London

Dinos and Jake Chapman

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Arts, London

Way back in 1967, the Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana held a seminar on erotic art, to which I contributed a paper on Picasso. Behind its very closed doors, barred to all but a few scholars who, presumably, were so soberly academic that nothing at all could shock or titillate them, I was thrilled to have a chance to explore what then seemed my daringly candid, if quasi-scientific, descriptions of the master’s scrambled anatomies: “the mouth is aligned vertically to produce a vulva shape,” “a yawn permits the female sitter’s mouth to open in sphincteral forms,” “the heads often appear to be composed of pendulous, phallic shapes that become synonymous with hair and nose,” “the very torsos and heads can become ithyphallic.” How times have changed! Walking into London’s ICA last June to see “Chapmanworld” (the title’s Gothic typeface and suffix recalling the realm of Disney), it suddenly dawned on me that almost three decades later, a much younger generation, in the form of a new artist-couple, the brothers Dinos and Jake Chapman, had liberated me and released to the public the secret goings-on at the Kinsey Institute. On the scene since 1991, the Chapmans have been creating a new kind of humanoid which, instead of having what I would describe in my own “Picassoworld” as “phallic noses” and “vulval mouths,” comes right out with it. Their titles don’t mince words either, translating, as it were, all my fancy phrases into no-nonsense English: “Fuckface,” “Two-Faced Cunt,” “Siamese Twat.” When a dime-store doll’s smiling face is sprouting a long, hard dick instead of a freckled, button-cute nose and when that happy creature is sold on T-shirts in the gallery bookshop, we have clearly come a long way from Pinocchio and from Dr. Freud’s disconcerting revelation that if sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes it isn’t.

It is a testament to the Chapmans’ power that even in today’s uncensored art world, these in-your-face versions of Alice in Wonderland can make most of our skins crawl with a fresh mix of the fascination and repulsion triggered by the sexual demons both inside and outside our bodies. Before, I had only seen their work in reproductions, but after walking through and staring uncomfortably at the real thing (even these days, original works of art may register more deeply than their photographs), this race of kiddie monsters kept popping up in my consciousness and making me wonder why they wouldn’t go away.

At first, the Chapmans’ art may appear to be an alien’s sick joke, with two bad British boys strong-arming you into looking at things you may have thought about, but never actually wanted to see in three dimensions; but it then moves quickly to center stage, joining forces, for one, with a whole cluster of artists who, in 1992, were already classified as “post-human” in Jeffrey Deitch’s show. After getting your balance, it’s easy to realize, for instance, how much the Chapmans’ “creature features” may owe to Charles Ray’s creepy mannequins or to Paul McCarthy’s tableaux of mechanized sex in enchanted forests; but their debts are also repaid, as we discover how many other nerves they touch. Who else could imagine, not to mention give material form to, what might happen, say, if Barbie and Ken were stripped bare at the toy factory and, with their grown-up genitals revealed to each other and to us, ended up remolded forever in a shocking plastic copulation? And if the Chapmans can unveil the childhood mysteries of what might possibly lie under dolly’s skirts or trousers, they can also open harrowing sci-fi vistas into the worlds of cloning and genetic engineering. Like ’90s versions of Dr. Frankenstein, they have made a terrifying mess of their toy-store body parts and laboratory DNA. This time the bolt of lightning releases the manic sexual drive we always guessed was hiding behind childhood’s blue-glass eyes and rearranges synthetic baby flesh in hideous mutations so far beyond the familiar shock of Siamese twinning that we can only guess at some biological apocalypse on a faraway planet.

Their world, however, is not only that of Village of the Damned and sperm bank nightmares. The art-image bank is greedy to claim them, too, turning us back to a Surrealist inventory of monsters whose anatomies are shaped by an all-consuming sex drive: Salvador Dalí’s Freudian humanoids, Hans Bellmer’s fetishistic female dolls. But of course, the Chapman look cuts deepest into our own art world of eerily virtual human realities, ricocheting all the way from the immaculate department-store dummy nudities of John de Andrea’s sculpture to the prosthetic sexual parts that animate the scarecrows in Cindy Sherman’s 1992 mannequin photographs. I suspect that Chapmanworld will go on spooking our lives, whether we’re in SoHo or Toys ’R’ Us or just looking in a mirror.

Robert Rosenblum