“Contrary to the popular image of the wild-eyed radical, artists are usually slow to sense and slower to respond to social currents.”
The Chapman brothers’ retrospective Come and See: It was a long time coming, it has been up at DHC/ART for a while now, and we have indeed taken our own sweet time publishing our thoughts. We haven’t been consciously going for longue durée complementarity, but rather sifting through some tricky questions that this exhibition presents. One of which is, why has it proved so hard to effectively critique this show when we know that the work is highly flawed?
We have read others’ accounts of Come and See and it’s struck us that reviews have been almost overwhelmingly flattering. Certainly part of the problem is the web that the Chapmans have handily woven to foreclose any real criticism by positioning themselves and their art as both shamelessly provocative and aggressively aloof. Famed, since their emergence in the early 90s, for their capacity to shock and horrify and just piss off the public, the brothers Chapman have made an art out of having the first and last word. So, beyond the usual and predictable “its tasteless” approbation, their work is hard to critique without acquiring a reputation for clutching one’s pearls. That said, we do feel it’s important to address the dangerous way in which the represented violence in their work functions merely as a weak messenger of the real violence re-produced; violence that we have to assume the artists are either unaware of or have just refused to take a position on.
Emerging out of a particular moment in Britain—during the waning of punk and the rise of Thatcherite conservatism—Jake and Dinos Chapman were included amongst that mercurial group, known as the YBAs (Young British Artists), galvanized by the Saatchi-backed Sensation show in 1997 and the commercialization of counter-culture. Famous for their three-dimensional reproductions of Goya’s Disasters of War and their arrangements of mutated mannequins in violent or orgiastic configurations—prepubescent plastic bodies with penises for noses and assholes for mouthes—with titles like Fuckface other such sweetnesses, they have built their careers on controversy. Controversy, it should be said, that they are by no means free from at this point, and from which they have garnered much critical and commercial success.
Spanning both the stacked galleries of DHC’s main building and the annex next door, Come and See is an impressively organized madhouse of carnivalesque excess and gratuitous repetition that somehow made us quieter yet more annoyed than usual. We begin our visit on the top floor the gallery, housing the artists’ 2009 Shitrospective (their clever mashup, not ours), consisting of a motley army of crude-craft reproductions of some of the Chapmans’ most well known works. Cardboard maquettes of Fuckface, the Hamburglar and countless others displayed on plinths throughout the room. They’re quite good, and several are point-and-laugh funny. It is a clever, if unambiguous comment on the value of art, on globalization and commodification, art world pretension and of course the spectators’ complicity in it all.
Two tall be-sheeted mannequins, the first of dozens of KKK members that populate the stacked galleries of DHC’s main building and annex, are hard to ignore. One is bent over a table, examining the shitrospective and the other stands directly behind him in coitus prospectus position. Like the rest of their brethren scattered throughout the show, they wear rainbow socks and Birkenstocks. We will return to, or bump into, them later.
One floor down, we enter the 2002 Chapman Family Collection, where Ronald McDonald and the gang have been granted near-immortality as vaguely “tribal” or Egyptian-style sculptures and painted in appropriately subdued hues of the brand’s iconic red and yellow. Nodding and silent (and thinking that in 2002, this mode of culture-jamming would already be a little outdated), we trundle
down to the next floor to find a room full of useless machines—again re-worked versions of an earlier piece, Little Death Machine (Castrated) (1993)—that have captivated some Klansmen’s attention. The walls are hung with admittedly creepy paintings, culled from junk shops and given a little work by the artists to macabre effect. Portraits of the living dead or the like with parts of faces maggoty and peeling away, ravaged by time or infection or nightmarish decay. As is always the case, they are expertly executed.
On the lower floor, the closest to hell yet, two of the more recent works are displayed: a couple of large vitrines making reference to the artists’ studio, McDonald’s (of course), war, containment, contamination, desperation, death, and all of the grossest things that people could possibly do to one another. We see similar dioramas in the annex hall. They are, again, impressively done, featuring hellish landscapes, ravaged by war, wherein Nazis and skeletons and Ronald McDonalds gang rape, massacre and dismember one another, all fabricated by the skillful hands of the artists (and likely their countless studio assistants). They have been given suitably subtle titles as well: When the World Ends (2013), and Kontamination (2009). And all of this occurs under the watchful gaze of those sandal-clad Klansmen.
The annex hall boasts a cornucopia of dazzling sights that consists of many elements we have already seen, on a larger scale and presented more aggressively. There are Klansmen everywhere, as though the Chapmans wanted to make sure the show would look busy and popular at all times. Amidst the cluttered circus of objects and images and fragmented text, we’re greeted by four small-to-medium taxidermied animals, engaged in intercourse, and arranged in order of size. They’re installed at eye level, just in case we might miss them. As if we may not have gotten the joke by now: making things look like they’re having sex with each other is funny. Swearing is funny. Putting rainbow socks on white supremacists is funny. Making people uncomfortable and watching them pretend not to be uncomfortable is surely hilarious.
However, the capacity to laugh in some of these situations is not only based on one’s having a sense of dark humour or seeing the political potential of jokes and joy, nor is it derived from a recognition that, with the world in peril, there’s little left to do but laugh. These are all good things. But, in some cases, the capacity to laugh necessitates a certain level of privileged distance from that which is being mocked. And, as successful, white, male, British artists, the Chapmans certainly have the privilege of that distance when it comes to caricaturing something like the KKK. Case in point is a little room off the main exhibition space—a contained and darkened space with metal music blaring and rows of chairs set up in front of a screen—in which spectators are expected to sit amongst the KKK figures, who occupy a number of the seats, and watch if they can. And while some spectators might find this treatment of the KKK a liberating mechanism for reducing the power of their symbol and their legacy (and not to mention their continued existence), for others, it might just be too much. It’s as if there’s an attempt to banalize the KKK and the violence and the grotesquery of it all—and, trapped in the Chapmans’ web, we’re likely to come across as unenlightened prudes here—but, the fact is, war and white supremacy and violence are not, and should not be conceived of as, banal.
