It must be nice to live safe in the knowledge that the human race is rubbish, and that – by the way – art is a load of shit too. Jake and Dinos Chapman have never been coy about their contempt for their species, disassembling its ridiculous habit of making ‘art’ into a career-sustaining series of satirical gestures of derision, melting down all that old humanist crap about creativity, genius, beauty, consciousness, reason and so on in their post-human, anti-metaphysical theory-furnace. Assuming that the Chapmans are trying to transgress the norms of human identity and morality tends to miss that their real project is to point out that humanity isn’t what you think it is, and that there’s really nothing there to transgress. We’re just a mindless swill of desires, uncontrolled impulses, endlessly copulating towards death and the final and pointless end of the universe. Art? Don’t make them laugh.
For their blow-out summer show at both White Cube sites, the brothers have apparently demerged themselves, declaring that they’ve been working apart from each other, in separate studios. Whether or not this is true doesn’t matter, what the brothers offer is an encyclopaedic greatest-hits remix of a show, with Nazis, defaced etchings, and modernist sculpture gone badly wrong. Accordingly, the Mason’s Yard show starts with 47 crappily painted cardboard sculptures on white plinths, each one a half-arsed rendition of the kind of geometric abstract sculpture that had its heyday in the 1960s, as if a lobotomised Anthony Caro was trying to teach sculpture to a class of retarded Thomas Scheibitz clones. The Chapmans like an easy target, picking off whatever forms art already uses to present itself as failed and redundant – in this case, the idealistic, utopian and ratiocinated pretensions of postwar Modernism. Downstairs, these crap cardboard maquettes are blown up to atrium-scale, this time rendered in black painted steel. Spectating these sculptures are a crowd of leering mannequins, dressed in SS uniforms, but with Smiley armbands rather than swastikas and flayed black faces. With rictus expressions of jovial puzzlement at this silly modern art stuff, the zombie-Nazis seem to want to conflate the patronising delight of art collectors with the violent patronage of Nazis deriding the Modernism paraded at their 1937 propaganda exhibition Entartete Kunst.
Except the joke isn’t really at the expense of any art collectors, it’s at the expense of you and me. These Nazis, these stand-in spectators, they’re us – us not realising that our exchange with art is really a delusional form of self-affirmation (the Smiley badge), in which the pleasure of mastering the meaning of art is a way of denying the meaningless chaos of the rest of existence. Possession, if you’re down with the Chapmans’ tortuously trendy philosophical musings, is the same as that old humanist bogeyman, selfhood, and the self is a sort of fascism, gottit?
Over at Hoxton Square, there are more post-human surrogate spectators, this time little mannequin kids, gathered in front of a painting. But their mouths and noses are those of animals, piercing through the human skin, just as upstairs, in a chapel of remodelled catholic statuary, the baby Jesus appears as a tentacle-sprouting monster. These and the vague, half-formless biomorphs that indistinctly populate the paintings the animal-kids are looking at, riff gaily off the ultra-gothic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories also provide the titles for a series of pencil drawings of jokey, formless horrors at Mason’s Yard. Lovecraft, an American pessimist who turned the bleak mood of the 1930s into a fatalistic vision of cosmic catastrophe in which human civilization is threatened by ancient, inhuman forces of evil, is an appropriate patron saint for the Chapmans who, in their dotage, revel in the resources of a predecessor who confirms their grumpy-old-man insights into the futility of the human project.
The Chapmans’ scabrous nihilism, their esoteric mix of anti-humanist and post-humanist pop-theorising, has never really shocked, because rather than being some risky gesture of transgression, it’s only ever been an extreme expression of what mainstream, liberal Western culture has already decided about itself anyway: that human beings are possessed of a self-deluding hubris, civilisation is really disguised barbarism, progress is a dangerous fiction and humanity is an out-of-control threat to the planet. Yes, we agree. Still, a culture that has long since concluded that it’s a load of shit deserves an art that shits on it some more – and the Chapmans seem more than happy to continue to oblige. Fashionable misanthropists, it’s only surprising that the Chapmans haven’t yet noticed how easy it is to kick at an open door.
Jake & Dinos Chapman: Jake or Dinos Chapman was at White Cube Hoxton Square and Mason’s Yard, London, 15 July – 17 September 2011
First published in ArtReview issue 53, October 2011 www.artreviewdigital.com