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Around the galleries

Who's who? Jake or Dinos Chapman?

— September 2011

Associated media

Jake or Dinos Chapman, Mason's Yard basement

Chay Allen investigates a question of attribution

Over the last two decades Jake and Dinos Chapman have established themselves as insurmountable enfants terribles of the art establishment. Infamous for their deformed child mannequins and a general irreverence, particularly for those who attempt to define their work, the Chapman Brothers have fostered a symbiotic relationship that Dinos Chapman highlights in a recent interview: ‘Jake and I only make things that amuse us…So I make things for Jake and he makes things for me’.

 ‘Jake or Dinos Chapman’ is the output of a year in which the brothers have apparently worked separately without discussing or disclosing their work to one another. For two artists whose work is often appreciated as a single oeuvre, the question of where individual subjectivity resides in a creative collaboration is of crucial significance. The exhibition is an atomised view of ‘The Chapman Brothers’ in which this corporeal unit, although recognised, is no longer reductively conceived. As if to underline the point, dualisms are thrust at us at every occasion: the comparison between the sites of Mason’s Yard and Hoxton Square, the contrast between crudely produced and finely crafted art, religious extremism pitted against the evils of the Third Reich. Indeed, the author of each piece is always Jake or Dinos; the works are not individually attributed.            

Both ground floor galleries at Mason’s Yard and Hoxton Square feature plinths upon which crudely produced assemblages of junk material stand; the latter appearing to satirise tribal fetishes, with one piece featuring an idol with a cotton bud stuck in its eye. Entitled The Nature of Particles, each work is nominally defined by an ostensibly random sequence of integers, until one realises they are all London phone numbers. Jake or Dinos compels the viewer to have as little reverence as he does for convention and to use their mobile phone within this sacred space. Anyone joining their army would be connected to a series of charity shops throughout London, giving the apparent naivety of the junk fetishes a poignancy, a comment on the random contingencies of birth and life that more often than not determine the lives of those who end up seeking charity.

The Mason’s Yard counterpart contains no poignancy whatsoever: the dozens of pieces of roughly painted cardboard, polystyrene balls and chicken wire look like bad versions of Claes Oldenburg’s work produced as part of The Store, incorporating labels such as ‘The Grim Reaper’s Reaper’ and ‘The stubber of toes’. I suggested this comparison to Jake when the duo produced their Bad Art for Bad People in 2006, to which he spat back ‘I’m not a Pop artist’. I dare say he is not, but one or other Chapman is certainly reproducing the pre-Pop aesthetic of Oldenburg yet again.

Hidden from view on both sites, in the lower-ground floor gallery of Mason’s Yard and the first-floor gallery space of Hoxton Square, lurk pieces of pure subversion. The Ku Klux Klan member with an erection staring at a defaced Breughel depicting creatures with oculi heads and fish mouths in Mason’s Yard, contrasts with its darker Hoxton Yard counterpart: a dank low lit room in which decomposing pieces of sellotape and blu-tack hang from mouldy walls. Full of horrifically altered shrines of the Virgin and Child, the Hoxton Square room has the feel of a possessed monastery, the statues subverted for satanic devotion, with signs of former religious asceticism apparent in the musty lampshades, old wooden chairs and warped cabinets. It is a menacing space, humourless save for the contemporary acronyms emblazoned on once devotional portraits, such as ‘W.T.F.?’ on Jesus’ cross, and ‘L.M.F.A.O’ on a portrait of the Virgin Mary.

Back in Masons Yard a party of black mannequins, dressed as Nazis with acid smiles in place of swastikas, welcome us from the company of the socially backward white supremacist. Fornicating, laughing at one another, around a giant steel dinosaur, the ghost of Chapman-past, one wonders whether these works contain more than just shock and humour. They are black Nazi homosexual children of the 1980s, after all, seemingly acting against everything their outfit stands for: non-conformists in all but appearance, subverting a rigid secular religion, a caricature of the Chapman’s folly.

Stepping around the bird poo falling on an unfortunate acid-Nazi, a series of join-the-dots and defaced etchings surround the ensemble. Innocent in appearance, this makes them all the more sinister in the context of a Chapman exhibition and echoes the series of works surrounding the naive fetish pieces in Hoxton Square. The latter depict dreamlike cartoons with cutesy titles such as Piggle-Wiggle and Georg Paints the Bunny, and impart the atmosphere of a dystopia not yet fully revealed. Child mannequins, a trademark of the Chapman brand, stare devotedly at One Rabbit Contemplating the Moon. Hooded in uniform clothing, they sport the apparel of what seems to be a sinister play group, with animal features protruding through their human faces.

But are we really concerned with which Chapman thought of the mannequins, or indeed the dinosaurs? I had always imagined it was the product of at least one, if not both to varying degrees. And surely this is the point: in a collaboration the product is almost always never exclusively that of either one or the other individual, but both to a lesser or greater extent. Their joint therapy session in front of the great and good of the art world may prove to be a ground breaking endeavour into the nature of collaboration, but I doubt that would sit comfortably with either Jake or Dinos. More likely the last laugh lies with the Chapmans, mocking those who believe they would be careless enough to define even part of their practice.


Chay Allen
University of Oxford
Art historian

Media credit: © the artists Photo: Ben Westoby Courtesy White Cube

Editor's notes

‘Jake or Dinos Chapman’ is at White Cube, Hoxton Square and Mason’s Yard, London until 17 September 2011. White Cube is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 6pm.

There are two separate publications to accompany the exhibition: Jake Chapman’s third novel, INTROSPASTIC: From the Blackened Beyond; and Dinos Chapman’s publication of 22 drawings, printed to scale, They Teach Us Nothing. They are available from White Cube.

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