On a certain, very preliminary level, it’s easy to criticize their work for its evocations of violence, for its goading of political feeling, for producing supposedly taboo images—and all those swear words! Of course, this is partly what their popularity—though surely they would prefer notoriety—depends on. In an essay accompanying the exhibition, curator Cheryl Sims argues, “While provocative and deliberately confrontational, their work is also deeply critical, challenging us to acknowledge what is uncomfortable and messy.” The suggestion is that their work is merely an artistic agglutination of the social, political and corporate violence and greed that already exists in the world, as if they are purely the messengers (those, whom we are often reminded, are not to be shot). However, there is a lack of self-reflexivity in their work that cannot be ignored and, indeed, what we’ve ultimately been compelled to write about here is the actual violence of the Chapmans’ work. As Lucy Lippard has argued, “Violence and bigotry in art are simply violence and bigotry, just as they are in real life. They are socially dangerous, not toys, not neutralized formal devices comparable to the stripe and the cube.”
The quote comes from her 1980 essay “Hot Potatoes,” in which Lippard identified a tendency, a “retrochic” ideology, in late-1970s culture that resonates with a lot of what the Chapmans seem to subscribe to. As Lippard described it at the time, “A subtle current of content filtering through various forms—has caught up with life and focuses increasingly on sexist, heterosexist, classist and racist violence, mirroring, perhaps unwittingly, the national economic backlash.” That is to say, in music, movies, television and art of the time, Lippard perceived an observable tide of excessive violence that, purportedly enjoyed for its own sake, was actually part of a larger if unrecognized sphere of influence. It is, in fact, questionable how critical or challenging the Chapmans’ work is: the one-liners to which the show’s sentiments can be easily reduced are not all that different from someone getting away with making a sexist comment or a racist joke by simultaneously stating that they know they’re being sexist or racist and therefore somehow absolving themselves of the sin. And of course, we’re once again caught in the trap that the Chapmans trot out again and again, being provoked by the deliberately provocative. The fundamental problem that Lippard locates in retrochic is again relevant to a confrontation with the Chapmans’ work: “We’re offended or titillated or outraged; now we have to figure out whether it’s satire, protest or bigotry.” And, of course, there’s a chance that it could be two or three of these things at the same time; that the lines are not that easily drawn.
In 1969, 25-year old artist Anselm Kiefer was un-friended by many people, particularly in Germany, when he staged a series of actions called Besetzungen [Occupations], in which he had himself photographed doing Sieg Heil salutes at various European monuments. Among the responses to this purposefully incendiary act was artist Marcel Broodthaers’—a main force behind the German avant-garde journal Interfunktionen, with which Kiefer was also involved—who wrote, “Who’s this fascist who thinks he’s an antifascist?” (He then pulled out his considerable backing to the journal and it folded a short time after). The Chapmans’ KKK gesture, blandly repeated like Kiefer’s, is obviously a weaker signal given the different political contexts. But there is a shared condition of a certain distance from the subject of their provocation: Kiefer was born the year WWII ended, and the Chapmans not only decades from when the Klan’s visibility began to wane but also by a continent. Kiefer’s repeated incitements to keep wounds fresh in Germany were seen by many as the re-production of violence, and the same charge should be mounted at the Chapmans. But, what about the rainbow socks? It must be camp; it’s the carnivalesque. It’s ironic, of course! And we’re just being sensitive.
During a talk held at the Phi Center, the DHC’s sister institution, one of the brothers opined that he didn’t believe that people could be shocked by art anymore. It struck us as a slightly disingenuous remark given the carnal-carnival, quasi-fascist appearance of much of their work. Historically, the function of shock in art was political—it was supposed to jolt the viewer out of his or her complacency into a place of uncertainty and discomfort, and thus be open to new understanding. If we are to take him at his word, we will settle for the more contemporary incarnation of shock: provocation. While a potentially useful strategy, it is expressed here by such facile means that the most we could muster after four floors and an annex hall, was irritation and the sneaking suspicion that provocation has become for the Chapmans an end in itself, no matter the means.
The irritation we speak of comes primarily from a recognition that the Chapman’s art isn’t even as abject as they might want it to seem. The several vitrines on display are a perfect metaphor for their work: the scenes appear chaotic and insane, but are actually perfectly assembled and more importantly, contained. There is no moral ambiguity about the Ku Klux Klan, with or without rainbow socks. In the Chapmans’ art there is no human good adrift on the River Styx, no way that McDonald’s could be anything but the Evil Corporation. Rather than challenging us, or forcing our heads into the toilet bowl, this work is comforting. It confirms what we already know, and it affirms our political values. None of this work reflects any real risk taken on the part of the artists. It is in this way that—in the utter familiarity of the message—their works come across as both disturbing and comforting at the same time. It’s adolescent politics with popular appeal and while that’s certainly a recipe for success—still, apparently—it’s not necessarily a meal we’re all that interested in sitting down to. Maybe we’ll go to McDonald’s, just to be oppositional.
Natalie Zayne Bussey and Reilley Bishop-Stall
© Passenger Art, 2014
 Lucy Lippard, “Hot Potatoes: Art and Politics in 1980,” Block 4 (1981), 3.
 Sims, Come and See, exhibition brochure, 2014.
 Lippard, “Hot Potatoes,” 6.
 Ibid., 8.
Thoughtful and thorough review. Thanks.
I’m really grateful for your courage and insight. Please continue the good work–the art world needs you to keep it honest.
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