they’re amoral. That said, one of the most harrowing aspects of the The Sum of all Evil vitrines is the industrious glee with which the Chapman’s swastika- toting skeletons go about their malevolent, gruesome business. Dinos’s allusions to the amorality of the 20th century – Holocaust, Vietnam, Cold War, Nuclear Threat – are something of a red herring. While the Chapmans present evil and wickedness, they do so not to defend it but to mock; social mores, preconceptions, humanity.
Whilst aspects of their practice, and of the work in the Jerwood show, are playful, it is the ostensibly benign that packs a real punch. The resonance comes from their genuinely bleak outlook, startling in its disguise as verbosity and humour. Dinos is unapologetic, and therein lies the power both of the artists, and the work. “The idea of making hopeful, friendly art is a total nonsense to me, because generally the world is a horrible place.”