Jake and Dinos Chapman on their Goodwood exhibition
- Credit: Nic Serpell-Rand
Their art is famously controversial and they have a reputation for prickly behaviour. As the Chapman Brothers launch a new exhibition at Cass Scupture Foundation, Caiti Grove finds Jake Chapman predictably unpredictable
Is it a surprise to find the enfants terribles of British art just as spiky in real life as their famously shocking sculptures? Lauded and vilified for their gut-wrenching depictions of tortured bodies and mutilated children, the Chapman Brothers opened their new show at Cass Scupture Foundation in slightly unusual style. If anyone had any doubts that Jake Chapman was a lovable pussycat under the surface, they were soon disabused.
Set in the grounds of the Goodwood Estate, the Cass Sculpture Foundation is a mostly-outdoor gallery that supports artists from fledgling unknowns up to world-famous crowd-pullers – Thomas Heatherwick and Antony Gormley pieces are among the vast collection. It feels like a permanent collection that will always stay here, but actually the team is more than willing to let the works go to new homes. They commission sculpture which is bought by organisations and private collectors, with the profits going back to the artist, and also lend expert advice to organisations wanting their own monumental outdoor work. Curator Helen Turner says: “I aim to select work which I believe to be radical, brave and that demonstrates a pivotal or seminal moment in an artist’s career.”
Which is where the Chapman Brothers come in. For past exhibitions, they have gone to the trouble of acquiring Adolf Hitler’s watercolours so they could draw on them and bought a collection of etchings by the Spanish war artist Goya – and defaced them too. It was a gesture that shocked critics – they defied the meaning of art, and reminded us that atrocity and inhumanity portrayed by this celebrated artist from the 19th century is just as, arguably more, present in our present day world. As for their reputation for being tricky, the journalist Lynn Barber had a famously abrasive encounter with them and another Observer journalist, Carole Cadwalladr, was abruptly thrown out of their East London studio for asking ‘vague’ questions.
Now two of their works – one indoor, one outdoor – have moved to the Foundation. Chapman’s outdoor creation is entitled The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth, but not the Mineral Rights, and is a group of three huge rusted steel dinosaurs. The tallest, a Tyrannosaurus rex, is an imposing eight metres high. They have travelled from Hampstead Heath where the artists felt they were viewed as providing excellent hiding places for children, and now among other contemporary art at the foundation, are art once more. It is here, in a clearing of the foundation’s wood, a 50-person crowd of local fans, sponsors and journalists have gathered to hear Jake speak about the duo’s work. At the front, the foundation’s curator Helen Turner is armed with a microphone for the Q&A while Jake is ready to take questions. “I would like to ask you about the title of this work in relation to their aesthetic. These sculptures are lovable, clumsy and almost cute, whereas the title refers to something more sinister about the empirical expansion of capitalism. Would you be able to comment on this awkward marriage?”
“What do you think?” Jake grins, presenting a Neanderthal woman with the microphone. Yes, you read that right. Four people – fully made up as hunter-gatherer Neanderthals in furs, long hair and covered in dirt – are a performance element of the exhibition, referred to by Jake as his “extended family”. They have been skulking in the forest nearby and grunting wordlessly among the gallery’s champagne preview for two or so hours, picking mites out of each other’s scalps whilst standing next to potential sponsors for the park. “Pity is treason,” she replies – who knew the Neanderthals were interested in Robespierre? The curator continues – she has no other option. “I wondered what your opinion is on making large-scale outdoor work? Whether this is something you and Dinos always aspired for? Whether this affected your practice significantly?” Another of the group stumbles forward and grunts into the microphone “Your mind is a nightmare trying to eat you. Now eat your mind.” This is definitely not going as planned. But there’s no fazing Jake Chapman: he is famous – indeed infamous – among journalists for wriggling and swerving questions. He’s clearly not going to change today. “I wondered how you felt about the issue of accessibility in contemporary art. How do you feel about the social impact of outdoor sculpture?” A third Neanderthal speaks for the first time, “Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts,” and then it’s all over. “Well,” says the curator afterwards, “Jake did tell me he really wanted to do a performance piece among the dinosaurs. I think that was it.”
