Interview with the Chapman brothers

The following article was first published in the current issue of Art World Magazine.

Standing in front of One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved XIV in the ground-floor gallery of the White Cube, Mason’s Yard, Jake Chapman pointed to the stitched furrows in the pinched face that swam out of the muddy oils. ‘It looks,’ he said, ‘like something you might see on DMT.’ He was referring to dimethyltryptamine, a hallucinogen so powerful that Terence McKenna, the veteran astronaut of inner space, described its effects as akin to ‘being fired from a psychedelic cannon’.

‘Have you ever taken it?’ I asked Chapman.

‘Oh, yes,’ he laughed. ‘Makes you feel like a shrinky-dink in the oven – all shrivelled up. It was the most intense drug experience I’ve ever had – you become completely subjectless, there’s no you any more. It’s terrifying.’

‘Do you,’ I applied toothed-tongue to sawhorse, ‘think there’s any creative significance to drug experiences?’

‘Absolutely.’ Chapman snapped back. ‘You have to consider how long it took to get for the absolute doubt of Bishop Berkeley to turn into – ’

‘The melting clocks of the Surrealists?’

‘Well, I dislike Surrealism – I think it’s a form of psychiatric policing; they promote the idea that the unconscious is a friend to us; it’s not – it’s an animal … But look at TV adverts today, a mere 60 years after Hoffman synthesised LSD. Consider how readily we accept the manipulation of hallucinations, the creation of flashbacks. Anything is permissible: a man hectomorphs into a milk bottle and the folks at home lap it up.’

This, I think, is quintessential Jake Chapman: the effortlessly eloquent juxtaposition of popular culture and elite theory, the whole summed up by ‘hectomorph’, an original – or at any rate obscure – verbal coinage, meaning, I suppose, ‘to change shape in a hundred ways’.

Hectomorphism would be a reasonable characterisation of the Chapmans’ aesthetic – if there weren’t quite so much else going on. I’ve met both the brothers over the years, and come to appreciate their separate – and several – takes on what they do. To type Jake as bigger, older and more overtly cerebral, while Dinos tends to be gentler and more gnomically perceptive, would be a little facile – and yet it’s a working definition.

Talking with either of them is a delight, but there’s no doubt that Jake is the most aggressively intellectual of all the British conceptual artists to emerge from the Big Freeze of the early 1990s. In the course of an hour’s walk and talk around their current White Cube exhibition, If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be, Chapman cites Heidegger’s ‘Dasein’ – or the ‘thrownness of being’; name-checks Schopenhauer as well as the critics Robert Hughes and Brian Sewell; and talks passionately about his favourite conceptualists – Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre – contrasting their ‘formalist aggression’ with the cuddly me-me-meism of his peers’ figuration.

‘My generation, with their ateliers and assistants, have resurrected the aristocratic ascendancy– it’s something I despise.’ Chapman said rather jollily. ‘Look it’s me with shark! Look it’s my bed! It’s conceptual art with pathos!’ He spluttered, then went on to describe how Dinos had made a replica of Tracey Emin’s famous tent, and entitled it The Impossible Made Possible. ‘We’d considered pitching it right over there,’ Jake pointed to the corner of the gallery (we had, by now, descended to the subterranean bunker where the nine vitrines of Fucking Hell were arranged in their swastika formation), ‘but Jay [Jopling] wasn’t keen. We might do an edition of a hundred – or take it to Glastonbury with a camera set up inside it and film what happens.’

I took this all with a packet of Maldon sea salt – the genial butting and buffeting that all the former YBAs of my acquaintance still feel they need to indulge in, despite their uncomfortably successful middle age. Nevertheless, I could see where it was coming from when Jake waxed lyrical on how effectively Andre’s bricks undercut ‘the bourgeois concept of the sublime’. Until, that is, they were installed in Tate Modern, which with its ‘escalators and its big doors means that people can’t help being blown into the place.’ More pertinent was Chapman’s overview of the exhibition. I said that the title reminded me of Hunter Thompson’s line: ‘The Circus Circus [in Las Vegas] is what the whole hip world would be doing if the Nazis had won the war.’

‘Yes, that’s it,’ Jake confirmed. ‘We wanted to suggest inevitability, fate, the infinite quality of any regress, the absurdity of counterfactuals – the lunacy of the idea that one person can change the world. This is such a materialistic way of looking at human history.’

The title actually refers to one section of the show: the bowdlerised watercolours attributed to the young Hitler, but it applies equally well to the oil paintings seemingly created by Dr Moreau, which hang in the upper gallery; and of course to the Chapmans’ chef d’oeuvre, Fucking Hell. Jake Chapman described the oils of One Day You Will … as ‘orphaned aristocrats’, but to me they looked like minor scions of the squierarchy: ‘I like the way they’ve been ripped from their frames, and sort of abused,’ he said.

I asked: ‘Is their provenance important?’

‘No, we just picked them up from old junk shops.’

Sewell has described the painstaking pictorial maxilliary surgery as the equivalent of drawing spectacles on the Mona Lisa, but this doesn’t do justice to the seamless quality that’s been achieved: ‘The painting technique was suggested by the picture,’ Chapman said. ‘We wanted to make the plane synchronous.’

I marvelled at how well this had been managed: ‘Who does the actual painting?’

