text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper
There couldn’t be a better time for Jake and Dinos Chapman’s new exhibition, To Live And Think Like Pigs, on view now at the UTA Artist Space in Los Angeles. That it opened on the same day as Donald Trump’s wildly xenophobic and damaging executive order banning Muslims from “terror prone” countries is compelling, but perhaps not coincidental. When the wickedness of the world reveals its evident truths, Jake and Dinos remind us that the horror, panic and depravity isn’t just a brand of reality they have invented to shock us – it is actually reality. We are eating in it, fucking in it and living in it. Swastikas, Ku Klux Klan iconography, rainbows, happy faces and the golden arches of the McDonald’s logo all exist on the same killing field. If their work appears apocalyptic, it is because the end seems so close that you can feel the tingling warmth of the glowing, earthly sun of nuclear annihilation. With the undeniable surge of violence and anxiety, the seething distrust of “the other” – the Chapman brothers create works that are artifacts of this existential catastrophe of our own making. But what people most misunderstand about the Chapman brothers is that their work is hilarious – a laugh riot, an obscene and brilliant joke. If you don’t laugh, you are missing the point all together. What's funnier than a couple of realistic surprised looking mannequins wearing full KKK garb, rainbow socks and Birkenstocks? We got a chance to sit down with one half of the Chapman brothers – Dinos Chapman – to discuss everything from the failure of the human species to their time working as assistants for fellow controversial British artists Gilbert And George.
AUTRE: So the title of the show is borrowed from the book, To Live And Think Like Pigs [by French philosopher Gilles Châtelet], which really predicted our current political and sociological turmoil. The show carries the same themes, right?
DINO CHAPMAN: Ish. I think the major theme of the show is failure.
AUTRE: Political? Spiritual?
CHAPMAN: Every aspect of failure, grand gestural failure.
AUTRE: Do you think we’re failing as a species?
CHAPMAN: Oh, we failed. Long time ago. I think we’re just in the death throes of failure
AUTRE: So what’s left after that?
CHAPMAN: Uhh we all die and we kill everything on the planet and it just continues to spin round and round and round the sun until it burns out.
AUTRE: Today, especially now it seems like a really apt time for the show and the political climate in the UK. Is this affecting your work in bigger ways than it has in the past?
CHAPMAN: No, no. I think we’ve always been intentionally pessimistic about humanity, culture. Yeah. It’s a failed project.
AUTRE: Do you think that when people are too positive it puts us in a space of false paradise?
CHAPMAN: Yeah, I mean I think you have to be incredibly short-sighted or an idiot to be positive. Certainly in today’s climate. Every single second, things get slightly worse because of other people’s positivist views. They think they’re doing good.
AUTRE: And complacent.
CHAPMAN: And complacent.
AUTRE: So going back to some of the work that you’ve done with Hitler’s paintings and some of the iconography you work with – it seems sort of like the idea of people wanting to go back in time to kill Hitler and other dictators to change the course of history. Do you feel like you’re doing that using the present, instead of actually going back in time?
CHAPMAN: Short of inventing a time machine and going back and actually doing something, I think we kind of did [change the course of history] when we bought the Hitler drawings and paintings and defaced them and turned them into hippie nonsense, it was kind of an attempt to give him a --- because those works are often considered evidence of when he was still sort of a human being. As though he would have been redeemable if he went to art school and everything would have been fine. He would have been another artist, but he didn’t get into art school so he decided to go out and kill as many Jews as he possibly could. And you know, the sort of popular idea is that if he was allowed to be an artist, he would not have done that. So we kind of got in there before he became a genocider and kind of fucked it up. Just to remove that bit of humanity from him.
AUTRE: Instead of KKK insignia and swastikas, you use smiley faces as part of that dialogue.
CHAPMAN: Happy faces and KKK insignia and rainbows and swastikas are all the same scale.
AUTRE: Exiting politics for a second, I want to talk about your process: where your studio is, what your typical process is, what a day is like
CHAPMAN: I’ve been in LA for three years actually doing fuck all. No, I’ve been at home working.
AUTRE: Do you work separately from your brother now?
CHAPMAN: No no no, we work together. We’re stretching the umbilical cord to a sort of monofilament at the moment. We’ve always tested the parameters of what it means to be working. It’s preferable to work on your own, because two people implies legion. Multi personalities, so yeah. I kind of moved out here for the weather and the politics.
AUTRE: What about the politics?
CHAPMAN: What about the politics, psshh. I don’t know. I mean I can’t complain, we have BREXIT in England. Europe is about to fall to bits. It’s a great big shit show.
AUTRE: How do you feel about CALEXIT?
