The Hell we Deserve?

The Chapman's contribution to Apocalypse has more to do with morality than transgression...

'We all carry the history of the last century in our heads. In the West that history has been informed by the trenches of World War I, the Holocaust and other genocides, and the threat of nuclear destruction that seemed until quite recently to hang over our heads.'

It has become a cliché that the sort of contemporary art that makes it to the Royal Academy has to provoke, shock, and annoy to such an extent that, even despite ourselves, we all end up seeing the latest offering sooner or later. Since the media circus that accompanied 'Sensation' three years ago, we've grown used to artists and galleries conspiring to grab the public's attention with work that assaults its everyday sensibilities. But as with all marketing strategies, the 'art of shock' may finally have reached its sell-by date. As the opening of the Royal Academy's latest spectacular 'Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art' loomed, many commentators were adopting a world-weary tone. As a Times editorial put it, the 'chief danger that 'Apocalypse' risks is …of seeming such a second-rate sequel that audiences, as weary of the art as they are of the arguments that it raises will be unable to muster enough interest to go over the old ground yet again.'But the striking thing about the response to 'Apocalypse' hasn't been the predicted exhaustion and indifference to tactics of shock-horror. On the contrary, the horror and abjection of the show has taken centre stage, curiously providing the foundation for a pessimistic new morality in art, one that predictably chimes with the morbid preoccupations of our angst-ridden age. For rather than framing the sex, violence, infantilism and plastic Nazis in terms of the wilful provocation of the public by cynically self-publicising artists, 'Apocalypse' seeks to present them as the honest, if unpalatable representations of the Great Truths of our time.

Co-curator Norman Rosenthal makes it clear when he states, invoking the horror of the Holocaust, that 'one major task of the artist is to say that, as human beings ourselves, we are all implicated. It is important that we do not look away and merely take refuge in superficial beauty.' In similarly bleak mood, he continues that 'the experiment of the Enlightenment has been extinguished and we are witness to a brutish and at best melancholic world picture." In other worlds, it might not be the end of the world, but that doesn't mean we won't be experiencing 'Apocalypse from Now On.'

Desolate stuff, so it's appropriate that the centrepiece of 'Apocalypse' should be Hell, Jake and Dinos Chapman's preposterous vitrined diorama of endless torment and punishment, in which hordes of scale-model Nazis are slaughtered at the hands of the androgyne mutants. It's a truly impressive work, in the sense that any desperate two-year obsession to guarantee a reaction through sheer overkill is impressive; unlike most works of contemporary art, Hell forces you to look at it for more than three minutes simply because there is so much to look at. But apart from the visual impact that apparently bowled Rosenthal over, where do the swastika-shaped vistas of Hell really lead to?

Whilst the Chapman's have been coy about saying too much about the piece, critics have fallen over themselves to pay their respects; most agree with Richard Dorment's sentiment that 'Hell reminds us that we are interested in every word of every report of every fresh massacre in Africa or Albania, asking ourselves whether, under similar circumstances, we could be capable of perpetrating the same atrocities.' And if it fails to remind us of our barely suppressed bestiality, our ever-present capacity for evil, Hell exposes us to how unimaginable, how 'unrepresentable' the pinnacle of that bestiality is. As Adrian Searle puts it, 'Hell is saved - if salvation has any meaning here - by the gags, the ludicrousness of it, the impossibility of treating its subject fully and truthfully, without becoming mawkish, mendacious or prurient.' Or, as Euan Ferguson reveals, 'it's also, I suspect, about the impossibility of art, or memorials, ever adequately marking the Holocaust, and the bathos of even trying.' And for Jonathan Jones, 'it becomes clear that [the Chapmans'] real target is the fatuousness of believing any Holocaust memorial is adequate.' And in case we were in any doubt, Jake Chapman confirms that 'our intention was not in any way to trivialise the Holocaust… This is an event that's beyond representation.' So Hell performs a seemingly impossible feat of revelation; it simultaneously exposes us to horror that is hidden deep within us, realisable at any moment, but it also tells us that the horror is so unimaginable that it can't even be represented.

This is of course nonsense, but the point is that in their pitiful view of humanity, the Chapmans are closer to the abject self-image of middle class opinion than they would like to believe. Whilst the Chapmans may earnestly believe that their art of provocation disrupts the fragile web of repressive social conventions that conceals from us the nature of our 'true' selves, their practice changes its significance when those conventions become widely discredited, even amongst those who would have traditionally taken offence at their transgression. But these days, so it seems, we are all molester or molested, aggressor or victim, whether of physical violence, emotional abuse, ethnic hatred or corporate greed, prey to our own uncontrollable, baser desires.

Which is perhaps why the Chapmans' might be puzzled by Hell's success. As Jake Chapman observes, 'People become very sincere when you show them this sort of thing… It becomes a kind of moral potty training for adults. I think a lot of people have attempted to read the work as if it was some kind of memorial,' to which he retorts that 'it's a work which doesn't respond morally to something which has become so cloaked in morality. We would like to think of this as a severely anti-humanist work of art.' But the paradox is that the new morality of our times is itself 'severely anti-humanist'. For a culture that sincerely believes that we are all capable of the most unique barbarity of the Holocaust; that the truth of the human condition is only the melancholy apprehension of future atrocity, there can really be nothing else.

So Hell's true heart of darkness is to be found in its self-hating view of human beings. If the Nazis sought to cast the Jews as inhuman, the better to obliterate them, so Hell casts all of humanity as one great tide of Nazism, but one which is forever punished by everything that is non-human, by mutants and the living dead. As a memorial to the Holocaust, it offers little insight into what brought that unique horror about. But as a monument to contemporary society's obsession with a catastrophe that is forever just round the corner- whether social, economic or ecological- it speaks volumes about our fear of the future, and our lack of faith in our capacity to change it. If art merely reflects reality, then its time to start asking what we expect from ourselves, the art we make, and the society it represents.





Published in Untitled no23, Autumn/Winter 2000 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated