I was busy preparing a soufflé last Thursday when my mind found itself meandering towards the Hashmark in a particularly round-about way, and I realised with a shock I had yet to come to a decision about what this week’s Arty Bit should be about. It had to be someone exciting, of course, controversial, preferably a bit naughty (we all know sex sells), and ideally someone hated by millions. Ah yes. The Chapman Brothers.
Dinos and Jake Chapman were born in
London in the 1960s, and both studied Fine Art at the Royal College of Art, where they worked as assistants of the famous Gilbert and George (the gay blokes who like flying poo). The brothers are essentially contemporary sculptors, with the majority of their famous works being plastic of fibreglass models of people. One of their earliest pieces, ‘Great Deeds Against the Dead’, was based on Goya’s etchings ‘Disasters of War’, and within their work they have also referenced Auguste Rodin, Nicolas Poussin and Edward Landseer. These guys know their Art History, and from the start of their career people began to notice their talent for sculpting.
Which perhaps provides some explanation as to why so many people were utterly shocked when they produced a piece entitled ‘Fuckface’ and another named ‘Two Faced Cunt’. All of a sudden the Chapman brothers weren’t just sculptors.
These pieces were life size models of children that had been anatomically altered: some facial features had been replaced with genitalia, and some of the children were fused together. Many of them are seen wearing brand new expensive trainers and nothing else, and the pieces caused a nationwide uproar. Connecting children with sex is an obviously dangerous move, bound to cause upset, and of course the Chapman brothers knew this. What made it even worse for them is that even many people within the art community began to criticise them. The combination of shock with humour is a frequently used tool within Britart, and hence the work was not that groundbreaking, perhaps even a little clichéd, and the brothers started to get associated with bad taste. However, controversial work does tend to do well, as more diligent readers of the arty bit will have noticed, and Saatchi’s ‘Sensation’ Exhibition of 1997 did a lot to promote the brothers cause.
However, in 2003 the brothers went too far. In a series of works titled ‘Insult to Injury’ they bought a real Goya etching and edited it by adding funny faces. This really pissed off everyone. Ruining pieces of Goya really is just shit, and everyone knew it. Aaron Barschak (the guy who crashed Prince William’s 21st dressed as Osama Bin Laden in a frock) threw a pot of red paint over Jake Chapman whilst Chapman was giving a talk later that year, in direct protest against what he saw as blatant childish defacement. The fact of the matter is, if a member of the public had done it, they would have been arrested. The Chapman Brothers put it in a gallery and entered it in the Turner Prize, along with ‘Death’, a bronze model of two people who are clearly ‘loving it’ in a pretty graphic 69er. Thankfully, in 2004 a fire in one of Saatchi’s warehouses destroyed a great deal of the brothers’ work, so the general public were spared from ever having to see it a second time round.
The brothers have been in the news more recently, criticised by journalist Johann Hari for saying the boys who murdered Jamie Bulger performed ‘a good social service.’ Jake Chapman’s response was to call Hari ‘fat faced, ugly and four-eyed’. The one redeeming feature of this comeback was that at least it was slightly more intelligent than most of Chapman’s work. He recently told Carole Cadwalladr of the Observer (in an interview that lasted less than five minutes) that she ‘made him feel sick’ and to ‘Get out, get the fuck out.’ When art is supposed to be personal, intimate and intelligent, you wonder how people like Jake Chapman become successes, and in realisation that people like that can make it, a shadow does seem to be cast upon the whole contemporary art scene.
Well, all in all this has been a bit of a bizarre one. I remain confused as to the meaning, integrity or ideas behind the Chapmans’ work – or more realistically whether any of these things are truly there at all. And I apologise for the serious tone this article adopted later on, it did start to get a bit heavy near the end. But I know I’ll get away with it: there was loads of sex, and some cocks, and as Jake Chapman would say – you sordid fucks love it.