Jake and Dinos Chapman

Is there any mileage left in the idea of art as an oppositional practice, a set of moves made against the prevailing culture and its norms from outside its territory? For the Chapman brothers the answer would appear to be no. Why bother to fake an ideological purity when such a thing is an irrelevant impossibility anyway? Their game, rather, is to welcome the apparent inescapability of their situation and to juggle truisms until the viewer becomes disoriented by their dexterousness. You think contemporary art is a con, that it makes pretentious use of half-understood theories, and is deliberately outrageous and silly? OK, we’ll give you some of that. You think that real art is about skill, hard work, and serious engagement with issues? OK, we’ll give you lots of that, too. It’s never either/or with them. It’s always both/and, and then something else besides.

The smell was perfect. Stuck into the arms of one carved figure, two joss sticks smoked away, filling the air with the cloying scent of hippie joy in the superior spirituality of the Other. White Cube had had its whiteness obscured: dark paint on the walls, low lighting—just spots falling onto the sculptures, which sat atop the plinths crowding the space. It was sepulchral, reverential, almost holy in a self-consciously contrived and artificial way. The gallery is on the cultural wannabe circuit, so it was packed, and people shuffling around talking to one another in respectfully hushed tones added to the overall atmosphere.

The sculptures themselves—all of them “Works from the Chapman Family Collection,” 2002—were wood carvings of humanoid forms whose poses and bodily exaggerations aped the look of what, over the years, has loosely, ignorantly, patronizingly, or disparagingly been classified as primitive art. They had been done in a variety of styles as if to suggest origins in a range of different cultures, and the press release even helpfully named some of these evocative-sounding imaginary locations: Camgib, Seirf, Ekoc . . . The riddle of their provenance, then, was hardly a riddle at all, since what united this “extraordinary assemblage of rare ethnographic and reliquary fetish objects” was a consistent, if backhanded, reference to a well-known fast-food outlet. Bowed legs formed the double arch of the famous M, the stippled back of a nonspecific four-legged animal imitated a carton of French fries, a squat, rotund deity could be seen, on close examination, to be a hamburger on legs, and so on.

One of the brothers’ earlier works—a model of a drive-thru McDonald’s—was given the title Rhizome, 2000, and the ubiquity of reference to the same symbol of global corporate reach among this collection of ostensible family treasures extended the Chapmans’ taunting play with fashionable ideas. Whether or not Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of deterritorialization and reterritorialization will get us very far in combating the curse of globalization—or whether, indeed, globalization should be thought of as a curse at all—are not questions that the Chapmans seem likely to answer in any straightforward way. That would be too simplistic, and anyway, where they stand, either aesthetically or morally, should be of little concern to us. What the “Family Collection” amusingly provokes is more nuanced thinking about one’s own position.

Michael Archer