Let’s face it: Looking at contemporary art can be a frustrating and unrewarding experience (unless you count painfully trying to decipher overly intellectual art-speak as “good times”). Visit any art fair and, more often than not, you’ll be bombarded with one of three scenarios: someone making the painfully obvious cultural criticism that’s been done to death (e.g., we worship celebrity/entertainment/technology too much), someone taking someone else’s slightly original idea and running it into the ground with his own terrible version, or someone making something so bafflingly weird and inaccessible that you feel that they think you’re an idiot because you don’t “get it." Slap some crazy price tag on top of that, and you can understand why some people find art so alienating.
But then there are guys like Jake and Dinos Chapman, who, for the last two decades, have made the sort of visceral art that makes everyone who sees it go, “Holy shit”—and not always in a good way.
All photos via the Chapman Brothers.
As part of the 1980s movement of Young British Artists (alongside artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin), the Chapman brothers have spent the last two decades selectively exploring the darker side of existence and gleefully pushing people’s buttons along the way. From their nightmarish sculptures of childlike creatures with penises for noses and buttholes for mouths to their vast, miniature hellscapes of mass carnage, Nazis, debauchery, and suffering, to the Shitrospectives in which they’ve taken their most famous pieces and remade them into smaller crappy cardboard versions—it’s clear that the British duo haven’t a single fuck to give when it comes to criticism.
But just as their work is intentionally provocative and confrontational, it’s also challenging: throwing life’s horrors in your face and making you question your own limits and what exactly makes something “art” (yes, this last one sounds lame, but trust me, they do it well). “A work of art is kind of expected to form some sort of social relation between the object and the viewer, so that the viewer is supposed to get something out of the object… We're trying to avoid the idea that that’s possible. Which is impossible… and that leads towards the levels of hilarity and extremities in the work,” Jake explains. While the subject matter they often broach—morality, religion, sex, death, art history, and consumer culture—may have been touched upon by other artists countless times before, the way they approach it is with a specific, unredeeming, all-out assault on your senses that you can’t help being consumed by.
But while shock-schlock symbolism of Nazis, taxidermy orgies, and crucified Ronald McDonalds may seem heavy-handed and a huge bummer, the key element that distinguishes the Chapmans' work from the doom and gloom is how hilarious it all actually is. By doing things like juxtaposing KKK outfits with rainbow socks and Birkenstocks, the Chapmans continually diffuse moments of horror with humor. “We think that through the act of laughing, that it’s the most appropriate approximation of the notion of death as a survivable event—which obviously death isn’t, but humor is.”
And the reaction the viewer has—whether it’s horror or hilarity—is as much a part of their work as the sculptures, paintings, and drawings themselves. “In a sense, when people come into the space, the distinction between the work and person gets blurred, because they become part of the work,” Jake explains. “I don’t think we would see some people’s reaction to the work as a separate thing from the work itself. It’s all sort of messed up in the same huge aggregate of shit and crap.”