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Jake and Dinos Chapman

by Emily Nathan

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Jake and Dinos Chapman may seem like brutes, but they talk like academics -- at least Jake did, when he took part in an interview at the 92nd Street Y last week. His interrogator was none other than Sir Norman Rosenthal, former exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy and the curator of the infamous 1997 exhibition “Sensation.” Seated on stools at the front of the 92Y’s modest Weill Art Gallery, the two cut a strange figure: Jake, at a solid 6'4", seemed a mischievous giant next to the refined Sir Norman, stout and scholarly in a suit and tie.

Their audience included Jake's older brother, Dinos Chapman, and Jake’s wife, the model Rosemary Ferguson, and fit snugly into the small room, whose walls are hung with photos of Soviet soldiers and accompanying quotations. Why Jake was singled out for the interview was unexplained, though he is the brother known for expressing himself verbally in catalogue essays, art criticism, and even a book, Meatphysics, which hit shelves in 2003. The 256-page tome is described by its “experimental” British publisher as "a mixture of fiction and theory" that "engages with Freudian theory, genetic engineering and consumerism."

The immediate reason for the Chapmans’ presence in town also remained unclear, although, notably, they are no longer represented by Gagosian Gallery; their exhibition “Jake & Dinos Chapman: Jake or Dinos Chapman,” for which the brothers worked in separated studios to produce a series in isolation from each other, closed at London’s White Cube Gallery just last month.

Since they started collaborating in 1991, the Chapmans -- who were nominated for the Turner Prize in 2003 but lost out to Grayson Perry -- have made a career out of provocations to good taste. Grotesquely disfigured children, homages to Nazi militarism and dioramas of random slaughter share space in their oeuvre with "milder" desecrations, such as putting a Big Mac in the hands of a wooden African figurine. Their sculpture Hell (2000), which was destroyed in a fire that consumed a storage warehouse full of works from the Saatchi Collection and was later re-staged and elaborated as Fucking Hell (2008), is a multipart diorama of Nazi atrocities, arranged on the gallery floor in the shape of a swastika.

On Tuesday evening, Jake the provocateur seemed civilized enough -- though his words were a bit inflammatory. To open the discussion, Sir Norman declared that the brothers, who were not educated at Goldsmiths College like their fellow YBAs (Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread most celebrated among them) but rather at the Royal Academy, had been instrumental in “changing the face of London’s art world” in the ‘90s, transforming it from an elite, exclusive subculture to a more open, dynamic platform of exchange.

“London’s art scene is now full of vibrant young people who all get drunk together and sleep together,” Rosenthal explained, with a knowing smile (as if this is a new development). After standing to read from a placard on the wall that said "killing a person is an abomination," he asked whether it would be fair to say that the Chapmans’ work is about “issues of totalitarianism.”

Jake sidestepped the question and instead responded that war is “the ultimate expression of human surplus, whose building mechanisms are effective in reinvigorating new economies” -- just the first of many polemical statements expressed in slightly fuzzy terms, but clearly designed to raise the temperature. The audience seemed to react not at all.

A slideshow of works by the Chapmans started on the screen above the two men's heads, and it would run for the length of their conversation as a sort of illustrative backdrop. While images of bloodied figurines and plastic mannequins having sex flashed by, Rosenthal mentioned the brothers’ seeming fascination with Francisco Goya. They are notorious for defacing a mint collection of the Spanish’s artist’s prints with funny faces and other contemporary addenda -- strangely, the original is transformed into a new work of considerable interest -- as well as for an earlier suite of 83 mini-dioramas depicting scenes of disfigurement derived from Goya’s famous series of etchings, The Disasters of War.

“When Dinos and I began to work together,” Jake explained, “We were forced to make a decision about what it means to be an artist. We see Goya as the first modern artist, who emerged from a dependence on the iconography of the church and has been protected by an institutional belief in the humanistic quality of his content.”

