For the past few weeks I have been debating what exhibitions to review for the Rail. London is abloom with exceptional art—Eva Hesse and Barnett Newman at Tate Modern, Rodney Graham at Whitechapel, Douglas Gordon at the Hayward, David LaChapelle at Barbican—to name just a few that fall into the category of absolutely outstanding. Perhaps I am still under the impressionable glow that comes from being in a new city where everything, fresh or not, seems amazingly conceived, constructed, and displayed. Nearly all the exhibits I’ve seen seemed praiseworthy, and I battled with how to present foreign exhibitions in a forum, the Rail, which locates itself quite firmly in New York. Then I realized my conundrum was for naught—the bulk of the shows I’ve been to exhibit artists who work, worked, or display regularly in the States. The international character of the art world makes for few physical boundaries; the limitations today lie within our own minds and from our prejudices, biases, and misconceptions.
Ironically, for one writing from London, I realized that I had a strong personal bias against many of the young British artists so cheekily termed Y.B.A’s. The Sensation/Giuliani fiasco and a smattering of overblown Gagosian shows left a perception of the English art scene—Saatchi, hype, money—that with one or two distinguished exceptions (Rachel Whiteread, for instance) seemed to make cynicism the only plausible response.
In the attempt to shatter some of my own, and perhaps others’, biases, I’ve decided to write about two of these hip East Enders, Dinos and Jake Chapman. Anyone familiar with the brothers knows their reputation as art world bad boys, men who’ll turn children’s mannequins into sexually deformed Siamese beings or recreate torture scenes from Play Mobile dioramas. Sensationalistic, yes. Spurious, certainly. Insightful or socially relevant, dubious. (And here I venture into social reaction only as their choice of subject matter makes it impossible to ignore.) The brothers claim that they want their sculpture to "reduce the viewer to a state of absolute moral panic"; but historically their failure lies in their inability to produce anything that evokes panic beyond the appalling absurdity of the sculptures themselves.
Works from the Chapman Family Collection is different. It presents itself as 30 or so ethnographic masks and reliquary fetish objects compiled over many years and generations from the former colonial regions of Camgib, Seirf, and Ekoc. Black walls and tiny spotlights reduce the gallery space to a series of indecipherable shapes and shadows. The works are on pedestals placed dangerously close to one another. The result walking through is not only the fear that you are going to bump into one of the demons and provoke its spiritual ire, but also that you are going to bump into one of the sculptures and provoke Jay Jopling’s secular wrath. The Chapmans’ work is so notoriously sensationalistic that I am conditioned to expect another ploy, but this time I worry that my very act of looking may be their latest joke.
My discomfort reveals how good these sculptures are and how gracefully the brothers have executed the show. Each piece is intricately carved, the wood is either old or treated to appear as such, paint fades and peels slightly, and their adaptation of aboriginal and African motifs is immaculate. At first, you really believe you’re looking at genuine artifacts. But you’re not. A shield gives the game away, emblazoned as it is with a McDonald’s logo carved atop concentric golden arches that become decorative striations as they ripple out. And suddenly, the room is a game of hide and seek where the goal is to find the trace of McDonald’s within each object.
One favorite is a two-headed creature whose prickly mid-section is not only the join of this Siamese twin but also the top of a bag of french fries. Elsewhere, golden arches become toes, eyebrows and a nose, or arms and a torso; a tiny hamburger is transformed into the head of a blindfolded crucified Christ; and Hamburglar and Grimace pay respects. The collection succeeds through its mix of obvious and subtle use of iconography. The blatant pieces are funny. They speak to the wit of the makers and function like political cartoons: satirizing consumer culture and the tendency to turn logos into fetish objects. The subtle pieces are more troubling. They demand we search for the logos embedded within and often offer up only a referent to the brand: long stringy red raffia hair on a mask, for example, only suggests Ronald McDonald’s fuzzy mop within the context of the show. These pieces serve as disturbing reminders of the kind of corporate backing that finances much contemporary art. But whether it is a cue to push for greater vigilance on the viewer’s part or a sad comment on the state of the art world, I am not sure.
As we thread our way through the maze of corporate effigies, we mimic our daily journeys through internationally homogenized corporate environments. The totems function as the entrée into the Chapman’s world, which gives their political agenda an audience and activates their message. They succeed in hurling Marxian warnings of commodity fetishism over the white cube walls; but their very venue, the very relish with which buyers squealed throughout the room ‘is that one taken?!?’ are pointed reminders of where and how all their moralizing takes place, and just which side of the line the Chapman brothers lie on. As they state in We are Artists (1992), "our bread is buttered on both sides."