In the shadow of London’s Olympic Stadium, the corpses of countless Nazi soldiers lie disemboweled in two immense piles, their limbs ripped from their bodies, their uniforms drenched in blood. Skeletal figures wearily drag themselves across a scorched, postapocalyptic landscape, as Ronald McDonald hangs crucified from a wooden cross. It would be horrific if it were real. But each figure is no bigger than a postage stamp, arranged together into phantasmagoric dioramas that fill the studio of Jake and Dinos Chapman, Britain’s most notorious art duo.
The painstakingly assembled model soldiers shrink gory tragedy to comic proportions, and the real battle being waged here is between serious conceptualism and the naughty, irreverent humor that has dominated the Chapman brothers’ monstrous and magnificent career. From the beginning, the Turner Prize nominees have polarized art critics by defacing original Goya prints, adding hippie flair to watercolors by Adolf Hitler, and creating mannequins of children with genitals for facial features. Protesters have doused them in paint, Orthodox Russians have boycotted their shows over claims of blasphemy, and more than a few journalists have insulted, demeaned, and criticized them.
On a dreary afternoon in May, Jake sips his coffee while Dinos picks modeling glue off of his calloused fingers. They’re combative and defensive, and greet every question with hunched shoulders and gritted teeth. The answers they eventually muster are heavily theoretical, dense with references to Deleuze and Didacticism, as if to insist that no matter how many bronze-cast sex dolls they make, their work can’t be dismissed as a puerile joke. “When you say there is no high art or low art, everything becomes valueless,” Jake says. “If you try to democratize art by suggesting that everything is of equal value, you rob it of its competence and sophistication.”
The trajectory of their joint careers helps to shed some light on their defensiveness. The Chapmans have been at the center of controversy since their inclusion, in 1997, in the landmark “Sensation” exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, which brought the Young British Artists, as they became known, to public attention. Asking them about their reputation as the confrontational enfants terrible of the British art world yields heavy sighs and weary looks. “Once a work is considered shocking, you don’t have to question anything anymore,” Dinos says. “You’re just put in a box with everything else that’s shocking, and that’s all your work can ever be.”
But the aggression inherent in their canon undermines their self-avowed rejection of shock, confrontation, and provocation. “We’re not interested in making friends,” Jake admits. “We’re doing this because it’s the only way we can do what we want without getting arrested. We’re not interested in some kind of liberal love-in, because we’re serious about what we do.”
Dinos compares their output to genres of film and music that exist on the fringe: thrash metal, minimal techno, and horror. “A horror film is supposed to be shocking,” he says. Jake adds, “Art suffers from the obligation to be culturally positive.” But, whereas thrash metal revels in the underground, the Chapmans have reached the summit of commercial success as multi-millionaires represented by White Cube, one of the most lauded galleries in the world. Kate Moss attends their openings; they have mansions with indoor pools and Brazilian hardwood flooring. The idea that they somehow exist on the periphery doesn’t sit right.
This paradox is exactly what makes their art so compelling. They are dissidents who have infiltrated the upper echelons of the art world by creating titillating, hilarious sculptures that anger practically everyone, yet still sell for small for tunes. Their work exhibits a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor and modesty that contrasts with their intensity and seriousness as artists. Jake says, “The problem with the confrontational stuff is that it flirts with the heroic, and there’s nothing heroic about our work.” Dinos adds, “Sometimes I look at it and I don’t know if I should be ashamed or embarrassed or disappointed.”
As the brothers finalize their first Chinese exhibition, “The Sum of All Evil” at White Cube Hong Kong, Jake says he believes strongly in the power and beauty of art, that “the sublime is the most valuable commodity we have.” Dinos, on the other hand, argues that it’s “a low-level disease gnawing away at everything that’s formative in culture.” For all their contradictions and disparities, the brothers have a sense of self-assuredness that comes only from having spent their adult lives doing exactly what they want. Jake summarizes it neatly when he says, “We don’t have to answer all questions for all people and somehow produce some universally acceptable and agreeable object for people to have euphoric reactions to. The idea of what a work of art should be—that it’s the apex of human culture, that it’s doing something wonderful—we’re really just not interested in that at all.”