New York

Dinos and Jake Chapman

Gagosian Gallery (21)

The Chapman Brothers’ installation Six Feet Under, 1997—featuring their infamous cast-resin sculptures of prepubescent children who sprout multiple adult genitalia amidst extra heads, arms, legs, and torsos—is vile and disgusting. The work reflects values that are patently immature, sensationalistic, and sick. Nothing justifies this vulgar display. That, for openers, is what makes their art so compelling and, at the same time, casts doubt on its value as art in so many minds.

On each of several visits to the installation, I witnessed viewers’ amusement rather than horror, which seemed appropriate since there’s nothing authentic about these sex-pocked kids. They are utterly unlike those who populate the work of Larry Clark or Nan Goldin; no privileged view into bohemia, no focused subjectivities excuse the Chapmans’ gratuitous sideshow. In this they’ve learned from mass culture’s fetishization of the abject bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey, and Princess Diana.

What this says about us as consumers of gore may suggest that their sculpture involves a measure of social commentary, albeit one that lacks sincerity. These hideously engineered and fashionably correct kiddies are like art mercenaries: promiscuous and perverse, they stand ready to serve disparate narratives, yet owe allegiance to none. Here, child molestation and pedophilia meet cloning technologies, shopping mall displays, and tabloid TV to produce consumer-friendly horror in a managed environment where everything from youth to abjection is for sale. As for the mannequins themselves, their nubile young bodies bristle with erect dicks and yet seem to be all orifice; they exude vulnerability, but aren’t the least bit innocent. Coiffed in smart wigs and sporting the latest in Nike footwear, the precocious little shoppers revel in the spotlight amidst a bucolic setting high above viewers’ heads.

Just who or what is “six feet under” in the eponymous installation is a matter of interpretation. At first it seems likely that the title refers to the mannequins themselves—that what is dead and buried is the innocence of childhood and the sanctity of the body. But displayed atop the parapet that runs high along the gallery’s interior perimeter, the cyborglings seem to have risen in a radiant apotheosis. At the same time, the fortresslike embankment, encrusted with a repeated skull motif, renders the gallery as crypt; it is the viewers (we quickly realize) who are the living dead. Behind one section of the parapet wall, visible only through a peephole, we witness a postapocalyptic, nuclear family in the throes of meltdown. This simulation of the simulations of ghoulishness now distributed as blockbuster entertainment—from Hollywood meat movies to “Toys ‘R’ Us” monster merchandise—is comic and astute. Peering through the hole into art’s heart of darkness, one also senses the possibility of encountering another Étant Donnés. Indeed, the work’s art-historical sources seem to run the gamut from Goya to Gober, a reading that says as much about our anxiety with respect to the end of art history as about the work itself.

The Chapmans promise nothing—no sorting out of the natural order, no reassurance about the continuity or status of art in the ’90s—and, ironically, in this respect they deliver an art of substance configured along cultural fault lines. Their work moves beyond that produced by recent postmodernist precursors; Cindy Sherman, Robert Gober, and Matthew Barney all seem almost classically restrained in their dedication to a subject—to the very idea of subjectivity—that persists in the face of its own disappearance. Neither considering art less compromised than any other image-producing system in mass culture, nor claiming the outsider position that once legitimized the avant-garde, the Chapmans speak from the position of already having been assimilated by mass culture. In turn, they are licensed to produce a select line of imagery too sensitive for display in other public venues, yet in demand by a limited number of high-end consumers. Indeed, this recognition of their assimilation may be one of the few remaining defenses the avant-garde can offer on behalf of its privileged status.

Of course, their imagery will always pale in comparison to the “real” thing: documentary footage of war, the photograph of a dying Diana. But they have realized that the states of abjection they so skillfully render qualify as “real” within the arena of late capitalism, whether brokered as art or in some other form. If their images are fake, the fears they evoke are palpable enough. We’ve embraced postgender, posthuman, postnature. Maybe, they urge us, we should consider “postart,” too.

Jan Avgikos