If you are going to hold a show of the brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, the Serpentine’s new Sackler Gallery is as good a place as any. The galleries are in the refurbished Armory, built in 1805 to house munitions for the military, which was readying for an invasion by Napoleon. It was also there to suppress any riots or strikes from a local populace deeply resentful of rising food prices and the threat of being pressed into military service – war and oppression, the theme of so much of the Chapmans’ work.
Extending out from the Armory, of course, is Zaha Hadid’s wonderful modern space opened earlier this autumn, her first permanent gallery commission in this country. If you thought – as the Chapmans apparently did – that they would extend into this area, then forget it. If there is an opposite to the Chapman Brothers’ particular brand of shock-schlock, it must be this organic, undulating structure in cool white.
Not that this would have put off Jake and Dinos. There is nothing that they like more than to take one context, then totally contradict it with grotesquely offensive imagery from the Nazi’s past or from horror movies. For this new exhibition, they have moved up in scale from tiny models of swastika-arm-banded killers to life-sized mannequins dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb, who greet you at the entrance in front of banners of smiley faces and are stationed through the show, looking at the exhibits and seemingly conversing with each other, just like you, the gallery-goer.
It works, provided that you don’t knock any of the Klansmen over while you’re looking at the objects. The space is a rectangular building of bare London brick, with two central galleries in the middle where the gunpowder used to be stored. Distributed throughout the exhibition, the KKK figures tie in the objects and add a frisson of fear to the brothers’ work, past and recent. It’s particularly effective in the curtained-off North Powder Room, where the Klansmen loom up around you as you enter the darkened gallery where a video is showing.
But, as a device, it’s also somewhat stilted. The horror of the KKK comes from the sense of the brute violence of angry men bent on racial revenge. The mannequins don’t really have that, nor are the hooded heads a strong enough image to carry menace. After a bit, they become not so much presences as obstacles to be circumvented.
The ability of the brothers to discomfort the viewers rests on their use of the visual and spoken language of movies, comics and television to draw in and then upset the expectations of the viewer. That, and a firm sense of the iconography of the art of the past learned at the Royal Academy, provide their starting point Not for nothing did they begin as assistants to the artists Gilbert & George.
At its most raw, in the scale-models of scenes of depravity and disaster for which they are best known and which are on show here, this still has the power to shock. In minute detail, and taking anything from six months to a year or more to build, they build up mountains and rivers of tiny dismembered, bleeding bodies, heaped up by Nazi troopers, seized by skeletons and gleefully decapitated by half-naked maniacs. Clowns are crucified, limbs are hung from trees in the manner of Goya’s Disasters of War, naked women frolic on boats in a way reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. The initial impact comes from the mass of the mutilation, the discomfort felt from the way your eye is sucked into the detail, making your curiosity feel complicit in the actions on show.
As a technique, the slap in the face of taste can wear thin, however. Perhaps conscious of this, the brothers in one of their latest dioramas, abruptly place in one corner a life-size model of the lower half of a man, his legs covered in projecting hairs and his genitalia pink and flaccid. Presumably this is supposed to pick up on the naked lower limbs of the tiny Nazi models in the vitrine below and make the scene more relevant to us. In reality, it just looks as if it’s there for effect.
The sense of strain in the reach for effect is more apparent in the most recent installations of mixed media and painted wood. “Come and See” says a sign over the figures of a fox rogering a hare, which in turn enters a rabbit on a stoat on a mouse, while a rook looks on from above. Nature red in prick and paw is the message, but it doesn’t take much reading. Going round these installations and the smaller coupling figures in cardboard and paint, you get the feeling that the more fanciful the title, the thinner the product. Fucking with Nature (Somewhere Between Tennis Elbow and Wanker’s Cramp), The Axminister of Evil and Shitrospective may have had the pair of them creased in laughter, but I doubt they do much for anyone else.
One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved is a much more resonant description for a series of 19th-century primitive portraits, which the brothers altered during 2007 and 2008 by making the eyes pop out or the faces scarred. In art terms it may subvert the idea of portraiture, but as an art object it says nothing more than someone who has done the equivalent of painting moustaches on billboard posters.
The exhibition also has a strong showing of the painted bronzes that Jake and Dinos created five years ago with titles such as I laugh in the face of adversity but it laughed back louder and I felt insecure. On metal stands, brains and skinned heads are pinioned by machinery, hammers and vacuum pipes. Individually, the sculptures are quite shocking; in sequence they lose their impact. It’s not that the two brothers lack artistic talent. Hung on the outer walls of the show are a series drawings, watercolours and prints of real freshness and fluidity. The Kino Klub video on show to the KKK models is full of ideas with its play on bad Hollywood dialogue and cockroach figures, if only it wasn’t so conscious of audience reaction. You feel that, in making such liberal and gleeful use of their horror source materials, the Chapmans don’t always think hard enough as to what makes them so effective. Hollywood horror is itself a pastiche, so making it more so doesn’t necessarily add to it.
A decade ago, Jake and Dinos Chapman bought a set of Goya’s Disasters of War, one of the most important influences on their work, and went about defacing the prints with scribbles and scratches. It was a deliberate rejection of the past and an escape from an influence they have constantly turned to in their modelling. But it misses the point. What makes Goya’s engravings the most powerful anti-war statements ever made is their sense of desolation. They sit there bleak and absolute in their presentation of the horrors of war. Bereft of comment or feeling, they breath the mind of a man who, brought up in the Enlightenment, now witnesses the destruction of everything he felt good and lasting. Imposing further layers of ironic detachment, as the Chapman Brothers have done, adds superciliousness not depth.
A few minutes’ walk away from the Armory, in the Serpentine’s main gallery, is an exhibition of the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky, who works with puppets and children to tell tales in film. By giving the marionettes personality and the children the voices of adults, he weaves narratives that remind you not just of the elusiveness of truth but that the job of the artist is at its heart one of the storyteller. I doubt that Jake and Dinos Chapman would like the videos, but they could learn from them.
Jake and Dinos Chapman: Come and See, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London W2 (020 7402 607, serpentinegalleries.org) to 9 February; Wael Shawky, Serpentine Gallery to 9 February