Their bite is still sharp, as a retrospective at Tate Liverpool proves. Waldemar Januszczak feels the teeth of the Chapman brothers
Proof of their continuing pertinence is provided by a rude, violent, disgusting, arrogant, scabrous and, ultimately, brilliant retrospective at Tate Liverpool called Bad Art for Bad People. Retrospectives are not generally occasions on which to give society’s nipples a fierce tweak. Generally, they are easy-paced, nostalgic events that offer careful career summaries and peaceful replays of key moments. The Chapmans, however, don’t do summaries, and they don’t do peace. Their packed retrospective comes at you like a water cannon, and is too busy fighting the fight all over again, every inch of the way, to feel like a retrospective.
The first thing you see is a group of naked children with penises where their noses should be, and matching female genitalia for their mouths. Ah, yes, the extraordinary “biogenetic libidinal models” from 1995: a set of sculptures of such glaring offensiveness that I continue to wonder at the police’s heroic refusal to move in and nick them. One little girl with two heads joined at the cheek by a vaginal orifice is actually called Two-Faced C***. And there’s our old friend F*** Face, the cheeky little chappie with a male member growing out of the centre of his head who belongs to Charles Saatchi, and with whom the great collector seems somehow to identify.
It has been a decade since the Chapmans unleashed these sexually explicit kiddie shock troops on us, but time definitely hasn’t softened their impact. If anything, it has sharpened it.
Removed from their fab origins in the Cool Britannia moments of the early Blair years, the mutants strike you as genuinely fiendish works of art. Are they celebrations of perversion? Yes. But the perversion is ours, not the Chapmans’. Having shopped at Hamleys, I’ve witnessed at first hand the modern mating of kids and dark stuff.
If you examine the torsos of the bisexual teenies who form a macabre ring of joined-up bodies in the largest of the cod kid sculptures, Zygotic Acceleration, Biogenetic Desubliminated Libidinal Model (Enlarged x 1000), you will see that nobody in this siamese scrum has a bellybutton. Because nature didn’t come up with these monosexual monsters — we did. These are sculptures about genetic tampering and cloning. About test-tube babies and plastic surgery.
About IVF treatment and grannies giving birth to the lab-created offspring of their own daughters. About gender transplants and he becoming she. Here, and everywhere in the Chapmans’ busy oeuvre, modern humans are being accused of lunacy on a cosmic scale.
Not that much of this dark and ruthless art actually feels like finger-pointing. The Chapmans take the Borat approach to accusation: they disguise it as joining in. A particularly hilarious piece displays the drawings they produced in 1999 while attempting to pass their GCSE exams in art. The brothers themselves entered independently, and while Dinos drew detailed still lifes of the skeletons of siamese twins, Jake produced charming watercolour copies of the best-known works of Brit Art: Damien Hirst’s pickled shark, Marcus Harvey’s Myra Hindley and so on. Both of them got a B. Whatever else passing your GCSE in art brings you, it certainly isn’t a useful step in the career of a Brit Artist.
The Chapmans’ GCSE exam is one of the few works in the show I haven’t seen before. Most of their exhibitions get noticed because the Chapmans know precisely how to start a rumpus. Their reworkings of Goya’s Disasters of War, for instance, caused the nation to splutter mightily into its tea when it emerged that they had bought a set of Goya’s etchings at auction and painted over them. It seemed so sacrilegious at the time to add clowns’ noses, extra-large ears and comic masks to real Goyas. In this setup, however, it’s clear that the customised Goyas are part of a barrage of Chapman art about the ultimate modern unreality: war.
Sometimes, they will take a single image from Goya and make a huge, free-standing sculpture out of it, maggot-infested and gore-splattered. Elsewhere, they go the other way and miniaturise the obscenity in one of those remarkable glass cases they produce, in which tiny plastic soldiers scrambling across brilliantly precise model landscapes act out gigantic campaigns of death and squalor. The most ambitious of these insane vitrines, Hell, was lost in the Momart fire, but the brothers are working on a re-creation, to be unveiled in September.
In the meantime, there are plenty of smaller versions to recoil from. All Good Things Must Come to an End shows a mass grave into which thousands of corpses are being pushed by a hybrid army of Nazis and sci-fi monsters. In the next case along, a traffic jam of VW Beetles at a remote German crossroads forms the outline of a giant swastika. It’s a mock-the-Nazis moment. But is it actually about them? Or is it about the way you cannot turn on Five at 8pm on a weekday evening without encountering another programme about Hitler’s pyjamas, or whatever?
It isn’t only the Nazis who get to play the comic baddies in a Chapman production. The poor old McDonald’s chain, which has taken so much stick from them over the years for filling our children’s bodies with saturated fats and their minds with Ronald McDonald, is given a good kicking at regular intervals. A particularly poignant vitrine shows a lonely McDonald’s outlet, entirely free of people. It seems nobody eats any more at the ghost burger bar.
The show makes it clearer to me than it has ever been that the Chapmans, for all their feigned insouciance, are actually employing the mock-and-shock tactics used by Dada artists during the first world war to hold a mirror up to contemporary reality. Their message is, in a nutshell: if you think this is crazy, take a look at yourself.
Even at the absurdly fashionable Frieze Art Fair this year, they seized the chance to ridicule their own collectors by encouraging them to buy any old
rubbish the two of them were churning out in a specially constructed portrait studio. The results are on show again here: a roomful of trashy, childish, misshapen portraits, knocked off in minutes and providing unmistakable evidence of a collapse of values in a generation of modern collectors with more money than eyesight.
So, this hilarious yet deadly serious masterpiece of a retrospective does what all Chapman shows do and poos on the audience from a great height. We need pooing on for all manner of reasons, but one of them, perversely, is because we have fallen so madly in love with contemporary art that we no longer judge it by any reasonable scale of values. I would write more, but my feeding hand has been bitten off.