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Copyright and censorship in Chapmanworld: how far can they go?

Despite the dilemmas posed by their work, Jake and Dinos Chapman's first major exhibition in a public gallery is opening in London

“I’ll just say it was Jake’s idea”, commented Dinos Chapman as he pondered the issue of copyright, a potential problem which has come to haunt every contemporary artist in the light of the New York court judgement made against Jeff Koons.

Mr Koons had used a photographic image which he had not invented as the basis for his large polychrome wood sculpture, “String of Puppies” (1988). The Chapman brothers, whose exhibition of new sculptures entitled “Chapmanworld” is opening at London’s ICA (10 May-7 July), work with shop mannequins which are ordered from trade catalogues. The mannequins are lovingly mutilated and re-formed in their studio near the Whitechapel Art Gallery, but the threat of prosecution for the infringement of copyright can never be entirely dismissed. It is one of two problems raised by their art and confounding curators as their careers gather an irresistible momentum.

The second factor concerns the explicit sexuality of their work which extends the boundaries of taste already broached by Gilbert & George, with whom Dinos Chapman worked as an assistant, sponging colours over their monochrome photo-pieces for six years. The adorable blonde-bewigged pubescent mannequin coated in sphincters, her nose replaced by an erect phallus as if she were the embodiment of innocence metamorphosing into a sex-crazed Pinnocchio, is new territory for art.

In five or ten years, standards of decency may be ready to accommodate such imagery, but public morality would, at present, be offended by this aspect of their work, as Jake and Dinos Chapman concede and intend. Even private galleries have acted with caution, Ridinghouse Editions are being advised to screen the brothers’ video of a pair of soft-porn actresses engaging in sexual acts with a fibreglass severed head in a black wig only on request or after closing hours.

To date, public galleries have avoided the issue of offensiveness by censoring explicit sculpture in favour of slightly less confrontational material. For “Brilliant!”, for example, Richard Flood, concerned by the rigorous moral obligations imposed on an American museum, selected “Ubermensch” (1995), the astonishing spectacle of Professor Stephen Hawking atop a mountain peak in his wheelchair. This “Monarch of the Glen” observed by Caspar David Friedrich, which has been purchased by Charles Saatchi who will be showing the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman in a later edition of “Young British Artists”, may have been heroic and absurd but was not, in any sense, sexually provocative.

A more pressing test of the resolve of the public museum will come if the Chapman Brothers are nominated for the next Turner Prize. It is hard to imagine that their candidacy can be ignored, considering how much attention they have attracted during the last twelve months, and how much interest will be generated by the present exhibition. Privately, Tate Gallery curatorial staff have admitted that they would have great difficulty showing the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman without exercising censorship or running the risk of prosecution. By a fortunate coincidence, the ICA cunningly overcomes this potential and fascinating problem by being a private club which charges for daily membership rather than for admission.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Chapmanworld: how far can they go?'