Jake & Dinos Chapman         

Tate Britain, January 30 to June 10 / Paradise Row, London, February 10 to March 4

There’s a line in the wall text accompanying Jake & Dinos Chapman’s Tate Britain display that gives the game away: ‘When Humans Walk the Earth … contests the distinctions we make between man and machine and assumptions about historical progress.’ Either this is a supremely naïve statement, that betrays a deep ignorance of the current state of contemporary attitudes towards what it means to be human, or it’s one of those mantra-like statements that seek to reassert that the artists in question still have their finger on the pulse of radical thinking, and that their value lies in the ‘assumptions’ they so assiduously ‘contest’.

Back in the real world, it makes more sense to replace ‘contest’ with ‘confirm’, because while the Chapmans have been busy, the anti-humanist sentiment that their work mechanically ejaculates is in fact now the orthodox discourse of much of contemporary culture. That we are little more than machinic automata, slaves to our impulses and desires, is the dominant assumption in current western culture. It is what underpins the interest in psychobiological accounts of human behaviour (we can’t help it, it’s in our genes), just as much as it confirms the expansion of the ‘therapy culture’ view of human subjectivity (we are all helpless victims of trauma, or compulsive perpetuators of abuse). And it is not as if anyone talks up progress either – that colonialising eurocentric monster of the Enlightenment. Now that environmentalism is quickly becoming the new secular religion, any talk of positive, human-centred social and economic change has become a sort of blasphemy. ‘When Humans Walked the Earth’ echoes the self-loathing of the environmentalist worldview, more comfortable with imagining the extinction of the planetary human ‘virus’ than with any talk of humanity as the purposeful subject of its own history – Get thee to a therapist, climate-change denier!

You may be wondering about the work. ‘When Humans Walked the Earth’ assembles nine bronze sculptures that reprise Jake & Dinos Chapman’s 1993 Little Death Machine (Castrated), rehearsing and expanding that work’s comic vocabulary of hammers, brains, milk bottles and spunking cocks. Each of these Heath-Robinson-meets-Bataille contraptions sets up some hilarious cartoon series of implied libidinal causalities, in which brains get squashed, mechanical cocks slide into mechanical vaginas, inflated rubber gloves express teat fluids into bottles, flayed heads suck at disembodied breasts, and a rubber chicken nailed through its eye to a post gets its head beaten by a hammer.

Cheerful post-human stuff, and the masterfully blackened bronze patina reeks of objects already centuries old, perhaps to be viewed by aliens curious about the artifacts of this long-deceased little species. One can hear, however, in the background, the metaphorical chug of the commodity-machine, the insistent pulse of the white cube that can’t let the original lie in the Tate’s collection, but demands that it be reproduced in durable materials that won’t go on fire the next time a [warehouse burns down, and in order to soak up all the surplus cash sloshing around in the art market because capitalists aren’t doing anything more useful with their money.

Perhaps to take a tea break from the infernal cadences of high-value art object production, Jake & Dinos Chapman reprise their lo-fi offshoot brand-line in the cardboard, polystyrene and poster-paint animals of their concurrent show Two Legs Bad, Four Legs Good at Paradise Row. Taking its title from the creed of the revolutionary animals of George Orwell’s anti-Stalinist parable Animal Farm, a room of plinths each of which presents a set of animal figures and tableaux that might relate to the various characters of the story, rendered with the skilfully regressed competence of a primary-school art class. All the while, the gallery is filled with the comforting voice of an audio-CD GCSE English-lit exam primer, reducing and trivialising the themes of Orwell’s book. The accompanying press release provides nothing more or less than a transcript of Old Major’s rallying song: ‘Soon or late the day is coming / Tyrant Man shall be o’erthrown / And the fruitful fields of England / Shall be trod by beasts alone’ goes one verse. The pessimism of Orwell’s satirical attack on the promise of Marxist optimism, and its apparently inevitable slide into Stalinist totalitarianism, is an early instance of the disillusion with human-centred accounts of subjectivity and historical agency that the their work now echoes, Just at the moment when that disillusion concludes itself in the widespread anti-humanism of environmentalist thinking. In this scenario, animals do inherit the earth, because humans have given up their claim to being anything better.

Thinking and purposeful human action go together. Once one gives up on the desire to change things, there’s no longer any use for such concepts as free will, centred subjectivity or reasoned action, and the theoretical denigration of the acting subject goes hand in hand with its degradation in practice. This exhaustion of thinking that has to think against itself – perhaps the final tragedy of the Chapmans’ oeuvre – seems to find its expression in one work in the exhibition. On a paint-smeared plinth unlike the others, a feeble assemblage of stained cardboard gives up even the limited aspiration to mimesis found in the other works. Striving to dismantle the supposed theoretic fallacies of subjectivity, Jake & Dinos Chapman have found that, in the end, one has to abolish consciousness in favour of compulsion, turn creativity into mere production, and production, finally, into excrescence.



First published in Art Monthly no 304, March 2007 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated