The Brothers Grim: Jake and Dinos Chapman

By Paul Vallely

Saturday 16 September 2000 00:00

There are two things that you need to know about Jake and Dinos Chapman. They come in the form of quotes. And if the first is too profound, impenetrable, pretentious or boring you should feel free to give up halfway through and skip to the end of the paragraph. You will still have got the general idea.

There are two things that you need to know about Jake and Dinos Chapman. They come in the form of quotes. And if the first is too profound, impenetrable, pretentious or boring you should feel free to give up halfway through and skip to the end of the paragraph. You will still have got the general idea.

So here is the first quote. It is how the brothers describe one of their works: "Drawing upon Munch's famous existential image of the screaming man, this digital design is the iconic residue of humanity after science and technology has had its wicked way: a multi-nucleated progeriac, an inflamed encephalitic Cartesian organ fighting for survival in an increasingly hostile non-organic world. This is the banner under which homo sapiens will amass to resist the terrible scourge of computers which seek to take over the world.''

Got that? Good. Now here's the second, which came from the leaflet advertising the New York leg of the BritArt show, of which the Chapman Brothers were, to say the least, representative contributors. "Health warning: The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety. If you suffer from high blood pressure, a nervous disorder or palpitations you should consult your doctor before viewing this exhibition."

Well, you should have got the measure of that, all right. Even those of you who Dinos would put in the category of "people who need potty training" to understand what their work is all about. Dinos, you should know, is allegedly the more even-tempered of the two.

He is certainly the less voluble of the pair. Making the same point to one interviewer, Jake, reportedly the awkward brother, elaborated that the public should be assessed for their intellectual suitability before being allowed into art galleries. "They should be means-tested on the door," said Jake. "We've never pretended that our art is anything other than extremely elitist. It's not for Sunday afternoon gallery goers... We're not interested in the idea that museums or galleries are redemptible spaces for bourgeois people to come and pay their dues to culture. Just because looking at a work involves your eyes, there's this dumb notion that anyone with eyes can have a justified opinion about it."

So don't go to the Royal Academy next week without your degree certificate. For it is here that the Chapmans' favourite minuet will once again begin. A minuet, you will recall, is a slow, formalised dance for two in triple time. The two partners in this ritual are, on the one hand, the great British public, or at any rate the public as mediated through the feigned outrage of the British national press, and on the other hand, the Chapman Brothers - though the second dancer might as easily be our shark-pickling friend Damien Hirst, or Tracey Emin or the Turner-Prize winning painter in elephant dung, Chris Ofili.

We are back in the tired old debate about contemporary art. Is it there to shake us mere drudges from the blinkered complacency of our diurnal round? Or is it one of the great con tricks of the 20th century, now to be magnified in the 21st, in which the genius of marketing is married with a puerile desire to shock, and foisted upon us as art? The thing about the Chapmans is that when it comes to shock-value the pair - who are known variously as the Brothers Grim, the enfants terribles or the shock troops of British art - are in a league of their own.

The centrepiece of the Royal Academy's new Apocalypse exhibition, which opens in London next Saturday, is to be a huge Chapman Brothers piece bearing the characteristic title of Fucking Hell, though most newspapers have begun delicately to refer to it as F Hell. It is a 28sq ft railway model-sized recreation of the Holocaust, made up of 30,000 tiny mutilated plastic soldiers arranged in the shape of a giant swastika. At its centre is a volcano that puffs out smoke and spews up tiny figures of Nazis. In the surrounding landscape - which took the brothers two years to build on separate rickety tables so the viewer can wander from one section to another - there are thousands of painstakingly modelled, mutilated and deformed German soldiers, some crucified, some with their heads on spikes, some being shovelled into ovens under a chimney belching out smoke.

The model has already caused a stir in Berlin earlier this year where photographs of the work-in-progress were exhibited with war prints by the Chapmans. The photos of the plastic models, taken by Norbert Schoner, who does fashion shoots for Prada and Vogue, showed piles of corpses, bloody limbs, people who have been hanged, castrated or raped. They prompted people to walk out in stunned silence or to vomit. Art critics were equally stunned. "Pictures of chopped-up tin soldiers in SS uniforms who are being castrated by skinhead mutations certainly adhere to the British preference for sensation, Nazi-trash and sexploitation," said Harald Fricke, of Tageszeitung .

Of course, the Chapman Brothers didn't intend anything like that. Ready, as ever, with a dense rationalisation, Jake riposted: "Our intention was not in any way to trivialise the Holocaust." Rather, you see, it was a comment on the innate inadequacy of artistic responses to such genocide. "This is an event that's beyond representation. Using toy soldiers is a way of emphasising the impossibility of that. Here are these little figures that are totally incompatible with the pathos they're supposed to support."

