Some things don’t need to be said, unless you are one of the Chapman brothers being interviewed in advance of a rare public appearance:
“No one’s going to get hurt. No one’s going to get injured. There’s no blood involved,“ says younger Chapman sibling Jake. “It’s not spectacularised. No one’s going to find themselves with different parts of their anatomy on their faces.”
That’s a relief. But eyebrows have been raised at the news that the ever-shocking artists are taking part in an event for this year’s Museums at Night. The nationwide event is, after all, known for good vibes, positive experiences and warm inclusivity. “Not for much longer,” says Jake Chapman, via phone.
So it should be business as usual for the pair at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, where their event takes place on May 17. But enquiries as to the exact nature of that business are skilfully fended off. All the artist will say is this:
“It will involve folding. It’s gonna be fully hands on. The public will be fully involved. So it should be good. It’s performative, but there will be byproducts. There will be remains. I don’t mean to be cryptic about it but if people have an idea of what they’re going to do before they get there…”
He tails off at the full horror of the possibility, and says: “If people have a prejudice about what they’re going to see, or if they have a presupposition or an understanding of something, it’s quite difficult to intervene.”
Likewise, visitors to White Cube last year were left puzzled as to which brother was responsible for work in which gallery space. But such an air of mystery is just a way of “trying to jam the process by which people move towards presumptuous thoughts,” says Jake.
“I mean that’s the job of all art, really, the job of philosophy. The job of any incursion into normal human thought processes is to try and produce different ones and by producing different thought processes you produce different responses to things, you produce responses to the world.”
But those responses need not be positive. “I have no reservations about the pessimism in the work,” he continues. “But I wouldn’t say it’s a moralistic pessimism. It’s kind of a joyful, pleasant and funny pessimism. I don’t think the morbidity in it is Christian in that sense. It’s not punishing. It’s playful.”
Joyful, pleasant and funny sounds just the ticket for Museums at Night. But then Chapman goes on to say: “I think the idea of going into a museum at night begs a kind of question. It’s more the underbelly to rational sobriety.”
Jake says exhibits may display “truth” in daylight, but “what’s interesting in Museums at Night is they take on a different meaning in a sense they have shadows and they become a bit more sinister. So that’s my way of reinterpreting the positivity of Museums at Night in a more morbid way.”
Certainly, the aforementioned White Cube show had its share of morbidity. In Mason’s Yard a static army of zombie-like Blackshirts could be found admiring a room full of DIY Constructivist sculpture. It may have referred to the Nazi’s exhibition of degenerate art, but it was hard not to feel implicated.
“I don’t think people who go to Jerwood are Nazis,” he protests. “These are neo fascistic people looking at things which are modernist objects, so it goes beyond the superficial notion of it being a [general] audience looking at art.”
My next question is about the tension between a roomful of modernist sculpture and the brother’s frequent citations of post-structuralist theory. But Jake is quick to point out that “it’s not really a binary division between post structuralism and modernism.”
Speaking of implication, post structuralism is already wholly wrapped up in a critique of modernism. So “it’s kind of partially modernist,” he says. ”They’re so intermingled. They’re so dependent on each other even if it’s a critical point of view.”
“A critical point of view has to have an object that it’s criticising,” he continues. “And therefore it’s completely cannibalisiing and consumed by the very thing that it critiques, if you see what I mean.” Outraged critics of the pair, with whom I can sympathise, take note.
This also applies to angry members of the general public who are generally no trouble at all. “I think the privilege of being an artist is – and this may be the good thing about being an artist – is that it’s the work that is the most important thing.”
“You might get people shouting at you in Hoxton but not anywhere else,” he goes on. “There is a relative anonymity you can claim as an artist. I mean less so if you’re Tracey Emin or Damien [Hirst].” But if there’s one other place the Chapmans might get recognised, it is Hastings.
The brothers grew up there and, contrary to rumour, Jake says there’s “no chance” he would ever move back. But having traded the seedy seaside for rural Gloucestershire, he shows a lot of respect for the voices which were raised in opposition to the recent building of the Jerwood Gallery .
“It’s understandable,” he says. “Hastings is not traditionally a rich town so it must be difficult for people to see the idea of investment in culture is anything to do with assuaging the problems of poverty and I kind of agree in a way.”
That said, he believes there is “richness on many different levels, different strata”. In terms of local access to culture, the gallery tackles a certain form of “impoverishment. “So you could say it’s kind of good.” Perhaps Jerwood is already so confrontational there is nothing for a Chapman to add.
Be sure, however, the controversy is never programmed. Jake says there’s no method to their work. “It’s organised chaos. I mean even after all these years we’ve failed to establish any kind of stability.” Working out what to do and where to be is an ongoing challenge.
“The problem with making art is that by its very nature it’s very inefficient ,” he says. When asked how many ideas the pair reject, he says the ratio is “95% shit. 5% relatively alright.” Let us hope that it’s alright on the night or, if you are an undead member of the Gestapo, all wrong.
Sculptor Gavin Turk is perhaps best known for work about Gavin Turk. He has dressed as Sid Vicious and posed for a waxwork, or dressed as a vagrant. He has posed for photos as Andy Warhol or Che. And his degree show consisted simply of a blue plaque confirming his historic residence at the RCA.
