The Chapman Brothers

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Mystic Point Disneyland Hong Kong
Dinos (left) and Jake hovering over Hell

The reputation that precedes Dinos and Jake Chapman is one of a brotherly artistic collaboration always ready to stir up mischief – one which revels in being called the provocateurs of the art world and who don't give a damn what anyone has to say about them. It's a reputation earned through their apparent obsession with Hitler, their inclination toward exorbitant graphically violent imagery, their occasionally volatile reaction to journalists and the fact that they've been the constant magnet for controversy since they created their epic first Hell installation – a gruesome diorama world of Nazis, death and the like – in 1999. To some, it's hypnotic, captivating and insightful. To others, it's offensive, disruptive and violates all sorts of moral taboos.

Ahead of their first ever exhibition in China, we chat to Jake Chapman about political correctness, the humour in the darkness and the cover which the acclaimed duo have provided exclusively to Time Out Hong Kong. It's with this intriguing layered work – part of the dot-to-dot series the brothers started in 2004 with their work The Giant Colouring Book, where the interview begins…

Hey Jake. We're very excited about you doing our cover. Can you tell us a bit about the background and inspiration to this work?
We were very happy to be asked. The image we made for the cover seems entirely appropriate but for reasons that remain beyond us.

It's part of the dot-to-dot series, which you've been doing since The Giant Colouring Book in 2004. Do you remember how these drawings started to come about?
They came about through trial and error, more error than trial. The method [was to] follow Lovecraftian instinct to draw out a sinister unconscious from the purity of innocence.

Indeed, this work's title The horrible conclusion which had been gradually intruding itself upon my confused and reluctant mind was now an awful certainty, is taken from a Lovecraft short story. What parallels are you drawing between that story and your piece?
What's really interesting about Lovecraft is he's an author on the margins. His writing is on the one hand very sinister and yet at the same time quite naïve, innocent. I'm not sure if I'm actually saying that about my work. I guess we like the way that it has a certain quaintness to it. I think they fall flat, in a way we quite like.

The Sum of All Evil
The Sum of all Evil (2012-2013)

You're presenting a new Hell installation in Hong Kong. I must say, the sculptures look very dark but they also look like lots of fun to put together. Are they?
Yes. They're lots of fun. I think the interpretation of the work as being kind of morbidly unpleasant is kind of overrated. Sometimes people think they're doing us a favour by suggesting that the work is miserable. But the thing's funny. It's loaded with humour and irreverent laughter. The work is violently fatalistic, but in a playful way.

There is this strange tension in describing such work as fun, though…
I think there are so many prohibitions, one feels obligated to fall in line with the right moral response. I think the way the work works is that it causes this certain rupture. By any accounts, [with] a sculpture of 50,000 Nazis, you're going to be slightly uncomfortable. When you look at art, it's quite a social activity, so you're kind of obligated to try and form the correct intellectual and aesthetic etiquette.

We understand a lot of the controversy you've courted doesn't bother you. But is there a line you've ever hesitated to cross?
There are different realities. The reality of the bourgeois cultural elite being slightly terrorised by a couple of idiot artists making allusions to things that people aren't really meant to talk about is never really going to rip the edifices of power down. The thing is, critical art, even its most extreme expression, serves the purpose of a middle-class culture that seeks to determine its tolerances by its acceptance of the most extreme types of art. The avant garde has always been dedicated to that kind of social service.

Still, you seem to attract some violent reactions. What's the worst reaction you've ever received?
Oh god. I've had paint thrown over me. That was actually quite funny. I was doing a talk at Modern Art Oxford, with a room full of old ladies. And then I heard someone shout out. I turned around and this red glob of paint hit me in the face and then someone punched me as well. I ended up wrestling on the floor with this guy, bits of our clothes coming off, paint spraying everywhere, all the ladies screaming [laughs].

F*cking dinosaurs 2011
Fucking dinosaurs (2011)

Your career has really coincided with a period of a great upswing in political correctness. Does that make your work easier or harder? I don't really understand the political correctness thing. In my memory, there were things like positive discrimination and I think the anti-political correctness thing was like a right-wing reaction against people trying to be socially responsible. When people started being politically correct, that was because the people being politically correct were only reacting against right-wing domination. So, I'm not against political correctness, as long as it means readjusting the status quo against the domination of fucking right-wing thinking.

Beyond your pure art projects, you've also done collaborations with a number of brands recently. Is there any tension between these projects and the subjects you're exploring in your other art?
I think we're quite straightforward with it. If it doesn't satisfy our criteria for what we think is a good idea, then we don't do it. We just did [a project with] Louis Vuitton and that was really good. We did that because we got to know the head designer, Clint Jones, who is a brilliant designer. We don't really have a wider interest in fashion, [but] it's quite nice to see the work bleed into other areas. The reason we did it was [Clint] promised to make us a pair of pyjamas. We're waiting for them to be delivered.

The Sum of All Evil is at the White Cube Hong Kong until Aug 31.

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