20th century, contemporary art, installation art

The finite charms of the Chapman brothers

December 17, 2013
Jake and Dinos Chapman, Installation view, Come and See, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, © 2013 Hugo Glendinning
Jake and Dinos Chapman,
Installation view, Come and See, Serpentine Sackler Gallery,
© 2013 Hugo Glendinning

In a book you can be fairly sure the Chapmans have read, A Thirst for Annihilation, philosopher Nick Land reports on the encounter between American GIs and the mass graves of the Nazi death camps.

If memory serves me right, many of the liberators, upon encountering piles of unburied bodies, said they experienced a rush-like death wish, a desire to be just so many more nameless bodies.

Such transgressive feelings are, apparently, impossible to recreate in a gallery. But the two enfants terrible have surely tried, having peopled several dioramas with thousands of tiny model corpses.

These museum-like cases, which also feature Nazi soldiers and the cast of a McDonalds Happy Meal, are, rather than annihilating, just plain fun. They are fun in the way Bosch or Breugel are fun.

Which is to say they combine a picture book pleasure with a wealth of comic detail. But the power of these pieces is contained by the glass behind which they sit. There is no leakage.

Humour is everywhere in the current retrospective at Serpentine. You will have heard about the KKK, no doubt. Expect your visit to be joined by a score of Klansmen in rainbow socks and sandals.

It’s the socks which really annoy, as if there were no other viewpoints in art rather than fascist or woolly new age-ism. This blogger is guilty of a bit of that. But it’s not the full story, surely.

Compare the Chapmans’ dioramas to a serious piece of political art and they lose their impact. Alfredo Jaar, for example, has made a devastating film about Rwanda with not a snigger in sight.

Wherever the power lies these days, these pillaging Nazis and totemic fast food clowns are the straw men of contemporary art; they are panto villians rather than an immediate threat.

But, in keeping with the metaphor of seasonal theatre, the Chapman brothers themselves are always “behind you”. Half the works in the retrospective are scruffy cardboard send ups of modernism.

And what can you say about a world in which a stuffed fox is shagging a stuffed hare, which mounts a stuffed rabbit, which is having it away with a rat, who in turn screws an unfortunate mouse.

To suggest the mouse will inherit the earth would be to no doubt invite peals of laughter. There is no getting away from the law of the jungle, the reign of capital or kings.

But what can you do with this art? The closest it gets to transcendence is a grim money shot in an explicit film which is coupled with a children’s choir singing Morning is Broken.

In a several rapid strokes, innuendo intended, the Chapmans reduce religion to the side effect of an onanistic handjob. It is, once again, hard to argue against. The show is a closed circle.

Starting with the holocaust and the ravages of capitalism, here are their glib conclusions. But imagine how limited he might appear had Picasso spent his whole career riffing off Guernica.

Forgive me if I shelter behind a monumental piece of 20th century art to round off my criticisms of Jake and Dinos. But what gets them out of bed in the morning and why not make art about that?

Jake and Dinos Chapman: Come and See is on view at Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9 Feburary 2014.

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