Monday, May 21, 2007

Jake and Dinos Chapman at Tate Britain:

When Humans Walked the Earth

review written by Ashley Elderidge-Ford in London

I arrived at Tate Britain not realising that the exhibition I rather desperately had wanted to see had in fact already closed and moved on - in my disappointed state I trudged upstairs to see the two installations I knew remained to be seen - the first was Mark Wallinger's 'State Britain' and the second the Basil Beattie's painting exhibition. Wallinger's piece was mildly interesting, perhaps more from a voyeuristic angle than anything more. I had anticipated it being a little more political, a little more hard-hitting, but by recreating Brian Haw's picket, which is not too very hard hitting and more a quiet statement against the Iraq war, the recreated installation could be no more than this. I suppose it says a little more about Tate Britain permitting the placement of such a piece within its walls - but it's only a quiet nod more than a shouting tirade. Basil Beattie's small exhibition was wonderful and definitely worth the visit - I was only disappointed to find out later that I had missed a video documentary on him creating the series.


Retracing my steps and preparing to leave I noticed that Jake and Dinos Chapman have an exhibition installation on as well at Tate; 'When Humans Walked the Earth' 2007. I have always to some extent enjoyed their work (except for the Goya etchings series where they painted over original Goya etchings, which I find sacrilegious) and thought I would drop in to see what this exhibition was all about. The installation is related to their sculpture, 'Little Death Machine (Castrated)' of 1993 (in the Tate collection) whereby elements of the earlier piece are reproduced in bronze to create a series of impossible machines. These sculptures emulate biological and psychological states such as breathing, thinking, copulation and death. Stepping into the exhibition one sees ten works in the gallery space. Each piece is reminiscent of a blend between a work bench and a torture chamber - and upon closer inspection they are indeed a cast bronze blend between the two.

Jake and Dinos Chapman
When Humans Walked the Earth 2006
View of this exhibition at Tate Britain
Photo © Tate 2006

Piece number 1: 'Cripple critique! Get rid of meaning! Your mind is a nightmare that has been eating you now eat your mind machine.' Which is the title. A brain is connected to an electricity wire at its base. A hammer is halted - it does not move - yet it gives the impression of the endless movement of it having endlessly knocked the nail, which sits in a socket in the brain. The lack of movement, the halt in progress, is due to the brain's wire being unplugged, with the plug lying patiently at the base of the work table. Slapped in bronze at the other end of the table are soft slices of brain, the castrated tip of a penis and the lips of a female vagina all between innocuous looking milk bottles with what could be either candle wax or human excretion. Covering everything are groups of fat maggots.

A typically provocative title for the brothers is given to piece no. 9 (the second one sees upon entry) that in essence gives a two-fingered salute to art critics in a humourous and rather long-winded fashion. The base of a crate sits upon silently stationary wheels. Extending and stretching up from this is an erect plank evocative of an executionary cross but without the T-shaped addition. Further adding to this analogy is the crucified body of a de-feathered rooster whose head has been nailed to the wood. The bent and rather petrified legs are attached to a wheel which, when peddled, would power a hammer that in turn knocks the nail further still into the rooster's eye. Sadistic really.


Jake and Dinos Chapman
When Humans Walked the Earth 2006
View of this exhibition at Tate Britain
Photos © Tate 2006

'Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts machine' is a piece in two parts. On the floor, to the left hand side of the piece, is placed a see-saw on each side of which is placed a brain. Above the see-saw is suspended a water gallon bottle, held by a sturdy and taut rope. Following the rope into the main heart of the piece one can see that the rope runs between wheels right across the work table, linking the various mechanistic objects together. There are two areas of danger here. Beneath one length of the rope is a brain with a candle atop, were the flame lit, the rope would slowly burn fibre by fibre until it would snap and from above would come crashing down a rather nasty looking nail-filled plank of wood. The snapped rope would also cause the water gallon bottle to fall, crushing another of the brains; the one on the see-saw. This would catapult the other brain - but to what grisly end I am unsure, but the sharp and pointed thorn-like nail menacingly above it is one scenario. Indeed, in this piece, the machine would not be hurt but rather the vulnerable and delicate flesh of the brains. And it would, of course, hurt very much.

Each of the pieces are interesting, despite them all sounding ghoulish. One family walked in, the two young boys clearly delighted at the gore and torture contraptions on display. I think the parents soon realised that these works were not really fun-filled family viewing on a tame Sunday afternoon and tried their best to hurry the children out of the room. I caught the tail end of the mother's sentence, "...it's just sick." I debated turning around to speak with her about the nature of contemporary art but thought otherwise. These pieces are strangely not sick nor depraved nor even more surprisingly, ugly. They are curious and humourous and really rather well thought through - in terms of the mechanics that link every aspect of each piece together. I would almost go so far as to call them playful. There are ten pieces and each deserves its own description and mention for this reasons but I shall limit myself to describe merely two others as there are many elements that are similar and it would be dull to continue reading such repetitions.




Jake and Dinos Chapman
When Humans Walked the Earth 2006
View of this exhibition at Tate Britain
Photos © Tate 2006


Piece No. 10 I almost missed until I glanced upwards as a last resort. 'To invent the ship is to invent the shipwreck, the train, the de-railment, and so on machine.' In the centre of the room hangs suspended the petrified featherless body of another rooster. Around it's neck is tied a thick rope. It's wings and feet hang limp. The piece ties the installation together really well as it creates height and draws one away from the pieces entirely at eye level to a piece somewhat more surprising for its placement at a height rather than its subject matter.

'I put the 'fun' back in funeral machine' perhaps reflects the battle between a man's brain communicating directly with his penis whilst his head is decapitated and uncommunicative with the rest of his body (which is nowhere in sight). Alternatively, it refers to that moment when a man (and let's face it, this could apply to a woman also) is faced with either thinking with his/her head or his/her sex. The skinless head with eyes popping out of their sockets on spring stilts sits on the raised end of a see-saw (there are certain objects that are repeated throughout the exhibition on almost every piece - from the maggots to the roosters, the hammers, nails, milk bottles and the brains). Weighing the see-saw down on the other end is a strange contraption that is half machine (unplugged, of course), part hammer and definitively an erect penis pointing in the direction of the head, like it is giving the head the middle finger. It looks as though the penis has a mind of its own, powered as it would normally be by it's own energy source; the head seems incapable of operation without either body or mechanics. In terms of its relation to the title - your guess is as good as mine.




Jake and Dinos Chapman
When Humans Walked the Earth 2006
View of this exhibition at Tate Britain
Photos © Tate 2006

The Chapman Brothers have drawn on the mechanistic theories of the human mind referencing Freud, Dada and the Surrealists. They transform every day objects into something unconventional and challenging. As I write this last sentence I find it bores me - how many artists do this? So many! It's not new, it's not surprising. Yes, the assemblage of such repetitious objects on each of the ten pieces 'challenge' the view as we attempt to draw from unforgiving titles and humourous amalgamations. Yes, I enjoyed investigating the different pieces and seeing the exhibition. But do I find the concept behind the exhibition interesting? No, not so very much. Even drawing on 'distinctions between man and machine and the assumptions about historical progress' is not terribly new in the slightest - this has been done ad nauseum since the Dadaists and even as far back as the German Expressionists with the work of Grosz. I do find that some of the Chapman Brothers' work is interesting and provocative but, in all fairness, the majority of it is simple rehash with a lot of gore. Gore does not make good art, despite the Chapmans' continued return to, and use of it and the choice of the Tate and other large and highly respected institutions to continue to perpetuate such uninspiring and mediocre themes and concepts, reflects again, more so on them than anything else.

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