‘Ah,’ Jake said, ‘That would be telling …’ He double-took: ‘Dinos.’

Much is made of the brothers qua brothers, but I’ve never found them to be remotely incestuous. Indeed, their collaboration calls to my mind James Joyce’s remark ‘a brother is as easy to forget as an umbrella.’ Which, when I quoted to Jake, he concurred with, then said: ‘Useful at keeping off the rain, though. The thing is, after 15 years of working together we’ve developed an art-making mechanism – and in turn it starts to make its own exhaust, the materials start speaking to each other. It’s also oddly comforting working together like this – which avoids the reductive belief that a work of art is itself the belief of one person. The way we work puts a spin on that – an ellipsis – when I look at my work it’s some other person’s.’

Of course, the Chapmans’ work that has generated most column inches – and intemperate reaction – over the years, was Hell; or, as Jake Chapman laconically puts it: ‘It generated far more concern when it was ashes.’ (It was burnt in the Moma warehouse fire of 2004). That the piece should be remade was, Jake said, ‘a subordination to a thankless task that was inevitable.’ He himself had never been happy with the way it had been exhibited. It’s original showing in the RA show ‘Apocalypse’ was, he said, ‘Pretty disastrous. The whole show was the aesthetic equivalent of Alton Towers – they should’ve had canned laughter.’ Thereafter, while numerous galleries – public and private – undertook to show the panoply of thousands of 1/32nd scale mutual genocidaires, they usually backed down. It was left to Saatchi – who bought the piece – to exhibit it at his County Hall gallery, a weird trove, the visual arts equivalent of a freak show.

For Chapman, the very essence of Hell’s avatar – like that of its predecessor – is the inevitability of human history. Jake took me on a tour of Fucking Hell pointing out all the zygotic mutants on Dr Moron’s island, the new characters of Stephen Hawking and Ann Frank, then incorporation of pigs, and the Hitler painting an execrable watercolour – all details that have been seized on in the media’s diagnosis of the brothers’ psychopathology; even Sewell, who is an enthusiast of the work, describing it as the ‘first great work of the new millennium’, nonetheless worries for their sanity.

In my experience there’s nothing debatable about the brothers’ sanity at all – and Fucking Hell confirms this. There were two details that Jake was keenest for me to pick out from its carnival of discorporation. First there was a Nazi on a bicycle treadmill, the wheel of which disappeared into factory-cum-charnel house: ‘It’s him,’ he told me, ‘he’s powering the whole thing – the entire production line. And look – he’s listening to headphones.’ The second detail was a single stray tyre, rolling away from the feet of the plein air-composing Fuhrer. ‘This is the worst thing in Fucking Hell by far. The point is,’ Jake said ‘that it’s all happening in that moment. All taking place in the time it takes this tyre to roll off, wobble and then fall over. The magnitude of the atrocity occupies the blink of an eye – that for me is the essence of the piece.’

It’s a sense of their work as an elaboration upon the fact of art itself as a counterfactual, that emerged most strongly, for me, as we surveyed Fucking Hell, then moved into the room of Chapmanised Hitlers, and Jake turned to discussing their adaptations of Goya’s Disasters of War. ‘Our work on these was far more serious than the stuff we did to Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress – which is essentially provincial and satiric. The pictures themselves had become a kind of World Heritage Site, fenced round with heavily policed moral claims – like those of Robert Hughes. But if you look at the works themselves, it’s clear that it is upon the wounds and the atrocities that the artist’s eye has most conspicuously lingered – they’re a little too lovingly and heavily cross-hatched.’

In defiance of this critical moral sanitising, the Chapmans began buying up the prints, adapting them, selling them, then using the proceeds to buy more: ‘At one point we conceived of the idea of converting all the Goyas in the world, we even thought of changing our name to “Goya” by deed-poll.’ It’s an audacious notion, but a similar project in terms of Hitler’s oeuvre seems more problematic – Jake conceded that it was difficult to establish the provenance even of the watercolours they had used in this exhibition. ‘Still, we’ve achieved our objective, which is to undercut the monism of art and life. The Director of the Holocaust Museum in New York said he couldn’t think of a more legitimate form of vandalism.’

It was odd to hear Jake offer this – which might’ve been construed as a desire for his work to have its own moral claims policed; on the whole he gives the impression that he couldn’t care less about the opprobrium that the work has attracted. But then there was the press conference for the show that ‘Got a bit out of hand, the guy from Newsnight kept on asking us whether we’d been keen on model soldiers when we were kids, and wouldn’t let it lie until he got an answer. It pissed me off, I mean, if it was OK for him to ask the question, it was equally OK for me not to reply.’ I thought this betrayed – a little – the pathological need that some farceurs have to be taken seriously, and what could be further from the House of Chapman, with its delirious participation in, and distortion of popular culture?

Wither now the Chapmans? Jake is about to publish his first novel, The Marriage of Reason & Squalor, a bizarre and ecstatically unreadable parody of a Romantic novel, but he played down the idea that this was his equivalent of a solo album, referring only to his brother’s own art therapy, or staring at extreme images on the internet for hour upon hour, then composing ‘electro 1980s slasher music’ to go with them.

My personal hunch is that the brothers will simply keep on keeping on – and why shouldn’t they? The basic contention of their work – that art, unlike life, can be continuously altered – is a richly creative seam to be mining. And it’s all their very own.