But his booking at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery for Museums at Night was always going to be a bit different. There might not even be a self-referential artwork in sight as Turk fills the exhibition space with monitor screens, ‘flying’ carpets and skeletal pyramids, which he promises have occult powers.
The sculptor plans to install pyramids big enough for visitors to sit or stand in, and talks of “maybe getting some crystals as well”. Monitor screens all around the space will relay found footage to do with the structures’ fabled power. Turk hopes to raise awareness of their potential.
Now he lists the benefits of pyramid power like a true, if wry, believer: “It can preserve stuff. It can make you sleep at night. It can help you think more clearly. It can make plants grow quicker. It can generate battery electricity.”
The Persian rugs also have potential. “I’m feeling the carpets,” quips the artist. “I mean feeling the sensation of flying, not just sitting here rubbing them.”
The 100-year-old museum is new territory for the former YBA. Its wealth of Egyptian artefacts seem to have little to do with the pop culture within which Turk operates. “I was a little bit struggling,” he admitted to me over phone.
Pharaoh: King of Egypt is the British Museum touring show currently showing at the museum – complimented by their permanent collection of exhibits from that ancient world.
“I started wondering where it fitted, ‘where was ‘I’ in this thing?’ and also ‘who are these pharaohs, what are these pharaohs?’, because in a way they’re not really a ME theme,” he explains. “I haven’t really done or touched anything to do with them.”
Then his sculptor’s eye for form fell on one of the most fundamental structures of all time. “I thought ‘Oh, we can work with pyramids.’” So his discovery of pyramid power could make for one of the eeriest events Museums at Night has ever seen.
But none of what he says is without a sense of humour. Turk is ever ready with a quiet chuckle. It’s not quite clear how much credence he gives to the wisdom of the ancients.
“Obviously some of the earliest pharaohs were – what was it 3535 BC? – so they’re 6,000 years old,” he says with yet another laugh. “Which is pretty cool.”
Talk gets round to the present day situation in Egypt, which is, according to Turk, “very odd”. “Egypt has in its history been so super advanced and then it kind of fell back into a curious setback.”
Most strange of all was the attitude of Egyptians to the arrival of archaeologists in the 1800s. “They were kind of mesmerised,” says the artist, “and almost happy that various parties were coming and taking things away.”
But the history of overseas plunder is, of course, tied up with the history of museums. “The whole thing about museums is very interesting as well. With the idea that the museum was invented to bring back things from all around the world, like trophies,” says Turk.
Nevertheless, the artist is cheerful at the prospect of late opening museums throughout the UK come mid May. “Yeah, it’s great,” he says. “I mean, if you’re there during a nine to five day it feels like work. Whereas if you’re there after work, it feels like ‘after work’. It feels like holiday.”
His sense of fun extends to giving kids access to art. With partner Deborah Curtis, he runs children’s charity House of Fairy Tales. I mention sleepovers taking place in other museums and he enthuses about them:
“We just love that idea, you know where everything comes alive when the lights go off everything in the museum will come alive.”
His dual role may complicate his artistic practice, but he is happy to work outside his comfort zone. “I can kind of make mistakes, so this idea I couldn’t normally do, with this kind of crazy power of the pyramid,” he says with another chuckle. “It allows me to have a bit of fun really.”
It might even appeal to a certain incognito street artist from the Bristol area. A homecoming show by Banksy was his biggest to date here in 2009. “He’s going to show up, yeah, let’s get him to show up. We’ll do little cut outs of Turkses, big Turkses and Rameses.”
To the best of my knowledge the Pharaoh Turkses has just been invented by Gavin. Perhaps the pyramids have been about this mercurial artist all along.
If needing just one word to sum up Damien Hirst at Tate Modern, you might resort to some made up slang invented for a work of dystopian fiction.
The violence of his killed and pickled animals is horrorshow, as is the vitrine pictured. Real horrorshow, the ultimate accolade for gang member Alex in A Clockwork Orange.
Lapdancer packages up a world of medical pain in four glass shelves of surgical tools. There are saws and knives you want to hope you never encounter outside the gallery.
But as the title makes clear, there is an erotic attraction with the apparatus of death. Or perhaps it is the death drive which in turn draws men to lap dancing clubs.
Whatever the lure, one cannot but reflect that our own final days may feature some of these tools. En steely masse, they reflect the power in a pair of surgeon’s hands.
They also reflect the apparatus of medical knowledge. By shipping a room full of surgical tools into a gallery, Hirst throws the authority of science into question .
Like the earlier work Pharmacy, Lapdancer allows for art historians to scrub up and begin to operate on the assumptions of modern science.
That’s not to say that if you break a leg, you should go to a gallery for treatment. But there is a creeping sense in which medicine serves its own ends with proliferating diagnoses.
But this piece also reminds us that medicine and art have long been close. The mastery of figuration could not have been achieved without dabblings in anatomy.
Hirst himself spent some formative years drawing in the anatomy department of Leeds Uni. And he is not the first artist to bring the operating theatre into the gallery.
One has to ask though, is Lapdancer clinical enough? Those serrated blades will give you chills. In front of this work itself, your critical faculties all desert you. Mine did. It was horrorshow.