The brothers are no strangers to controversy. After graduating and working as assistants to Gilbert and George in the early 90s, they have since specialised in gory and grotesque work that could just as easily appear in a Halloween-themed Madame Tussauds as an art gallery. In fact, this exhibition – demonic farmer aside (more on that later) – has been relatively tame. In their early career they recreated Goya’s The Disasters of War into obscenely graphic plastic models, one of which became life-size for the YBA show Sensation with Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst. More recently, they recreated hell at the Jerwood Gallery in their hometown of Hastings – with a God burnt down to a bodiless pair of Birkenstocked feet, complete with hippy new-age multicoloured striped socks and anatomically detailed bloodied ankles.
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But they don’t want to talk about where they came from, and definitely not about their childhoods. Dinos isn’t here to open the exhibition but Jake is keeping their reputation intact: “I’m not inspired by anything” he says crossly, only steel dinosaurs to delegate questions to. “I’m just interested in stuff. I’m too pessimistic to indulge the idea of inspiration. The ideas don’t come from anywhere. We make art viciously – that’s all.”
Too true. In 1996 they created Tragic Anatomies, a group of naked children mannequins, their faces replaced with genitalia. In 2003 they were nominated for the Turner Prize (pipped by Grayson Perry) for their work Insult to Injury in which they changed – some would say defaced – etchings by Goya with their own painted cartoon heads.
But it’s not just the work that rankles with critics. In 2014 Jake said that taking children to galleries was a waste of time because “children are not human yet”. In other words, they are unafraid of stirring up any trouble – in their art or interviews. Maybe that is something they learnt as teenagers, “Look, we don’t talk about our childhood,” he says, suppressing his obvious exasperation with the way the questions are trending, “but growing up, Hastings was a s***hole. I hated living by the sea because it was one direction we couldn’t run.” Off the subject of his past, Jake couldn’t be more chatty about Trump’s isolationist politics and the drawbacks of the single market. On Brexit he says: “I identify as British, a non-nationalist term. I like to put the ‘ish’ into British.” Can he pinpoint where he sits on the political spectrum? “I don’t think the Left goes far enough for me” – politics is evident in this herd of dinosaurs that questions the right of people to own land when once it belonged to no-one. Nearby, the sculpture park’s indoor gallery has their piece Two Legs Bad, Four Legs Good (2007) on display. A satire of Orwell’s Animal Farm with the quote inverted, these animals appear as though they were made by some creative children, a mash-up of papier mache, cardboard and poster paint. Ominous cardboard crows are suspended overhead and an unhinged farmer looks like he doesn’t have much control over his farm. A cardboard bucket full of handmade eyes is possibly the farmer’s work. The work was apparently created in this naive style after Saatchi’s store of a lot of the YBA work burnt to the ground in 2004. Their work Hell, a 30,000-strong battle of two-inch soldiers, many in Nazi regalia, which took two years to make – was incinerated, as well as Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995. Naturally, they then made an almost-replica of Emin’s work called The Same Only Better – with the names of all the people who didn’t want to sleep with Emin. Ouch.
Initially, the work seems somewhat silly and childlike but on reflection, the Chapman Brothers are artists for our time – provocative, political and up for a fight.
The questions they pose in their work: who owns the land and why? How difficult is it to educate oneself out of the bottom of society (in Two Legs Bad, Four Legs Good, the animals) into the ruling class (the farmer)? And what do we do if that ruling class is disconnected from reality, like the mad farmer? The Chapmans don’t have the answers but their questions read like a manifesto for a revolution. They would hate this accusation, but they do make Sussex proud.
Cass Presents: Jake and Dinos Chapman - 14 April–16 December 2017
The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth, but not the Mineral Rights and Two Legs Bad, Four Legs Good
Cass Sculpture Foundation, New Barn Hill, Goodwood, near Chichester, West Sussex PO18 0QP; 01243538449; www.sculpture.org.ukAdmission: adult £12.50, children (five to 16) £6.50, children under five visit free, students and concessions £10, grounds tours and archive tours: £20 per person, discounts on groups of 10+.