BY Carl Freedman in Reviews | 05 JUN 93
Featured in
Issue 11

Dinos & Jake Chapman

BY Carl Freedman in Reviews | 05 JUN 93

Gang rape, mutilated bodies hanging from trees, bloody corpses and firing squads. A lone woman clambers over a stockpile of dead bodies to fire a cannon. Here, right before your eyes: all the horrors of a 19th century war. No smart weapons, no strategic bombing with limited collateral damage. This is fully blown unsanitised barbarism, a mesmerising sea of suffering and pain. But there's no need to worry - it's just a rather beautiful piece of late 20th century simulacrum.

This is a work of art. Hundreds of miniature model figures are displayed on a white monumental plinth. Masterfully crafted with devotional attention to detail, these figures, each no more than 3" high, re-enact en masse all of the 83 scenes from Goya's series of etchings - The Disasters of War. Although the etchings have been recreated with an amazing veracity, the realism achieved is contradicted by a subversive compositional strategy which sabotages any attempt at a narrative reading. The models are placed close together, each of the separate scenes non-hierarchically juxtaposed, without meditation, creating an 'all-over' pattern with no central focus, the homogeneity compelling a simultaneous reading of the whole micro structured composition. The dissolution of narrative and representational function is further enhanced by the sublime banality of the model-making aesthetic. The whole project seems closer in alignment to the utter stupidity, perhaps insanity, of train-spotting than the pedagogic or informational usage expected of art.

In resisting referentiality, this work of art refuses point-blank to uphold the moral obligations concomitant with representations of war. It fully knows that any namby-pamby anti-war sentiment or expression of gushing humanism would fatally undermine its brutal and malevolent desire to haemorrhage meaning. So war, in an act of transcendental irony, is usurped from its position as the ultimate transgression and placed in the service of a radical negation.

Those looking to castigate the perpetrator of such a malicious evisceration can look no further than the work of art itself. The Chapman brothers are absent from the creative act. They have lost all connection with the recognisable form of the artist as a distinct, autonomous and creative individual engaged in meaningful actions. Slavishly subordinated in the production of a work of art that already exists, they emphasise their own alienation in an excess of over-production, expending themselves in six months of obsessively neurotic model-making.

The exhibition of this work has generated a type of interest and energy normally associated with the art work as circus side-show spectacle. Those gasps and sighs of admiration for Koons' 'Isn't it big' Puppy, or for Hirst's 'Isn't it big' shark piece have found their counterpart in the murmurs of appreciation burbling forth from the steady stream of spectators at the Victoria Miro Gallery - 'Gosh, they're so small'. But whereas the seductive capability of the spectacle of a large dog made of flowers, or a big shark in a big fish tank, is constrained by the artless ineffectuality of monumentalism, the transgressive aspects of The Disasters of War provides further enticement. Held in its dizzy gaze we oscillate between the boredom of the gallery and the palpable gratification of our insuppressible obscene desires.

However, 'Offensive Material' warnings were not required. Unlike Koons' crass bourgeois pornography, the obscenities in this work were well camouflaged. A veil of artisanal aesthetics together with the feebleness of miniature figures, backed by the quotation of an institutional artwork ensured approval. Perhaps Goya's sly cunning has also been reincarnated. Like his satirical portraits of a bankrupt and decadent aristocracy whose congenital ignorance failed to detect his parodical critique, so too this act of moral mockery passes unnoticed by exactly those whose values it aims to undermine.

Only a few works of art have the power of such lucid cultural crystallisation. Emanating from a disenchanted world, from the dark nihilistic side of postmodernity, it gives visual exposition to the radical transformations in the social and art systems. Elsewhere, the reaction to this eruption of infinite relativity and indeterminacy has been met with a battle cry for Moral Rearmament, but here we find only the celebratory abandonment of traditional values. For some, this inversion of Goya's indictment of war into a chilling indictment of reality is probably more terrifying than the horrific battle scenes on display. For others, who find in the intense spiralling of imploded meaning an exhilarating emancipation, this miniature war-scape will be seen as nothing but a pleasure.