Collapsing optimism in the face of hell and phantasmagoria, the work of ’90s Brit-art duo The Chapman Brothers is like a compendium of bad thoughts. Glamcult spoke with one half of the double death’s head following the launch of Fucking Hell—their new Amsterdam shop. Jake Chapman takes us through their infernal oeuvre spanning 20 years, sibling ribaldry and the art of contradiction: “It’s art that’s as shitty and filthy as the shitty filthy world.”
They may be more self-proclaimed OAPs than YBAs (Young British Artists) these days, but Jake and Dinos Chapman, also known as the Chapman Brothers, are still getting up to their trademark art world perversions. Sometimes. Glamcult caught up with one half of the socalled “Brothers Grimm” following the launch of their new Amsterdam pop-up store in collaboration with Galerie Gabriel Rolt. Aptly situated amid the crimson glow of the Red Light District, the Fucking Hell shop is both an art exhibition and gift shop, where visitors can buy mini artworks and even get an original Jake Chapman drawing as a tattoo. “It’s new, but there’s no explicit strategy involved. No interest in e-commerce. We have a website [selling miniature artworks], but its more webshite than website,” insists Jake.
Meanwhile, back in their native UK, Jake & Dinos made their debut appearance on Tatler Magazine’s “The People Who Really Matter” list this year. For those unfamiliar with this said list, it’s possibly one of the most schizophrenic around, comprising 623 people. But that’s not what makes it so bonkers—nor is it the fact that Tinie Tempah sneaks in among a top 40 primarily comprising royalty. The true curve ball is the fact that Jake ranks so much higher than Dinos. Jake figures: “It reads like an assassination wish list of all those provisionally nominated for the firing squad ‘come the revolution’…”
Curious about how it all started, Glamcult asks Jake what it’s really like to make art with his brother, and how it first came about. “If we were plumbers working together we might have killed each other by now, but the nature of making art allows for siblings to work together without murder being the inevitable outcome.” The working relationship began in 1991, soon after the brothers graduated from London’s Royal College of Art. “The decision to collaborate was partially motivated by the sheer boredom of being so under-stimulated by the RCA,” confesses Jake. They’ve since twisted out an impressive and hellish oeuvre, which the art world has rapturously embraced—although Jake is underwhelmed: “Looking back at our extensive body of work is a little like looking back at holiday snaps, which is always unrewarding and makes you wonder why you even bothered taking a camera on holiday. Looking back at our work is exactly the same.”
The Chapman Brothers are skilled in pushing buttons, and they’ve been doing so for the past 20 years with their distinct brand of gleeful negativity, crushing all optimism that gets in the way. Their work is heavy, somewhat challenging. But if there’s one takeaway, it’s that they’re out to underwhelm expectations by producing work that fails to live up to any moral code; they’re in no way interested in conforming to society’s notions of the appropriate. Through an array of phantasmagoria, they reach an infernal tableau, often dealing in stereotypes, hijacked codes and symbols (swastikas next to smiley faces) and sublime images of mortality. Much has been said about the dichotomy between horror and hilarity in relation to the Chapman Brothers’ work. They’re serious about humour, seeing laughter as a disruptive force that has the power to shatter rigid structures of self-control. The brothers believe the world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind. Similarly, if you’re not able to laugh at this work, then perhaps the joke’s on you. “Those who are shocked by the work are already predisposed; it’s something they bring with them,” declared Dinos in an In Your Face interview with SHOWstudio in 2011. “What exists, exists in the mind of the viewer, not in the object.” The artists are interested in how far they can go in squeezing erroneous interpretations from their audience.
The first work the Chapmans created as a duo was a nasty wall text in mud, and a wholly unholy version of Goya’s The Disasters of War plate, made by mutilating toy soldiers until they conformed to each of Goya’s 83 notorious etchings. “Sacrilege!” cried some. They’ve psychedelically defaced genuine Adolf Hilter water colours, entitling the results If Hitler Had Been a HippyHow Happy Would We Be. Death threats from Neo-Nazis became just one of the extreme reactions.
Hell (2004) and its successor Fucking Hell (2008) were collections of nightmarish effigies depicting bloody war scenes as a hellscape cast inside glass vitrines, some arranged in the shape of a swastika. Fucking Hell was a reincarnation of the original Hell, which was lost in the so-called “Saatchi fire” (2004) that destroyed many famous works (including pieces by Tracey Emin) stored in an art depot. Oh, the magnificent synchronicity: hell goes up in flames (you couldn’t make it up). Just as synchronized as the fact that as we write this feature, BBC Radio 4 has released the satirical drama, Burn Baby Burn, which jokes that Saatchi himself was to blame.
Some of their most recognizable works are undoubtedly the Chapman Brothers’ child-like mannequin creatures, which they call “organisms”. Anatomically transgressive, we see the crashing together of things that really don’t belong together and are left with problematic objects. An Italian children’s rights group branded their Piggyback (1998) statue “paedopornographic” and the tabloid press dubbed “paedophile art”. The brothers themselves see them more like multidimensional accidents— like “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” gone wrong.
Another exhibition title, Bad Art for Bad People refers to a current in modernity. “The tendency to assume that a work of art should impose an idealistic version of the shitty filthy world was undermined by the proposition of a new form of art that was as shitty and filthy as the shitty filthy world—an art that eschewed beauty and talent and craft and all of the things embodied by enlightened teleology,” explains Jake. Bad people? “Well, ‘bad boys of British art’ is an optimistic piece of journalistic shorthand. No, we’re not bad people at all.” Reputations aside, the brothers are very much engaged with the arts community and with activism. A few years ago they rallied support for protesting art students angered by the government and the media response to them, and by the notion that education was becoming a privilege and not a right. “The Can’t Pay Your Fees, We’ll Pay Your Fines campaign was assembled in response to the UK Conservative Party’s attack on state education,” Jake explains. “What drove us to launch it is a sense of pure unadulterated hatred of the Conservative Party and anyone who sympathizes with them.”
This summer the Chapman Brothers have been invited to create works for the Whitechapel Gallery Children’s Commission. Some may wonder: how does one go from creating art that (in their own words) is not intended for children, to making something that seeks directly to engage with them? “Contradiction is an underrated facet of artistic agency— especially ours,” explains Jake. “Having said that, the project was nothing to do with assuming we were making art. The only person making art was ‘I’, because ‘I’, unlike the children, am an artist. When a child writes a poem, lamentable as it invariably is, it is less than moronic to call them a poet.” Or in other words: “Hothouse progeny need to be defended from the emasculating mediocrity of their parents, or from the idea that art somehow expresses a ‘positivized naivety’ that artists and children share—embodied by some essential metaphysics.” Chapman’s response? “Anyone selling it should have their eyeballs dipped in sand before being rammed up their arseholes!”
On that note, ‘All hope abandon, ye who enter here.’ In true Chapman style, the Fucking Hell shop in Amsterdam runs for an indefinite period (and may or may not be open by the time this issue is released). Catch them if you can.