By Kat Hayes
Jake and Dinos Chapman: Come and See
November 29 – February 9 2014
Serpentine Sackler Gallery
It didn’t begin well– a small mishap led us to be locked inside Kensington gardens with only the terrifying realisation that neither I, or my esteemed companion knew how to forage for sustenance (squirrel pie anyone?). It was also looking increasingly unlikely that we had any hope of reaching the Serpentine unscewered by railings.
Although an untimely and painful demise would have been wholly in keeping with a Chapman brothers, our saviour was a (tight) gap in the fence, and we limped on to the gallery’s newest outpost; the Serpentine Sackler.
Housed in a fully restored and refurbished former Napoleonic era gunpowder store, the Sackler boats a flashy new wing by world-famous architect (and long serving trustee), Zaha Hadid.
The extension houses a swish restaurant and events space and its sweeping form is impressive, with its undulating white roof and floor to ceiling glazing.
Unfortunately for the Sackler, Hadid can be something of a Marmite architect and the new extension provoked its fair share of mixed reactions. And it is true, this tent-like structure does seem to jostle for attention next to the rustic charms of the gallery– subtle it is not.
By way of compensation, the refurbishment of the gallery on the other hand, is accomplished, subtle and delicate. It’s a space of two halves (oh dear..) and whatever you think of the wing, it is positive to see that the Serpentine have expanded. I have seen so many (unusually for London, free) quality shows here that its extension can only be a good thing.
The Chapmans are an appropriate opener for the new gallery, with their key themes being life and death, war and oppression. The war reference is obvious, but the oppression? Well, this former armory has a darker side- it was also intended to crush the riots and uprisings of a disgruntled local populace.
Come See is not a radical departure for the Chapmans- it’s more of an oeuvre than a brand new collection and there are a lot of familiar pieces on show. Well-worn character Ronald Macdonald pops up everywhere as the quintessential bogeyman of consumerism and commodification, getting crucified, driving a plane in a large wall mounted tapestry and generally being utterly obnoxious.
Some of their most thrillingly unbridled works, the hellish dioramas are here too. With thousands of minuscule nazi soldiers gleefully slaughtering and beheading ad infinitum, whilst an audience of skeletons, dinosaurs and malevolent clowns looking on. There are tank after tank of the Chapmans’ min montages of hell.
It’s a riot of colours, shapes, brutality and horror, but these intricate models are counterbalanced by the sheer craftsmanship of the scenes, and the more you look at them, the more you see. For anyone who hasn’t observed these dioramas in the flesh (excuse the pun), they work well in the Sackler, the plain tanks echoing the architecture and allowing you the chance to walk around each one and take in the minuscule horror from all angles.
The diorama assault on the senses are somewhat tempered by the (grossly disfigured) 2008 portraits of ‘One day nobody will love you’. After all the intricate mini-horror, it disturbs me to admit that these were a bit of light relief, with less to concentrate on.
It is perhaps no accident that the Chapmans’ newer work, the bizarre, glistening contraptions, or instruments of death were stationed near these portraits.
These sculptures are grotesque mechanisms that mimic human functions. Daubed in sickly coloured shiny glaze- they are the colour of life and death, decay and bodily fluids and they’re are no less stomach churning than most of the Chapmans’ repertoire. But, on the other hand they are quieter and less chaotic than most– less of an assault on the senses, more an assault on taste.
Much of the exhibition continues in much of the same vein, akin to the muted rage of teenager. The screeches of a quasi-autobiographical film being shown in a central gallery, adds an appropriate soundtrack to the show.
More of the Chapmans’ newer work, including the appropriately titled ‘Fucking with nature’– a taxidermic orgy of Fox, hare, rabbit and rat, fails to match the frenzied intensity of their models, or their scrawled doodles, notes and (often intentionally poor taste) drawings stationed by the front entrance. There are also sober and exquisitely beautiful studies of decaying bodies mounted on the gallery walls.
Even the Ku Klux Klan cast as absurd fascist hippies, complete with Birkenstocks, smiley logos and rainbow socks that litter the gallery add to the darkly comic thread that runs through all of the Chapmans’ work. Although they are less intense and challenging that perhaps they should be– often appearing more shocked at the offerings than hardened exhibition goers.
This easing off of intensity is not necessarily a criticism, especially if you are of the opinion that the Chapmans are seeking to turn a mirror on ourselves in a ‘look at the state of us’– rather than a call to arms. You could even see it as an exercise indicating just how desensitised we are– especially when even the worst acts of torture echo in contemporary horror films. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for the future of mankind.
Jake and Dinos Chapman look at the very worst parts of human nature, brutality, nihilism, a rampant appetite for death and destruction and put it on show. Laughing at the absurdity of it all and poking fun at its audience– and this really shows in such a large collection of their work.
And it is fun- despite the gore, the death and the brutality, it’s all a bit of a laugh. Which is perhaps the point they are trying to make.
The Chapman brothers’ work is a jarring mix of fervent dedication and wanton apathy; at once frothing-at-the-mouth-realpolitik and inert, detached a-political observation. The point of it all is that you can make of it what you will. The artists remain resolutely on the fence and offer us no political comment of their own.
If you see it like that, then it’s just like all the best horror films– with an intentionally ambiguous ending.