Dark visions from the final book of the New Testament have inspired countless artists over the centuries. Among them is Soviet Russian director Elem Klimov, who used “come and see” as the title of his 1985 war drama/psychological thriller, and British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, who have also borrowed the phrase for the title of their current exhibition at DHC/ART in Montreal—their first major North American solo show.
In his 1987 New York Times review of Klimov’s film, Walter Goodman wrote, “scene for scene, Mr. Klimov proves a master of a sort of unreal realism that seeks to get at events terrible beyond comprehension.” This sentence could also describe the work of the Chapmans, and other film references beyond Klimov that proliferate throughout the “Come and See” exhibition.
Kino Klub (2013) is an installation that brings together excerpts from the Chapmans’ own short films. It’s impossible to make a film outside of the narrative of film history, and Jake and Dinos are well aware of the significance of dialogue in their practice—whether that be dialogue with art of the past, or dialogue with each other. In an April 2 artist’s talk at DHC/ART, Jake Chapman called the brothers’ practice “a long conversation” and “a discursive activity before it’s a reflective activity.” It’s also intensely well-crafted: they throw themselves physically into the work and physically exhaust both themselves and the viewer. They question the role and identity of the artist, as well as the myth of the genius working alone in the studio.
A work viewers encounter on the first floor of the exhibition is Kontamination examination of the significunt material related to human eXistenZ on earth (2009). It’s a vitrine with a laboratory of sorts inside; essentially, their studio in a box. The titular reference to a David Cronenberg film is meaningful, as the viewing of art can lead us to question the very nature of the real, the virtual, and the shifting ground we walk upon—themes Cronenberg often takes to heart in his work.
The relentlessness of the Chapmans’ practice, the intense production of the work, and its excess to the point of overkill are often mentioned by those writing about their art—but even more important, and easy to forget, are its slippages. At the artist’s talk, Jake called such slippages the “glitch in the matrix”—a phrase that comes from yet another film, The Matrix, which referred to such phenomena as a source of déja vu.
One instance of slippage in the Chapmans’ oeuvre exists in the catalogue for “Come and See,” co-published by London’s Serpentine, which originated the show. In that text, Jake presents us with Professor Gregory Fourier and his fascination and passion for Chlamydia Love, a character whose reality is one we come to question: “And yet, with each solid footstep planted up the ramp in his direction, the sublime ‘otherness’ so characteristic of Chlamydia Love’s esoteric televisual form begins crossfading before Fourier’s very own eyes.”
Indeed, a sense of crossfading is what makes the work of the Chapmans so rewarding overall. You can give an artwork that extra push over the cliff—”take it to eleven,” to point to a film I didn’t see referenced in the exhibition (This is Spinal Tap)—but to do so doesn’t always mean losing a sense of subtlety. The Chapmans certainly know how to push it, go big and shock. But they also know when to rein it in, respect the act of viewing, and offer the opportunity for visitors to inspect and discover.
For instance, these artists often employ a concept of the low. Take the Chapmans’ Shitrospective (2009), in which they poke fun at the grand artist survey with what is essentially a room-sized maquette of their entire oeuvre made out of shoddy, impoverished materials such as cardboard and toilet-paper rolls. Yet this use of the low isn’t devoid of confidence. Another example is their Little Death Machine (Castrated, Ossified) (2006). It takes self-assurance to skilfully render studio objects and detritus in bronze and then paint them to look like crap.
And yes, spotting the “glitch in the matrix,” as the Chapmans put it, is the true reward of this exhibition. For instance, on a more obvious level, there are the rainbow socks and Birkenstocks on the feet of the Klansmen sculptures placed throughout the exhibition. But a glitch can be subtler, such as in the use of materials that are not what they seem. Carved wood from works in CHAPMAN FAMILY COLLECTION (2002) is actually cast-and-painted bronze. These are artists who, for all their bravado, came to recognize that perhaps the most subversive gesture one can apply to a Hitler landscape painting is not to add Nazi zombie storm troopers, but a rainbow.
Jake and Dinos are tricksters. To put it in more contemporary artspeak, they are Nicolas Bourriaud’s semionauts, engaging as much with time as material, with a “vision of history as a spiral, which advances while turning back upon itself.” Engaging with art history is easy, but it takes confidence to see the contemporary—the now—as part of the conversation.
For all its shock and awe, the Chapmans’ work is funny, and it creates engagement through employment of the carnivalesque. As political theorist Andrew Robinson writes, “Carnivalesque images often use an approach [Russian theorist Mikhail] Bakhtin terms ‘grotesque realism,’ drawing on ‘the idea of the grotesque.’” This style transgresses the boundaries between bodily life and the field of art. It also, writes Robinson, “celebrates incompleteness, transgression and the disruption of expectations.”
So the fact that it takes thousands of studio hours to render one of the Chapmans’ intricate figurine-filled dioramas isn’t really what’s significant here. What is significant is that the scariest figures within one of these dioramas, The Sum of All Evil (2012–13), are not skeletons, but Ronald McDonalds.
Many of the Chapmans’ interventions with pre-existing artwork—such as their famous painting-over of a set of Goya’s Disasters of War prints in 2003—verge on graffiti. We’ve seen some of these strategies in artmaking before, with Jean Dubuffet tackling the horrors of war and the Holocaust in paintings such as 1945’s Wall with Inscriptions, works that seemed embedded with a prescience of the graffiti-tagging to come. Such methods are also apparent in Manuel Ocampo’s 1992 painting Untitled (Burnt Out Europe), with its appropriation of the swastika.
But in yet another unexpected turn during their artist talk, when the Chapmans were asked by Canadian painter Joe Becker what other artist they would want to, in his words, “tackle,” Dinos replied, “We wanted to get the Rauschenberg-erased deKooning and redraw it.”
DHC/ART director Phoebe Greenberg and curator Cheryl Sim travelled to Hong Kong and Seoul, among other places, in development of this exhibition. We should thank them for bringing the Chapman brothers’ rich studio dialogues to Canada.