The Chapman brothers realize that they have to cultivate their uncouth image. At the opening of their exhibition at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover, Dino appeared before the collected press and the first thing he did was to stick out his tongue. And Jake upped the ante with the remark: "I've to say, we are very hung over, so if you're charitable with your questions, we appreciate it." It was an offer that shouldn't be refused. Big men, with shaved heads and tight-fitting black jackets, the Chapmans recall figures from the mafia series The Sopranos. The unabated success with which the British brothers polarize audiences and critics is astounding. And they do so although they have long been ennobled by the art business. Works by the Chapmans are hanging in the MoMA and the Tate, and they are represented in collections such as the Deutsche Bank Collection. In 2003, they were nominated for the Turner Prize. Their fans include collectors such as the Tory Charles Saatchi and the ultra Catholic princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis.
The pillars of their work are shock effects and corny jokes, and their most important aesthetic strategy is to simply lower the boom. They made a name for themselves with first-rate fiberglass and resin sculptures of naked children wearing Nike tennis shoes who are joined together in the most improbable places and from whose bodies genitals jut out in even more improbable places. These sculptures bear titles such as Fuck Face (1994) and Two-faced Cunt (1995). Other works depict decomposing skeletons covered with flies, worms, and snakes, inspired by Goya's drawing cycle Los desastres de la Guerra (1810-1820). That the Chapman's additionally auctioned off two volumes from 1937 with original editions of these etchings and adorned them with Mickey Mouse faces, insect antennae, and swastikas, caused an outrage. The list of affronts, obscenities, and cynicisms in the Chapmans' extensive work goes on and on.
But as implausible as it may sound, the two artists are not interested in provocation. They're much too mellow for that. They are well aware of the banality in contemporary art criticism that provocation isn't really possible any more in the post-postmodern age. Works of theirs were included in the 1997 exhibition Sensation, in which the transgressive celebrated a final hurrah before losing its shock value once and for all in the face of violent media images from Sarajevo, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Abu Ghraib. When you hear Jake and Dinos Chapman talk, it becomes apparent that they actually make fun of the provocative value of their work. Recently, Jake published his first novel with his own storybook-like illustrations, which were also purchased for the Deutsche Bank Collection. Very quaint. But, as might be expected, the book is an obscene assassination of the classical romance novel, is set on a tropical island, and tells of a fight between two men over the heroine Chlamydia - who has the same name as a sexually transmitted disease. The pleasure that the Chapmans take in regression has almost adolescent characteristics. With the title of their current show, they poke fun at the pathos of memento mori. Thoughts about one's own mortality turn into thoughts about one's own idiocy: "Moronika" is a neologism based on the word "moron." Given the trendiness of political correctness, this might be viewed a criticism of the present age, if it weren't for remarks made by the two brothers, who as self-professed "old punks" eschew any political aims. "We just wanted to play with degeneracy, with idiocy," explains Jake.
Indeed, in Memento Moronika they present an astoundingly simple mixture of George Orwell's Animal Farm and a self-concocted Jurassic Park. The installation, which was created between 2004 and 2005, is titled Hell Sixty-Five Million Years BC and fills an entire hall like an infantile natural history cabinet. On platforms, mini-dinosaurs made of rolls of toilet paper, cardboard, and newspaper embody the old cycle of eating and being eaten. On exhibit in the adjacent room is a host of similarly amusing cardboard animals entitled Two Legs Bad, Four Legs Good - in keeping with the wisdom that human beings are the world's most dangerous predator. Naturally, the Stone Age version of hell refers to the Chapmans' opus magnum destroyed in a fire in 2004. Their display case installation Hell (1996-2000) consisted of miniature landscapes from concentration camps and mass graves in which thousands of hand-painted tin figures in Nazi uniforms enacted the entire catalogue of human cruelties: mutilation, torture, rape, genocide. The display cases were arranged in the form of a swastika. Due to the apparent references to the holocaust, the work was generally viewed as a comment on the acts of egregious cruelty performed in the Second World War. Affected viewers walked around the cases silently and suffered with the tin figures, although the latter were generally poorly made representations. Most viewers ignored the fact that the horror tableau included figures of astronauts and mutants with three heads and ten legs.
