The Chapman brothers’ spoof tribal fetishes mock McDonald’s and modernism to hilarious effect, says Waldemar Januszczak
I tried to imagine what this might be as I blund- ered towards the dodgy-sounding Chapman show through the labyrinth of roadworks that has replaced the city in the Old Street area of east London. With no success. I knew the Chapmans were violently sarky. I knew they were anti-everything. I knew that they were art’s equivalent of Robert De Niro, in that there was nothing they would not do to prepare for a role. These are the people who went back to school in early middle age and took GCSEs in order to comment upon the institutionalisation of creativity. (Jake got a B in art, and so did Dinos.) These guys go all the way. So where were they going with this utterly unfeasible enthusiasm for ethnography? Reader, it’s years since I have savoured a surprise in an art gallery as hilariously visceral as the one that awaits visitors to the Chapman Family Collection. If I could think of a way of reviewing the show without telling you what’s in it, I would, but I can’t. In the vestibule outside, a display case filled with rusty fetishes softens you up. At first, second and even third sight, the battered little figurines with nails bashed into them seem passably authentic; exactly the kind of used tribal trinkets you haggle over the price of at a market in Dhaka. Some angry old witch doctor must once have hammered spikes into them in order to hex and hurt their subjects. So what are those subjects? You look closer. An Eskimo skier. A saxophone player. A blob with legs. Haven’t I seen these before somewhere? Aren’t these the free gifts you sometimes find inside a take-away McDonald’s Happy Meal? All this plants the seed of suspicion in your mind, excellently. But it does not, cannot, alert you fully to the sight that greets you in the main show. Striding into the darkness, you find yourself in what seems to be a busy display in an ethnography museum. The mass of spotlit tribal objects arranged on plinths before you feel and look exactly as they would at, say, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Masks, full-length totems, wedding stools, fertility figures — there are more than 30 hefty objects in the Chapman Family Collection. In tone, size, texture, variety and patina, they seem, at first, utterly convincing. Indeed, the process of discovering how and why they are not authentic is the marvellous journey the Chapmans send you on.
The first thing to be admired is the exceptional lengths to which these two crazed copyists are prepared to go in their mimicry. The Chapmans made all this, and to do that as convincingly as they have demands an outrageous amount of skilled commitment and time. Apparently, the brothers spent two years in secret, learning to become woodcarvers. Why? As I wandered among the spotlit plinths, enjoying the tribal fakes in detail, I found myself guffawing with ever-increasing enthusiasm as the show’s true meaning, the ultimate reason for this whole grand deception, made itself clearer. See that ugly, blobby fetish on a pedestal, with a droopy mouth? It’s a cheeseburger. Oh, yeah. See that raving death fetish with the cascades of red hair, the scary one with the demented eyes? Doesn’t he look like a certain high-street clown you know, called Ronald? Oh, yeah. Basically, the entire show — every sculpture, every fetish, every grimacing mask and spotlit fragment of tribal furniture — is taking a pop at McDonald’s. See the outline of that Fang mask, the one that strikes you initially as so typically Gabonese? It’s those damned golden arches. Oh, yeah. And the magic face with the sticking-out bits on top? It’s a packet of fries.
The show does all this, I suggest, for a wider and nobler set of reasons than the simple pleasure of McDonald’s-bashing — fun though that undoubtedly is. We are also being asked to consider deeper issues of globalisation and cultural trespass, in which the creators of the African burger are merely the most obviously emblematic baddies. The Chapman brothers aren’t gooey enough or sentimental enough — or, indeed, nice enough — to disapprove of the opening of McDonald’s branches in Africa because famine victims must wander past them. Comfort-bringing isn’t their thing. The Chapmans are cultural aggressors as well. And in this show, they seek, surely, to accuse modern art of ruthless colonial theft.
Without the example of tribal sculpture of exactly this ilk, modernism as we know it would not have happened. Picasso and Matisse, fauvism and expressionism, Giacometti and Henry Moore, would not have developed the way they did. What the show is surely bemoaning is the fact that McDonald’s and modernism are both global brands that have gorged themselves on the anonymous African. We don’t know the names of the artists who made the original Bembo masks and Congo fetishes; we do know the brand names that have claimed them for themselves.
Personally, I don’t share this clunky Spartist suspicion of modernism’s agenda, or believe that Picasso and McDonald’s are in the same brand-building business. I’m delighted that Picasso discovered African art and invented cubism as a result. But the fiercely imaginative way in which the Chapmans have launched their assault, and the astonishing lengths they have gone to in order to mount it, demand admiration and respect. This is one of the signature shows for which the art of today will be remembered. Mark my words.
Douglas Gordon demands some respect, too. He has taken on the vast concrete graveyard of the Hayward Gallery and emerged with an honourable draw. The giant hollow has been turned into an atmospheric late-night ghost-train ride, filled with haunting film pieces and the ghostly echoes of their soundtracks. Gordon is obsessed with the idea of poss- ession. By the devil, that is, rather than by capitalist landlords. Piece after piece centres on a central confrontation of opposites — good and bad, God and the devil, black and white. The archetypal example features The Exorcist and The Song of Bernadette playing on a single screen, simultaneously. Sometimes God grabs the microphone, sometimes Beelzebub.
I’d like to believe that this obsession with demonic struggles owes its origin to much impactful exposure to William Blake and the Bible as a boy. But the flickering cinematic flavour of these proceedings convinces me that it has more to do with staying in too much, watching B-movies. The show is more X Files than Milton in the end. That’s its weakness.