Although Goya’s Disasters of War has been read as an indictment of atrocity, he went on, there is actually a formal concentration around the “areas of violence, a rigorous cross-hatching near the genitals, that seems highly libidinized. It reveals an exaggerated, perverse pleasure on Goya’s part that doesn’t fit in with the institutional reading of the work.”

Goya’s ambivalence, Jake concluded, offered him and his brother a perfect vehicle for “picking on the idealistic framework of art looking.”

“I’m interested in the moment when the clown becomes litigious, when something that was hired as entertainment verges on pedophilia,” he said, apparently referencing McDonald's and its clown mascot. That fast-food chain, which appears frequently in their work, at first represented the simple pleasure of a hamburger and fries. Now, Champman suggested, McDonald's is emblematic of a dangerous debasement of quality that threatens “our utopian program of progression.”

He then linked that sort of idealism to the “post-Christian, redemptive ideology” that emerged from the Enlightenment. “Utopian thinking is always people thinking for other people, and it always has to include everyone,” he said, pronouncing the obvious as though it were revolutionary, and proceeding to stamp it with a series of adjectives that betrayed sloppy logic, from “absolutist” to “totalitarian,” and, finally, “fascistic.”

Rosenthal seemed only slightly put-off by his subject’s juvenile assertion that the Enlightenment produced nothing but another moralistic narrowing of humanity’s project. The two volleyed intellectually for some time, dropping names like Nietzsche (whom Chapman admires for “having to use mad jargon in order to break free of the utopian rhetoric”), Wagner, and the fiercely moral novelist Primo Levi. Finally, the conversation turned back to the function of the Chapmans’ art. “What do you think about beauty?” Rosenthal prompted.

“The idea of ‘beauty’ represents the unexamined terminology of utopian thinking,” Jake replied, “and it dangerously asserts one idea: that humanity is progressing and should progress towards a sort of Romantic sublime. I think the best art challenges the idea that beauty is a universal term.”

Like it or not, the Chapmans have certainly been able to push the limits of what is acceptable as art. In order to provoke a response in their viewers, Jake explained, they go for the most superficial symbols, inserting a smiley face to extort empathy, for example, or using a swastika to represent evil. Their images are powerful and disturbing, but if their success in manipulating viewers’ emotions might be bolstered by the feelings people have about real historical events, Jake didn’t acknowledge it.

“Our systems of thought are self-affirming,” he continued. “Critique will always reinstate the values of critique; how do you talk about language without using language, or think without thinking?” Valid questions all, and although the idea of institutional critique is nothing new, the Chapmans have taken the perverse exaggeration of its earliest manifestations -- Marcel Duchamp installing a urinal in the Museum of Modern Art comes to mind -- and added a modern gloss that reflects the state of affairs in today’s technology- and media-saturated, globalized world.

Rosenthal mentioned a series of anatomically altered sculptures of children, whose bodies are sometimes fused together with genitalia in the place of facial features -- “like an adult version of pin the dick on the donkey,” Chapman interjected -- as adhering to a sort of mutant esthetic. Indeed, Jake has expressed fascination with genetic engineering, and the idea of the mutant might serve him well as a metaphor for some of the more freakish aspects of our modern existence.

“We wanted to test the limits,” he continued, “to see how far we could affect and exploit the bourgeois language of esthetic exchange. We wanted to see how quickly a work with an offensive title and taboo content could become ‘beautiful’ -- and sure enough, soon you have the elegant dealer Victoria Miro on the phone with a collector, describing how interesting Fuckface is, or wondering whether he would prefer Two-faced Cunt?”

To many observers, such a goal -- to make a woman your mother's age say "cunt” -- might seem the height of adolescent buffoonery. But social experiments of its ilk do have something endlessly amusing about them, as history makes clear -- and even after all these years, a room full of people paid good money to sit and hear them discussed.

Rosenthal, for one, delighted at the obscenities; eyes twinkling, he turned to Jake and asked whether he believes there is any borderline to the acceptability of transgression.

“Transgression is a necessary melodrama,” his young subject proclaimed. “There is no morality without it.” Whatever that means.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email