Whether Dino, a child mutant, or a concentration camp inmate - with the Chapmans the body is at once very real and horrifyingly artificial, an exemplary placeholder on which the catastrophes of civilization are played through, all the way to the abysses of our purportedly enlightened society. Humanism, the brothers illustrate in the sense of the French philosopher George Bataille (whom they revere), is deceptive. Just how deceptive it is becomes evident the moment boundaries are crossed, in the conscious violation of moral commandments. "But we are not only the possible victims of the executioners, the executioners are people like us," Bataille writes in his essay Reflections on the Executioner and the Victim in which he thematizes the horrors of Auschwitz. The only possibility to transcend this "unimaginable" violence is to make it imaginable - to simulate the real possibility, to overstep a further boundary, to admit that everyone is capable of tormenting others and thus carrying human reason to its grave.
And it is precisely here that opinions differ about the Chapman brothers. While some critics see them as being angry, moral authorities, the Independent journalist Johann Hari views their work as "a kind of punk art that spits in your face." Their professed objective, says Hari, is the same aim that priests and fascists have had for 300 years, namely to act against the Enlightenment: "They vandalise and ridicule the fruits of reason - and what do they offer in its place? So there are only two options left in assessing the faeces-flinging provocations of the Chapmans. You can dismiss them as a pair of unserious middle-aged millionaires who grew up in Cheltenham and now pose as rebels from the badlands of Tate Britain. Or you can assume they mean what they say. So which is it, boys - are you clowns, or monsters?"
But this question doesn't even come up for the Chapmans, because they fill both roles with the same élan. In the entrance hall of the Kestnergesellschaft visitors are welcomed by the banners of the Chapmans' installation California Über-alles (2003), which sport the design of the Nazi flag. The swastika is replaced by a smiley face. The motif stems from the cover of an album by the punk band Dead Kennedys released in 1979. So the answer to the question as to their motives for this citation is ironic. The banners enjoyed particular popularity with German curators, Jake remarks. And Dinos adds: "It's the kind of banner that everybody wants to have outside their house. If you drive by fast, you might mistake it for the original." The Chapmans like to interrupt one another and take the other's thought further. Anecdotes about how the younger Jake broke Dino's toy mix with reflections on their artistic relationship. "The thing is," says Jake, "the idea of us two working together is about creating these chaotic, random dynamics. We are both rapidly attracted to each other's ideas. It's about creating chaos."
But there is a system behind this chaos. The artists set their sights on the automatic reflex of popular culture to symbolically divide the world into good and evil and consequently seal itself off from further considerations about moral action. Jake explains: "I think you can take a cross section of all the work we've made. And it's almost like our work is trying to explain the range of human emotion to someone who is autistic or to an alien. We are trying to explain human emotion to an alien. On the one hand we have the Nazi-banners with the smiley faces. The smiley faces represent happiness. Through to figures on a tree being hung with their testicles around the neck, which represent unhappiness. So in some ways our work is not about the elaborate attempts of to provoke these provocative, traumatic reactions on the part of the viewer. Our work is about taking things like swastikas, smiley faces or Goya's images of war, because we see them as symbols for an emotional world that is impoverished already. Because there is already an amount of erasure already going on in theses images. They fail. They present the idea with pathos, the idea of the grand narratives of human existence, yet at the same time they mean nothing."
Part of the Chapmans' strategy is to liberate viewers dulled by countless media images from thought traps. Dino's describes it thus: "We show what the people are used to and no longer think of in any meaningful way. When you see a smiley face on a bus, you think the bus will not knock anyone over, but if you see a swastika, you think it's evil. But a swastika itself isn't evil, it's just the badge of evil. You know, Goya, for instance is always trotted out when you want to make a show that is anti-war. Without actually thinking, hang on a minute, this is a guy who doesn't state which side he's on. The external moral framework of the work is not supported by the internality of the work, which is about the kind of libidinal proximity to violence. So in a way, certain forms of representations are closed off, so they can support some kind of institutionalized historical versions of what the world is like." People repeatedly claim that the success of the Chapmans says more about the cynicism of the art business than about themselves. But when you talk with them you start to doubt this appraisal. For the two brothers' debates about art continually return to one theme that scarcely plays a role in the art world any more - morality. "The question of morality," Jake Chapman says, "has almost become outmoded as an idea for discourses about art. Somehow, the discourse has aristocratized itself. It's as though it is a vulgar discourse. But in some way, the aversion to discuss morality is quite a protestant, a pious thing. That's why we are interested in the unconscious, the unconscious of history, of our civilization." Perhaps today one has to constantly reach new milestones of cynicism in order to show us the daily repression mechanisms we need to feel like innocent viewers in a world that is cruel to the core.