by Sue Hubbard
In their last White Cube show it was nasty Nazis doing rude things in public. This time, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in Kensington Gardens, elegantly revamped by Zaha Hadid, it's the Klu Klax Klan. Larger than life figures wearing hand-knitted hippy rainbow socks and Birkenstocks, watching us from behind their pointy hoods, watching them. The fact that the Princess Diana Memorial is just down the road might, for those of an ironic disposition, raise a wry smile. It seems that the professional bad boys of Hoxton, Jake and Dinos Chapman, are working their way through the list of clichéd baddies. What next? Members of Al-Qaeda in polka-dot bikinis?
They are very clever. Clever in the sense that they anticipate all criticism of their work and incorporate it into what they do. The whole point is to fart loudly in the drawing room, to épater le bourgeois, as if the bourgeoisie actually care very much, for we've seen it all before. Their comic book imagery looks tired and passé: the appropriation of and drawing on older art work, the sexualised manikins of children, the Boy's Own Air Fix models of Waffen-SS killing fields – the piles of maimed bodies, the severed heads, the disembowellings and Nazi symbols ironized by the McDonalds logo – like some Disney version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. That the self-appointed naughty boy of literature, Will Self, (forgive the pun) was asked to write their catalogue essay is no surprise. Boys like gangs.
When interviewed they are extremely articulate. They use all the right jargon. The bronze sculptures at the beginning of the exhibition play with modernist notions of the body as machine and bronze as the ultimate fine art material. Their Little Death Machine (Castrated) is a Heath Robinson contraption of hammers, circular saws, castrated penises and sliced brains. It's as if Mary Shelley's Frankenstein had collaborated with Goya. Of course the whole point of these school-boy doodlings – as if under the desk, away from the teacher's gaze, they've drawn the rudest and naughtiest things they could think of – is that they've been cast in bronze and are now ‘art'. You can almost hear the Chapmans guffaw in the wings as they watch visitors peer at each piece in deep concentration as though some arcane truth might be revealed. But the titles: I want to be popular, Striptease, I laughed in the face of adversity but it laughed back louder show their hard-wired cynicism. The Chapman brothers don't do ‘meaningful', though they do do irritating particularly well.
But for all the fucking stuffed animals, the multi-headed infant manikins with their anal orifices, their real subject is not horror or shock but art. Don't be fooled into thinking that they're making sociological comments on violence, ecology, or cooperate business. They're simply having fun at art's expense, enjoying biting the hand that feeds them like teenage boys that piss off their parents who, all the while, are paying off their student loans.
Their position towards art is made clear in their Kino Klub (2013) film. I have to admit that it's quite funny (even though very annoying). Particularly when Jake and Dinos's adult heads graphically emerge from the vagina of their agonised mother, (Samantha Morton), and the scenes where the lives of Van Gogh, Warhol and Pollock are choreographed with paint-filled Marigolds. One of the funniest episodes is a sex orgy played out with inflated rubber gloves. But despite the laughs the real target is art itself and the romantic notion of the lone artist. ‘Serious' artists are seen as losers. In pseudo-documentary style their apparent former art teacher, played by David Thewlis – all bohemian black-rimmed glasses and polo neck jumper – gives an intense analysis of the ‘line' straight to camera, as a class of life students do feeble drawings of the model in the background. Later he's shown breaking down in his shabby bedsit as he destroys a painting that's not turned out to be a ‘masterpiece', unable to get to grips with Beckett's mantra of modernism and expressionism ‘fail again fail better' where art is taken to be a spiritual journey into the deep void of the self. Among the new stuff is a series of huge wooden knocked-together sculptures that mock the work of the less than successful (in his time) Kurt Schwitters and notions of isolated, hard-won creativity.
It's the angst of creativity, its lonely failings, its uncertainties and wrong turns that is the Chapmans' target. Failure and self-expression are the subjects about which they are most vituperative. Like bullies in the playground they can sniff it out and they don't like the smell. Art for them is not a way of examining the world, of making social comment or deciding our place within the nature of things. They may want us to think so; though, frankly, as Scarlet O'Hara once said, they probably don't give a damn. For them art has one function. It's the path to fame, notoriety and riches and it's probably a lot more fun than being a banker. They make their cynicism very plain. And if we're foolish enough to be taken in by their work, to search for meaning or gravitas – well, then, that's our fault for being duped and, presumably, they couldn't be happier.
Jake and Dinos Chapman
Installation view, Come and See
Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London
(29 November 2013 – 9 February 2014)
© 2013 Hugo Glendinning
Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9th February 2014
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic. Her new book of poetry is The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt) and her new novel on the life of the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker. Girl in White (Cinnamon)