CHAPMAN: I think it should divert a fence around California and keep everyone else out. It seems...why not? I’m quite pleased that California is rebellious and not seemingly republican. I’ve only just learned the difference between democrats and republicans. The only reason I know republicans are bad is because of France. I hate France. [laughter]
AUTRE: Oftentimes, there's not much of a difference between the two.
CHAPMAN: One of the nice things about being in a foreign country, although it’s not really strictly defensible, is that you don’t feel responsible for anything. I know that’s burying your head in the sand, but for me it seems preferable to being in Britain and sort of railing against something I may have been able to do something about.
AUTRE: Do you feel like the critics are harsher at home?
CHAPMAN: I just think I can look at Trump and not laugh, but not feel related to him in any way.
AUTRE: As brothers and collaborators have you always wanted to make work together?
CHAPMAN: There’s a five year difference between us. Five years is kind of the absolute point at which you’re at different schools at different times so in England I would have been leaving school as Jake would be joining us. We never really spent much time together apart from the evenings and then we finally kind of caught up with each other in college and did a lot of talking and then decided after we left college that we should work together. I mean, we tried to work on our own for a bit but it just seemed kind of pointless when the conversations we had were much more fruitful and much more interesting than the conversations we were having in our own heads which are invariably kind of solipsistic. You can’t argue yourself out of a color.
AUTRE: What is your typical response to people's misunderstanding your work? I mean, is there a typical response?
CHAPMAN: We don’t feel any responsibility for what people think of the art. If you make a child mannequin with a penis on its nose you have to invite a plethora of readings of that. There is no correct reading because once the work is finished and it’s in a gallery environment, it’s done. We’re no longer in control of what it means because every single work is entirely subjective.
AUTRE: Yup, it’s in the hands of the viewer.
CHAPMAN: Yeah. It’s not but that’s where it starts to do its biggest journey.
AUTRE: That’s where the job begins, the intellectual job. And you’re not just making depraved work to make depraved work. Reality is actually depraved.
CHAPMAN: We’re making stuff that hopefully clarifies or makes the fault lines in western culture's moralistic thinking apparent. Again, you put a mannequin with a penis on its face in a gallery and it trips people up, it makes people think lots of different things. I’m not that interested in answers. I’m more interested in questions.
AUTRE: In the beginning, you were both assistants to Gilbert and George, right?
CHAPMAN: I was an assistant for a long time. Jake joined up and got us both sacked.
AUTRE: How’d that happen? Is it a long story?
CHAPMAN: [laughs] No, it’s a really short story actually. I think we were bigger and more unrelenting than them. The two of us together was a bit too much.
AUTRE: A bit too much for them. I mean, they’re pretty politically charged but it seems like you want to take things in a new direction.
CHAPMAN: I just think they decided it was unfair.
AUTRE: Jake made a comment recently about the Ai Weiwei photograph of the drowned refugee boy. That it sort of aestheticized other people’s misery. Can you talk a little bit about that?
CHAPMAN: It’s a terrible, terrible, terrible thing that artists think that painting other people’s poverty or hardship helps. It doesn’t help their hardship or poverty it just—
AUTRE: Glorifies it.
CHAPMAN: It does that and it also doesn’t do anything apart from make the artist feel like they’ve done something, which is a terrible thing.
AUTRE: It’s selfish.
AUTRE: Everybody congratulates themselves for feeling sympathy.
CHAPMAN: Absolutely. I was watching Louis C.K. the other night and he said that, on airplanes, he always feels like he should give his first class seat to service men because they always sit in coach. He never does but he feels really good about thinking that he should do it. That’s an artist's’ mentality.
AUTRE: It’s the thought that counts mentality.
CHAPMAN: He didn’t actually do anything about it.
AUTRE: Yeah, so you think people should actually do something about it?
CHAPMAN: It would help [laughs].
AUTRE: So for this particular show, is there something you would want people to know that they might not see?
CHAPMAN: It’s all for sale [laughs]. At drastically reduced prices.
AUTRE: And my last question, because I know you probably want to get back inside for the opening.
CHAPMAN: Ah yes, being uncomfortable walking around my own work.
AUTRE: Is it uncomfortable being around your own work in that kind of setting?
CHAPMAN: It’s a very strange thing to do. It’s a bit like being a child.
AUTRE: When your mom puts it on the refrigerator?
CHAPMAN: Yeah. You want people to come up and pat you on the back for doing well, but you don’t. Still, that’s sometimes what it feels like.
AUTRE: Is art the most powerful medium for subversion? Especially now.
CHAPMAN: No, guns and hand grenades are. They’re powerful. And humor. Humor allied with guns and hand grenades.
AUTRE: Which one first though?