Artist interview

“Our hunger for Goya has not waned but our horizon has widened”: Interview with Jake Chapman

On the eve of the Chapmans’ first commercial show in three years, Jake Chapman talks to The Art Newspaper

After their one-time employers Gilbert & George, Jake and Dinos Chapman are probably the art world’s best-known double act. They started working together in 1992, and from their earliest miniature model re-makes of Goya’s Disasters of war, their life-sized genitally misplaced mannequins, their parodies of African and Oceanic sculpture and the epic Hell, their scaled-down scenes of Armageddon that went up in flames in the MOMART fire last year, the work of this energetic duo has made a point of trying to be shocking. They are also keen and proficient print makers, and their new show at White Cube (opening 18 October, their first since 2002), is devoted to this medium.

The Art Newspaper: Will there be old and new work in the White Cube show?

Jake Chapman: It is called Etchasketchathon and there are some new works and lots of old ones, about 270 prints in all. From the gallery’s point of view, it is a survey. We are showing some big Chapman family collection etchings, Exquisite Corpse, and all of those sets, but new works too.

TAN: Does the new work refer to Goya?

JC: There are references; poor old Goya has been dragged screaming and kicking wherever we go. In all our work there is a sense in which old work is regurgitated and mashed and mutated back into the newest progeny, but we are being a bit evasive on this question because we have made a departure from Disasters of War.

TAN: To Goya’s Los Caprichos series perhaps?

JC: We’re not going to say. We are a sort of aesthetic PacMan machine; our hunger for Goya has not waned, but our horizon has widened.

TAN: Over the years you have worked your way through the whole gamut of artistic modus operandi but you return again and again to etchings—why ?

JC: We see etching as being fantastically paradoxical. Etching was originally used as a means of mechanical reproduction, but now it is considered a very antiquated technique that is seen to have human expressive tonalities to it. We think we can infect that sense of humanism with some very anti-humanist tendencies.

If we were to explain our activities to an alien who would then try and generate the work of art that we had described, it would probably turn out some very hard-edged minimal art. But we find it much more interesting to intervene in the soft tissue of humanism, to produce works that still exist inside those mechanisms, rather than producing didactic opposites.

TAN: It seems to be important that you immerse yourselves in the physical production of your work?

JC: What we do is based upon the intensity of our engagement and of our interest, but we do also employ the skills of other people. We are not work-shy; being an artist is not about becoming an aristocratic dilettante who is squeamish about the idea of work.

TAN: But there is work and then there are insanely intense amounts of work.

JC: Yes—we are interested in intensification and this can occur in all sorts of different ways. I would say that Robert Ryman is involved in the same kind of intensification as we are. We have certain strategies to prevent the art world seeing our work as a manifest expression of some internal ego: there are two of us, so there is not just one ego, and we change our medium and content so that there is no sense in which one can observe a coherent trajectory. We try and produce all sorts of non-linear intents and all sorts of acts of self-disruption, and to adopt and accommodate and take hostage different acts, different methods and techniques.

TAN: To wrongfoot any single or simple interpretations?

JC: And also to disentangle ourselves from the process of making the work. We have gravitated towards the idea of technique as just a mechanism to demonstrate that there are no limits to what is aesthetically possible. If the work itself, the content, is something to do with limits and tolerances and testing tolerances and testing limits and defining points of insane intensification, then the act itself must also be intense.

TAN: In one interview you said that you want to achieve a sense of “ moral panic” in the viewer—what does that mean?

JC: It alludes to laughter, a term which has been consistently overlooked because it is problematic. We have attempted to pursue the idea that, in the face of something which demands a kind of seriousness on the part of the viewer, an inability to calculate its meaning offers a kind of convulsive response rather than some sort of moral feeling.

TAN: Where you are not sure whether to laugh or scream?

JC: Well, yes. The work is hilariously fatalistic; it is really a happy pessimism, the kind of laughter that could kill you, but you would die laughing.

TAN: But aren’t the images of rape, mutilation, genital misplacement, fellating blow-up dolls cast in bronze, the drawings onto Goya, the African sculptures fused with fast food also intended to test the limits of acceptability in art?

JC: What amazes us is that there is such hypocrisy over the kind of things that one can talk about and laugh about in general human interaction—filth, sick jokes—but when, as an artist, you indulge those ideas in a work of art, suddenly you are caught in this tidal reversal where people can no longer tolerate such things. I think people feel socially under pressure to make intelligent sounds in front of a work of art.

We have yet to find anybody who is shocked by our work; outrage only seems to exist in the minds of clumsy critics and clumsy journalists attempting to contrive a spectacularlised meaning for the work. If our work is just the sum total of what we believe could be shocking then that would be pretty impoverished. There is a complete conflict between the seriousness with which we regard our antics and the ability of the critical framework to make a realistic representation between what we do as artists and what we say as people. We really believe that the critical apparatus surrounding art is imbecilic.

TAN: So how do you want your work to be regarded?

JC: We are not really bothered how people respond to it. We have a healthy disrespect for the dissemination of our work because we do not want to be burgeoning culturally: we do not want it to be a deciding feature in people’s lives. We do not think that people should be compelled to look at art, and are fearful of how art has become synonymous with a form of social membership and how its potential for critical action is being eroded.

TAN: So once a work goes out into the world that is where your involvement ends?

JC: I think that is evidenced by our response to Hell.

TAN: Are you remaking it?

JC: Yes.

TAN: Will it be an exact replica of the original?

JC: No, it will be much worse, much nastier! Hell was made on this ridiculous scale in order to absorb all the traits of pathos and bourgeois melancholia about horror, and when it was turned to ashes the very people who had problems with it were suddenly the ones who started saying that it was a masterpiece. So it was redeemed by flames; it became this object of pathos. We are obliged to remake it in order to dispel these sentimental notions.

TAN: Are you buying the Chapman Family Collection back from Charles Saatchi?

JC: No, it is in the world. If we did, we would do something mean to it. That would be the only reason.


Dinos Chapman:

Born: London, 1962

Jake Chapman:

Born: Cheltenham, 1966

Education: Royal College of Art (MA), 1990

Next show: White Cube, 18 October-3 December

Solo shows include: 2005 “Explaining Christians to dinosaurs”, Kunsthaus Bregenz 2003 Jake & Dinos Chapman, The Saatchi Gallery, London 2002 Works from the Chapman Family Collection, White Cube, London 1999 Disasters of war, White Cube, London 1997 Six feet under, Gagosian Gallery, New York 1996 Chapmanworld, Institute of Contemporary Art, London and Grazer Kunstverein, Graz