The two hours of Jake Chapmans lecture at the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne in March 2004 were in many ways a homage to Modernism and the aesthetic of industry - albeit back-handed. The hierarchies of art history, the possibility of the poetic and the tradition of humanism all came under attack. The core issue circled around throughout the discussion was the degree to which art was simply a diversion for the middle-class: a market-responsive product or cathartic moment in which people could be and even pay for the privilege of being shocked.
The fractious, capacity audience that attended the Jake Chapman talk at the Capitol Theatre, Melbourne, a riot of art deco ornamentation, could have been a scene from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Indeed the two hours were in many ways a homage to Modernism and the aesthetic of industry - albeit back-handed. As Jake has remarked elsewhere on the subject of collaboration:
&however much one (or two) wish to stratify a tactical engagement with a deserving environment there will always be those unpredictable elements that exceed the project, things that cause the intended trajectory to swerve towards more interesting, (chaotic) attractors&
Jake's rambling fluency, while striving to leave the gravity of Modernity, metaphysics, hierarchical structures and 'libertarian humanism' kept swinging back towards the 'chaotic attractors' at an accelerated pace. His arguments, while refreshing, ultimately contradicted themselves, like black holes collapsing under their own mass. Such curved lines of flight, ultimately leading to circularity, seemed reflected in the continuous Powerpoint loop of work by the Chapmans playing in the background, the repetition with which Andrew MacKenzie anxiously posed his alarmingly similar questions and even the acoustic feedback that ebbed and flowed throughout the conversation. Yet I greatly enjoyed the talk, and commend PavModern for making it possible.
Perhaps the greatest choreographic success since this year's Superbowl, and a shining example of a point of rupture appropriate to Jake's desire to break away from machinic modalities originating in the Enlightenment, was when MacKenzie introduced his first question with: 'the work immediately appears amateur'. At which point the microphone malfunctioned. The astoundingly professional RMIT theatre was unable to resolve the faulty microphone for almost fifteen minutes. Jake's comment moments later, that he wished to avoid chronology, to be 'untimely' in the Nietzschean sense, seemed all the more appropriate.
With two fat, cigar-like mikes wielded with feeling, Chapman and MacKenzie finally settled back in what looked suspiciously like parts of an IKEA ideal-home (blue armchairs and a glass-topped coffee table, bearing four bottles of mineral water for Jake and Andrew's Melbourne Bitter longneck) to set about the bourgeoisie in the true dialogic tradition.
In fact the word 'bourgeois' became the leitmotif of their discussion; its frequent repetition a kind of heart-beat for the talk. In summary of which: Jake outlined an (Oedipal) attack on the 'bourgeois arena' which art 'decorated& with a sense of precariousness' – the so-called irreverence of the avant-garde, now feted and celebrated by the very institutions and hierarchies it aimed to critique. In addition, the hierarchies of art history, the possibility of the poetic and the tradition of humanism all came under attack.
MacKenzie's opening questions focused on technique. When asked about the use of 'craft' in their recent work (or as Jake put it 'ceramics-wood-carving-flower-arranging') Jake alleged a conscious attempt to resist the utopian aesthetic of photography or other such 'perfect' mechanistic media on the grounds of their being too idealistic or futuristic. Instead they preferred to adopt an arcane, anachronistic method, that also 'diffused' the idea of skill, in that if two amateurs such as the brothers were able to produce a series of dry-point etchings that were admired by Adrian Searl, could the ideal of the virtuoso artist/artisan still exist?
Jake later further qualified this choice of technique as a calculated attempt to avoid the humanist, romantic notion of the artist effortlessly bringing 'Art' into the world through the realisation of flashes of 'inspiration' as exemplified by Abstract Expressionist painting, a paradigm of modernity. MacKenzie's suggestion in response, that the incredible labour involved in producing a work like Hell (1998-200) implied a wish for achievement or 'progress', was denied by Jake. Such labour was for the Chapmans entirely mundane, 'a theoretically endless endeavour& the work is finished when the men in white gloves take it away', in a sense 'pure labour' that avoided spontaneity and the possibility of inspiration.
Yet, Jake acknowledged that his focus on the fruits of labour – in that their art aspires to 'pure commodity', the product of work - despite becoming 'amnesic' of its trajectory in the process, unavoidably demonstrated their intent to improve their 'product'; therefore being, in a sense, positivist. When challenged as to this paradox in his reasoning, he simply admitted: 'I seem to have fallen into a big hole'. He also seemed unconcerned that such laborious, skill-based practices, that hark back to the original notion of the 'fine' arts, are increasingly apparent in contemporary galleries – as in the cases of Ricky Swallow, Chris Offili, Tom Friedman or even Jeff Wall, to name a few; and that his binary description of technique, i.e., the industrial versus the haptic, acted as yet another example of an hierarchical structure that Jake was at pains to reject.
The core issue circled around throughout the discussion was the degree to which art was simply a diversion for the middle-class: a market-responsive product or cathartic moment in which people could be and even paid for the privilege of being shocked. One of the Chapmans' first gallerists was Victoria Miro, described by Jake as 'a very bourgeois lady', to whom he claimed the brothers' hybrid-mannequin works 'gave the opportunity and the ability to swear'. This self-aware 'naughtiness' of the Chapmans both popularised and simplified the work by appealing to a lowest common denominator – equivalent to good old toilet humour. In hindsight, Jake recognised this early-nineties moment as a microcosm of a worldwide demographic shift, towards galleries and museums expecting if not demanding more and more of such 'sensation': 'the chattering classes need something to chatter about'.
The MacDonalds-based series, the Works from the Chapman Family Collection (2002), is perhaps more overtly critical that the earlier zyglot works. Jake described the series as 'a metre of how stupid people are& a Geiger counter of a set of English, middle-class values, every point [in the work] a fractal demonstration of the stupidity of the work'. Yet this nihilistic modality is, again, only a simple inversion of the bourgeois – not an anarchic alternative but a reflection; the other end of the same scale.
In hindsight, Jake's particular variation on the enfant terrible seemed reminiscent of the clichéd (bourgeois) dysfunctional family in which the child, at the first onset of teenage nihilism, rebels against the parents' value systems, slamming doors and/or dying their hair. Yet this play-acting only reinforces the relationships between the members of the family, as the (bourgeois) parents understand that it is 'a difficult time' and carry on adoring all the more; while the child usually does very well out of it (perhaps getting a bigger bedroom and a clothing allowance), by engaging discursively with the value system they wish to dispel. The dynamic bond of animosity is forged; and the first step towards self-direction is already 'contaminated' by being predicated on the (bourgeois) values of the parent that are being rejected.
To attack the bourgeois is ultimately to play its game – and as such explicit opponents of the culturally elite, the Chapmans are ultimately its greatest exponents and natural progeny. The inherently circular or paradoxical nature of their arguments is such that the post-modern success of the work is its failure on modernist grounds; which is however immediately re-appropriated by modernism and seen as a success, while a failure in post-modern terms&. Or, as Larkin said: 'they fuck you up, your mum and dad& But they were fucked up in their turn' . As with the endless cycle of work depicted in Lang's noir vision of utopia, the Chapmans at best succeed in turning modernism back upon itself, if not in actually breaking the machinery.