There are plenty of intellectuals in the art world who buy all this. (And not just Charles Saatchi who has forked out £500,000 for the piece: the most he's ever paid for a single work of art.) Norman Rosenthal, the exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy, writes in the introduction to the catalogue of Apocalypse: "The experiment of the Enlightenment has been extinguished and we are witness to a brutish or at best melancholic world picture, where the potency of a bus timetable seems quite enough to evoke the poetry of history."

Or, as he put it more colloquially when recalling first seing the work in the artists' studio: "I fell backwards when I saw it - it's spellbinding. I think the Chapmans will be major, major artists. Others might think it's a piece of shit, but I doubt it," he said. "It's a big, big thing. You can look at it for hours and hours, the detail and craftsmanship is amazing. It's Brueghel, Pasolini and Bosch; they are all there."

There are others who do not agree. David Lee, the former editor of Art Review magazine, where he was noted for his scathing editorials, now edits the visual arts magazine Jackdaw where he continues to be among the Chapmans' most vitriolic critics. "I am curious about their work in the same way that I would slow down to look at a car crash. The risk is, of course, that by doing so you can cause another accident," he said. "The Chapman Brothers have realised that they are only as good as the publicity they generate."

But is all this being unfair to the Chapmans? Their track record suggests not. True, there have been some talented and impassioned pieces of work, such as their 83 etchings entitled Disasters of War, which were inspired by the war etchings of Goya. A set of these was bought by the British Museum.

Yet many of their works have courted controversy without the redeeming feature of artistic merit. In the Sensation! exhibition, their mutated shop-window dummies, portrayed in various deformed states of graphic sexual arousal, seemed like monstrous mutilation for its own sake. (It was this that led the Mayor of New York, Rudolf Giuliani, to brand their work "perverted".) Their contribution to the opening exhibition of the Tate Modern at Bankside - which the Queen was carefully steered away from when she opened the place - depicted a hammer through a brain connected to a limp male organ. Then there was their giant glass fibre sculpture of Professor Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair tottering on the edge of a cliff, their The Unholy Libel (a mock Bible filled with pictures of sex organs) and their video showing one woman pleasuring another with the penis-nose of a bloody beheaded dummy. All of which came out of the Chapman (F)ine ARTS studio, or Chapman FARTS as they prefer to abbreviate it. "It's a case of: 'What is the worst thing anyone could do? Let's do it'," says David Lee.

Jake, inevitably, has an explanation. "People confuse us with our work," he says. "In our view, no work of art has ever been personal. There's neither of ourselves in this work."

There may be a more mundane reason. In truth, the Chapman Brothers have an impeccably boring background. Brought up in Cheltenham, they moved to Hastings when they were small, where they went to the local comprehensive, before going to study art in London. Their father was an art teacher, who gave it up to become a vet. Though their mother was a Greek Cypriot, with an Orthodox faith, their upbringing was conventionally English middle-class, as their well-spoken accents testify.

It is all a bit tame for enfants terribles. It was only when they left the Royal College of Art in 1991 that a tinge of the exotic attached to them: Dinos went to work as an assistant to the art world's prototype odd couple, Gilbert and George. Jake worked as a gallery technician for the Cork Street dealer Victoria Miro, who later became their dealer. Soon after graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1990, Dinos and Jake Chapman began working as a collaborative team. They had largely unremarkable exhibitions in Liverpool, London, Milan, Stockholm and Tokyo before being selected among the Young British Artists at the Venice Biennale in 1995, at the ICA in London in 1996 and then at the Gagosian in New York in 1997.

But it was not until the Sensation! exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1997 that they began to gain a wider audience - and felt that they could give poor old Victoria Miro the push and embark on bits of bad behaviour at the Groucho Club. Until then their only real claim to personal colour is that their sister works at London Zoo (which is where she got the elephant dung that Chris Ofili used in his controversial painting of the Virgin Mary). And they may even have made that up.

It is in the nature of post-modern art that you can't believe a word it says. And though, of course, the artist is not the work, both Jake and Dinos, as one interviewer noted, deny that the sole intention of their work is to shock, but can't help smirking as they say it.

"They are the cleverest of the YBAs (Young British Artists)," says the art critic Matthew Collings. But Julian Stallabrass, lecturer in art history at the Courtauld Institute, has something far more withering to suggest. In his book High Art Lite: British Art in the Nineties, he talks about something that "looks like art but is not quite art, that acts as a substitute for art". The majority of artists purveying this, he writes, "have been content to play the well-remunerated role of court dwarf" while at the same time claiming they are engaged in some ironic exposure of the pretensions of old-style art.

Such games, says Stallabrass, have now become so commonplace in art that they have lost all meaning. The result may be the art of our vapid post-modern era but it means that - in all their various disgusting guises - modern installation artists are just telling the same joke over and over again in what has become a parody of the culture of shock.

Next year, Norman Rosenthal promises, the RA will host a successor exhibition to Apocalypse. Doubtless Jake and Dinos Chapman will be in it. Quite how you top the Apocalypse does not bear thinking about. But no doubt the Chapman Brothers will find a way.

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