Fast food fetishes and the Gestapo among us
Jake and Dinos Chapman's exhibition at Rudolfinum is 'not shocking'
Posted: October 9, 2013
In the middle of Rudolfinum Gallery 's ornate halls stands a structure starkly at odds with its surroundings, drawing the eyes of all who walk past. It is a sculpture reeking of death and decay. A picked over human skeleton is bound to a tree, swarming with maggots, snails and a hungry rat. Next to it, another skeleton, this one hanging by its legs and decapitated, its head atop the brand with devils horns, pointed ears and a red clown's nose. A black crow perches atop the carnage, guarding the spoils.
Shocking? Not at all! That is, according to the artists, UK-born brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose giant collection of works appear at an exhibition entitled The Blind Leading the Blind, which will fill several of the gallery's halls until Jan. 5, 2014.
Jake and Dinos Chapman
When: To Jan. 5, 2014 Tue.-Wed and Fri-Sun. 10-6; Thurs. 10-8
Where: Galerie Rudolfinum
"We're not interested in shock. You can see worse things on TV," Dinos said at a press conference before the exhibition opened.
"It is not shocking," Jake agreed.
Yet the artists' controversial reputation for being just that - shocking - combined with their tongue in cheek style, suggests their words are best taken with a grain of salt. The sculpture, unfittingly entitled Sex, draws on motifs from Spanish artist Francisco Goya's early 19th century cycle Disasters of War. It's just one example of several pieces in the exhibition inspired by Goya.
Borrowing themes from or even altering existing art works has been a recurrent theme in the artists' history, which has won them both admiration and ire. Otto M. Urban, the curator of the Prague exhibition, interprets Sex as a "celebration of new life" and a representation of the artists' "rejection of the maxim of progress in either art or society."
Equally as "not shocking" is the piece Death, which is displayed nearby, depicting "two sex dolls on a beach mattress," as Urban puts it.
Some key themes of the exhibition rapidly become clear. But what's it all about? The answer may be as bottomless as your own unconscious mind. According to the artists, the jarring images are meant to tap deep into our psyches, challenging our reason.
"Our work investigates the idea of unconsciousness as a political proposition, as something very critical, which has the ability to undermine established values … the uncanny offers that potential," Dinos said.
"We are interested in disturbing reality. We are trying to undermine … the concept of rationality as the only useful human agency," he added.
Dinos appeared at the press conference in jeans and a black t-shirt, showing tattoos on his arms as well as a conspicuous cut on the bridge of his nose and a finger in a cast (an "accident" in the taxi, or so they said, with a wink). Jake, seemingly the more conservative of the two, showed up in a Star Wars inspired t-shirt under a blazer.
It's undeniable that the brothers, their wicked sensibilities, dry humor and tumultuous past are a compelling subject, but they insist that the focus should be on their art. To delineate this point, they avoid signing their works, seeing this as an unnecessary "possessive act."
Turning our attention to the art, the collection is so varied in form and theme that it's a momentous task to sum up. Curator Urban has done the work for us in an essay providing an extensive analysis of the works, which can be found in the exhibition's provided booklet.
"The work of Jake and Dinos Chapman is broad and highly varied in terms of form. However banal or surprising this might sound, their main subject is the surrounding reality, but a reality transformed through their unique vision, causing unexpected mutations and points of intersection," he states.
Among the collection is a series of drawings accompanied by poems depicting mutated versions of traditional nursery rhymes. It has a Brothers Grimm aura, but perhaps even more morbid. For example:
Sticks and Stones
Shall break thy bones
And words will
Surely hurt you
Eyeballs and teeth
Shall be wrenched by grief
As nightfall comes
To shroud you
We probably wouldn't read these poems to our children at night, but what if the alternative is TV or the internet, where the horrors can be real?
Perhaps this is what Dinos means when he says we are perpetually caught in a "televisual war." He insists that "war is global."
"You don't have to see it first hand to know it's happening. … War is first hand for all of us."
The feeling of the exhibition is indeed that of being in the midst of some kind of psychological or moral warzone, all taking place in a nightmare. Amidst the grotesque sculptures, freakish images and menacing mannequins, one could liken the experience to stepping straight into a Salvador Dali painting.
The artists, however, have claimed not to be using their art to deliver moral lessons.
"Their world - ChapmanWorld - is one of stories which repurpose and recycle human experience and naiveté, the human inability to learn from one's mistakes as well as plain and banal stupidity. The Chapman brothers, though, do not moralize, being free from any messianic ambition to serve as mentors or to change the world," Urban stated.
Presiding over ChapmanWorld are "mutant mannequins," life-size Gestapo-esque dummies, yet with a smiley face on their armbands instead of a swastika. Their faces are black and sinewy as if dead, and they are caught in various bizarre constellations and behaviors, which a press release interprets as exploring moral boundaries and representing the "absolute evil" of fascism, another key theme.
The Gestapo dummies are even more disturbing, with one gleefully beckoning the gallery goer to enter the main room and others posed as if examining the art on the walls, waiting for you to join in. Monster children in the next room are arranges the same way, inviting you to become one of them.
Pushing other moral buttons are a series of bronze sculptures as well the Drawings from the Chapman Family Collection, that integrate corporate brands, especially McDonalds, into cultural symbols, such as African fetishes. One of these sculptures features a McDonald's hamburger, crucified.
"You must either think further and deeper, or simply enjoy the fun and their pitch black humor," Urban stated.
Jennifer Day can be reached at