The Chapman brothers tell us why zombie nazis and genetically mutated children abound in their gloriously offensive 'anonymous' exhibition
While some of their contemporaries have become eminent members of the art establishment, with posters advertising major retrospectives emblazoned on bus stops all over London (how long before Emin gets a CBE?), Jake & Dinos Chapman have remained gloriously irksome in every respect, creating genuinely challenging work dripping in black humour that boasts a willfully teenage couldn’t-give-a-flying-fuck aesthetic. For their latest show Jake or Dinos Chapman spanning the two White Cube galleries, they have, for the first time in their careers, worked entirely separately – not showing each other the results of their labour until installation began, and not announcing to the public who has made what. Not that you would know they had worked alone, as the show contains all the hallmarks of their desire to explore transgression, provocation and perversion to the nth degree.
While the Hoxton Square venue exposes the viewer to genetically modified school parties in swastika jumpsuits, with bloodied duck bills and fox snouts where faces once were (somehow evocative of something that might stalk the gene-mutilated dreamscape of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake), the show at Mason’s Yard in Mayfair offers up cardboard abstract sculptures that feel like a strange riposte to Gormley’s sculptural work in the very same room a year ago, and what, for me, is the crowning glory of the exhibition – a room full of seven-foot high Nazi zombies engaging in homo-erotic sex acts while leering at abstract sculptures. This space in particular is a truly overwhelming experience that pokes fun at the bourgeois penchant for eroticizing final solution-enthusiasts Night Porter-style, while parodying the ultimate iconography of pure evil with carnival-esque delight – acid-house summer of love smiley faces are worn on the arm bands of these Iron-Cross-loving freaks rather than swastikas. Here, the brothers discuss the drives behind the show, the experience of working in isolation and a whole lot more besides, although in the spirit of this visceral exhibition, we are not going to tell you who said what…
DD: I know this isn’t exactly high-art parlance on my part but what possessed you to create a room full of grinning zombie Nazis debating whether to fuck each other?
Jake or Dinos Chapman: If that’s your reading of it, I concur. Well, they’re already in our heads anyway – Nazi uniforms and smiley faces are gross symbols that are already part of our lexicon. We see a swastika – we know it’s bad. The smiley face embodies happiness, but it contrasts the embodiment of evil when on the Nazis. In a way, it’s about challenging traditional notions about these symbols – the future, in a sense, collapsing in on itself.
DD: I tend to think of Nazism as somehow existent in plastic surgery and the pursuit of the expansion of the biological lifespan, as all of those notions were born from eugenics…
Jake or Dinos Chapman: There was a trajectory of perfection and that’s one of the reasons we were interested in the calamitous relationship between Nazis and these abstract sculptures. The Nazis were vociferous in their attacks against modernity and, at the same time, they thought they could utilize the technology of eugenics in the pursuit of purity and species perfection, which was absolutely to do with enlightenment thinking – this idea that you could turn really poor people into really aristocratic people just by giving them riding crops. On the one hand, they were super-modernists and on the other, they were suppressing everything that modernity was offering. They were completely confused, and knew they couldn’t get away with it forever. But for progression to occur and modernity to achieve excess expenditure there needed to be that moment of suicidal culture that removed morality and said go for it.
DD: What do you think is important about placing this kind of transgression in a sphere where people can engage with it? Do you subscribe to the notion that if society was more comfortable with transgression, it would be better off?
Jake or Dinos Chapman: No, because then it wouldn’t be transgression. Transgression is to be acted out as though there is a limit on it, in big white rooms. This serves the purpose of demonstrating the boundaries of bourgeois tolerance. This is what we do well – we allow people to believe that their boundaries are being a little bit stretched, just for the purpose of entertaining. Then they can go back to their normal jobs and feel not quite so awful. I actually think people have much worse thoughts in their heads. It’s just we can have license to be a bit more open about it. I suppose it’s how you define entertainment. For some, entertainment means puppy dogs, flowers and corn pops. For us it involves a certain amount of intensity.
DD: When we have spoken before you have talked about there being people who are innocent, who don’t necessarily deserve to be exposed to these things…
Jake or Dinos Chapman: The thing is you’ve got to be careful about who it is you’re attacking. The people we are attacking are largely people who have an authoritative view of art and are in control of what’s counted as beautiful, people who operate the critical aspirations, but yes, there are those people who perhaps don’t deserve our work. They don’t deserve to be attacked by our work. I suppose what I mean is in museums they put signs saying ‘Over 18’s Only’. I think there are people who are innocents that would look at our work and be shocked, and they’re not really the people we’re intending to get at.
DD: What was it like working separately? Presumably when you work together you sometimes stop one another and say: ‘hang on, we’re going up a blind alley here’…
Jake or Dinos Chapman: Yeah, all the time, but I think that’s why we did it. The thing about ‘blind alleys’ and ‘cul-de-sacs’ is relevant in choosing to work separately. What would have been the path of least resistance? Well, it would be to work together, to get a bigger studio, more assistants, more money… produce a body of work. The alternative was to introduce friction, introduce entropy – tie our hands behind our backs and work separately. If you consider that even in our absence and exile from each other, we’re both still kind of grappling with figures such as Goya and Hitler, we’re never really alone.
DD: With the works upstairs at Mason’s Yard, it feels as though the titles define the objects that you’re looking at – they set them in a certain framework in your mind.
Jake or Dinos Chapman: They don’t really though, because the titles are incredibly emotive. There’s a poetic insinuation and there’s an impoverishment in the object. I guess what’s caught between there is a sense in which the identification of a work of art is something to do with trying to perceive its metaphysics, its essence, and those things upstairs are calamities. There’s a failure on the part of the objects to meet the title. The journey between the two is very torturous; they are anti-metaphysical.
DD: I don’t think anyone would argue that you don’t push things as far as you possibly can – do you gain a personal transcendent high from the process of making deeply transgressive objects?
Jake or Dinos Chapman: I wouldn’t say transcendent, but you do attempt to put yourself outside of yourself and make something beyond who you are… art about non-identification, art that is anonymous. I think all of our work has that intention and I think there is a separation once the work’s made and it’s out of your hands, so in that sense, what we have to do is hardwire the work so that it can’t be analysed in a less aggressive way than we want it to be. It acts in the world in as aggressive a way as we speak about our art. I remember after one of our first shows we had in New York there was an article by Jerry Salt. He described a fuckface mannequin and explained in the article that he had to describe it because they couldn’t print a picture of it. In a sense, we had attained the point where the work had actually mapped out the boundaries of liberal humanism. I think our work is still engaged in that process. We’re still doing what we did before and I don’t want to lose that. I don’t think anyone could accuse us of maturing.
Jake or Dinos Chapman is at White Cube from July 15 - September 17