The Chapman Brothers show at the Serpentine Magazine (the new wing of the Serpentine Gallery) is a mix between a traditional retrospective and an installation where the informed viewer is supposed to stand both close to the objects but also at one remove from them in order to subtract meaning which, to my surprise, was there to get. In other words, it works, at one level, as the usual horror show with blood, svastikas, KKK costumes and all sorts of degenerate bravado and at another level, it reflects on the mechanics of the exhibition as such in a deconstructive way. The interesting thing is that while doing that, the Chapman Brothers try to de-YBA-ise themselves through a surprising attempt at making art with their own hands. I found that utterly sweet and Xmasy.
It must be said that this is exactly what Tracey Emin tried to do in her retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in which she turned its second floor (that is, the end of the visitor experience) into a display of her skills as a manual artist and a painter. Of course, this was not what people went to see and the paintings were bad but the effort shows the self-consciousness of that monument to New Labour success. If you want another example of YBA insecurities think of Damien Hirst at the Wallace Collection a couple of years ago where after almost two decades of skyrocketing success without even touching his art pieces, he decided to paint. I guess the problem with the YBAs is that they are not Y (young) anymore and although they have started to be celebrated at a canonical level by the British institutions, they know that they are impostors. It is in that consecration that all their flaws emerge to the surface and now they seem to be taken themselves seriously but they know that it is not enough. Helas!
So back to the Chapman Brother’s exhibition, upon arrival the viewer is faced with four tall black banners with smiley faces that signify the fascism of the customer oriented society. The banners are supposed to link the viewer’s life with what he or she is going to see. Of course, the first wall contains the ‘Disasters of War’ which was one of the series that made them famous. Some of them are actual prints by Goya that were infamously ‘intervened’ by the Chapman brother with pen and pencil. I must confess that they are carefully done but the banalisation of all things wrong such as svastikas, corpses, torture, etc can only be appreciated in hindsight and with the historical perspective that we have today. The Chapman brothers use humour in a very specific way which is not irony but sarcasm and the problem with that is that they might end up being the only ones laughing. This cartoonish approach to pain and horrors entails its own irrelevance and even though it gets us used to it, at the same time it makes it silly.
The series ‘One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved’ is composed of intervened XVII and XVIII century paintings that look like Greuzes or Constables and are one trick ponies. Here one can see the aesthetisation going towards the ochres and the rusty colorations. I am saying this because while in ‘The Disasters of War’ there is a a certain degree of attention to detail, here there is just a deployment of colour an style as an artistic pose or, even worse, as ‘meaning’. Immediately after, there is the ‘Idiotydil’ series where they originally started reflecting on the market that allowed them to be succesful. They actually laugh at it and why shouldn’t they. I must say that I like these paintings maybe because they are a break from the rather monotonous horror show that the rest of the show is.
Of course, the centrepieces of the show are without any doubt the massive cubic museum vitrines (2 x 3 mts) containing ‘When the World Ends and Rivers of Blood’. My first thought went to the poor collectors that must live with this in their homes. The exercise is childish and expensive and I guess that that is the main point. Hundreds of toy soldiers fight and hide behind Mac Donald’s in ruins, etc. However and all of a sudden, the legs of a giant with a cock ready to urinate over everybody appears ? Is that God according to the Champan? My problem with that figure is that it does not have the same mimetic quality than the toy soldiers below, so God appears rather misplaced. I honestly don’t think that this level of detail is of any concern for these two artists. In other words, the attention to details goes from obsessive to inexistent and this shows the lack of rigour of the Chapman Brothers.
The series ‘Always Judge a Book by Its Cover’ plays again with irony as a rhetorical figure of displacement where one thing mean its opposite. With this series, they give it a go at ‘visual irony’ which is a very difficult tool to manage and so far (at least in that show) they had not been able to handle. They fail because they just put the cover a book and scratch its surface as censoring it. Not good enough. The use of phrases on top of the walls and crossing the corridors is tacky. They use phrases such as ‘Get rid of meaning. Your mind is a nightmare’. Really? How do you know? Or let me rephrases that…these Chapman boys have no idea what they are talking about. At this point the show comes across as childish because it does not really want to explore those horrors. They just point at them and run. Having included Goya in this show was not the best of ideas because his work lingers in the vistor’s mind and like cancer devours anything good that the Chapman Brother could ever do.
At this point, I was bored beyond belief but one of their new pieces called ‘Juxtaposition’ (2013) called my attention. It is an Anthony Caro-like sculptural concoction made of cardboard and paper. What attracted me to it was that it was not part of the typical installation with a Disney-go-wrong attitude but an attempt to produce art that reflects about the conditions of production and circulation of art.
It was a pleasant surprise to realise that this is what they did in the central room. They put over a series of plinths a few couples copulating or damaging each other in different ways which are made of paper and cardboard. The good thing about these images is that they are obviously hand made (by them?). All around the room and the show there are those life-size mannequins dressed as KKK looking as museum goers. What on the main corridors seemed an exercise in shocking, in this room, function as a proxy for the viewer and the whole thing becomes more meaningful. To make things better, at the center of the room they placed a plinth with figures made of paper that represented the member of the audience looking at a plinth with figure papers. This mise en abîme made sense at two levels: firstly, because they are, probably for the first time, thematising the kind of labour that they have systematically refused to consecrate as ‘art’. and secondly, because they show them trying to be serious artist. I would say that that central room undoes the works of the corridors in an analogous way as Tracey Emin’s Hayward second floor undid the first one. I find it really sweet when the YBA expose their artistic fears of irrelevance (even while being successive and wealthy) in that ‘artistic’ way. It makes them more or less… ‘human’. Just a thought.