Visual Arts: `We weren't really trying'

Why Jake and Dinos Chapman got a B in GCSE art.
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The Independent Culture
AS THE taxi pulls up outside the faceless light-industrial unit just off the Old Kent Road, I spot a tall, spindly-legged, olive-complexioned man in shorts talking into his mobile phone as he shifts uneasily from foot to foot. "Computer problems," mutters Dinos Chapman with guarded affability, as he gives me a soft squeeze of the hand, and then leads me inside the building, past a red-faced man pouring sweat who's working at a forge. The place stinks of motor oil and heat. Making those metal gates looks like real work.

Up the stairs we go, to the first-floor studio where art's made. Is real work done up here too - or just the virtual kind? This summer the Chapman brothers re-sat their GCSE art at a college in Notting Hill. Dinos did his first time around when he was 14 or 15. He got an "A" then. This time they both got a "B".

There's only Dinos here to do the explaining at the moment because Jake's gone off to fetch the portfolio with the work. Dinos is neither so glib nor so fast-talking as Jake.

"We didn't try very hard, much less hard than first time around," he tells me, making it all sound fairly remote and faintly ridiculous. "In fact, we did two years' coursework in two weeks. More important though, what we were doing there had nothing to do with the art world. It was a testing of procedures and competencies according to rules devised by the educational establishment..."

What did they in fact have to "do" though?

"The theme of the written paper was `discovery'. We could work in two or three dimensions, make anything we wanted - collage, painting, drawing, prints - and use any materials we liked..." These materials included human hair and cornflakes. The most taxing part of the course had been the 10- hour classroom-based exam trapped in a room with all those teenagers. (The Chapmans introduced spy cameras into the exam, and filmed themselves working.) The whole experience of being in that room had been traumatic, though. "The kids seemed so alien, so empty," says Dinos, blinking heavily. "There was so much silence."

Suddenly, Jake bounces in, smiling coyly, portfolio in one hand, army camouflage jacket hanging off his arm. The atmosphere changes. Dinos was grave, tentative, almost apologetic on his own. Jake is glib, assured, half-smiling.

We returned to the question of what the GCSE tested. "An ability to make work of very little artistic merit," he replies. "You subordinate yourself to the process to produce certain bodies of work within certain set parameters. But you introduce rogue elements, of course..."

So you don't learn to do anything?

"Learn?!" sneers Jake. "I think we can do anything. And the idea of personal development is ridiculous anyway. Art's a faux-narcissistic game. Our work is all one anyway - like manure. It's heroic of us to have done the GCSE at all."

And what did he think about the result?

"It's a disgrace," they both reply, laughing. "Agreeing to do it may have been a scatological slip in the first place," adds Jake. "What I am more interested in is testing the capability of someone else to judge the work objectively, in finding out who makes those judgements and why."

All this sounds so ridiculously self-serving and egotistical that I get on to the subject of the 75-page essay Jake wrote as an introduction to their most recent big show at a gallery in New York. I explain to him that the essay seemed to me to be one of the most pretentious pieces of crap that I'd ever read. That it communicated nothing. That it read like the work of a pretentious teenager, heady on some ill-digested diet of Sartre, Husserl and others. Now the atmosphere begins to get as hot as in the forge downstairs.

Jake loads mockery and derision on my shoulders. I know nothing at all about art, he tells me - and less about writing. He gives me a reading list. He tells me that the language of the essay was quite deliberately and exclusively elitist. It wasn't written to be understood or to communicate anything. It had deliberately "shed itself of all utilitarian aspects". And anyway, at least one critic had called it "fitfully brilliant".

"People who walk into a gallery need to be taught a lesson," says Jake. "We're into abreactive therapy - the tactic of destabilisation."

Then, at last, I get to see the work: Jake's "self-portrait" made with cornflakes and whole-wheat crunchies; that "landscape in acrylic" over which Dinos has laboured for 10 solid hours. How would you describe this one? I ask them. "Arduous," says Dinos. "Bucolic," says Jake. "Bubonic," says Dinos. "Vapid," says Jake. "Plastic," says Dinos.

It's all fairly competent, and sufficient proof that they're at least the equal of an average 15-year-old.

The GCSE artworks are at Chapman Fine Art, 39 Fashion Street, London