Interview: Jake Chapman

(c) Nic Serpell-Rand
(c) Nic Serpell-Rand

Some things don’t need to be said, unless you are one of the Chapman brothers being interviewed in advance of a rare public appearance:

“No one’s going to get hurt. No one’s going to get injured. There’s no blood involved,“ says younger Chapman sibling Jake. “It’s not spectacularised. No one’s going to find themselves with different parts of their anatomy on their faces.”

That’s a relief. But eyebrows have been raised at the news that the ever-shocking artists are taking part in an event for this year’s Museums at Night. The nationwide event is, after all, known for good vibes, positive experiences and warm inclusivity. “Not for much longer,” says Jake Chapman, via phone.

So it should be business as usual for the pair at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, where their event takes place on May 17. But enquiries as to the exact nature of that business are skilfully fended off. All the artist will say is this:

“It will involve folding. It’s gonna be fully hands on. The public will be fully involved. So it should be good. It’s performative, but there will be byproducts. There will be remains. I don’t mean to be cryptic about it but if people have an idea of what they’re going to do before they get there…”

He tails off at the full horror of the possibility, and says: “If people have a prejudice about what they’re going to see, or if they have a presupposition or an understanding of something, it’s quite difficult to intervene.”

Likewise, visitors to White Cube last year were left puzzled as to which brother was responsible for work in which gallery space. But such an air of mystery is just a way of “trying to jam the process by which people move towards presumptuous thoughts,” says Jake.

“I mean that’s the job of all art, really, the job of philosophy. The job of any incursion into normal human thought processes is to try and produce different ones and by producing different thought processes you produce different responses to things, you produce responses to the world.”

But those responses need not be positive. “I have no reservations about the pessimism in the work,” he continues. “But I wouldn’t say it’s a moralistic pessimism. It’s kind of a joyful, pleasant and funny pessimism. I don’t think the morbidity in it is Christian in that sense. It’s not punishing. It’s playful.”

Joyful, pleasant and funny sounds just the ticket for Museums at Night. But then Chapman goes on to say: “I think the idea of going into a museum at night begs a kind of question. It’s more the underbelly to rational sobriety.”

Jake says exhibits may display “truth” in daylight, but “what’s interesting in Museums at Night is they take on a different meaning in a sense they have shadows and they become a bit more sinister. So that’s my way of reinterpreting the positivity of Museums at Night in a more morbid way.”

Certainly, the aforementioned White Cube show had its share of morbidity. In Mason’s Yard a static army of zombie-like Blackshirts could be found admiring a room full of DIY Constructivist sculpture. It may have referred to the Nazi’s exhibition of degenerate art, but it was hard not to feel implicated.

“I don’t think people who go to Jerwood are Nazis,” he protests. “These are neo fascistic people looking at things which are modernist objects, so it goes beyond the superficial notion of it being a [general] audience looking at art.”

My next question is about the tension between a roomful of modernist sculpture and the brother’s frequent citations of post-structuralist theory. But Jake is quick to point out that “it’s not really a binary division between post structuralism and modernism.”

Speaking of implication, post structuralism is already wholly wrapped up in a critique of modernism. So “it’s kind of partially modernist,” he says. ”They’re so intermingled. They’re so dependent on each other even if it’s a critical point of view.”

“A critical point of view has to have an object that it’s criticising,” he continues. “And therefore it’s completely cannibalisiing and consumed by the very thing that it critiques, if you see what I mean.” Outraged critics of the pair, with whom I can sympathise, take note.

This also applies to angry members of the general public who are generally no trouble at all. “I think the privilege of being an artist is – and this may be the good thing about being an artist – is that it’s the work that is the most important thing.”

“You might get people shouting at you in Hoxton  but not anywhere else,” he goes on. “There is a relative anonymity you can claim as an artist. I mean less so if you’re Tracey Emin or Damien [Hirst].” But if there’s one other place the Chapmans might get recognised, it is Hastings.

The brothers grew up there and, contrary to rumour, Jake says there’s “no chance” he would ever move back. But having traded the seedy seaside for rural Gloucestershire, he shows a lot of respect for the voices which were raised in opposition to the recent building of the Jerwood Gallery .

“It’s understandable,” he says. “Hastings is not traditionally a rich town so it must be difficult for people to see the idea of investment in culture is anything to do with assuaging the problems of poverty and I kind of agree in a way.”

That said, he believes there is “richness on many different levels, different strata”. In terms of local access to culture, the gallery tackles a certain form of “impoverishment. “So you could say it’s kind of good.” Perhaps Jerwood is already so confrontational there is nothing for a Chapman to add.

Be sure, however, the controversy is never programmed. Jake says there’s no method to their work. “It’s organised chaos. I mean even after all these years we’ve failed to establish any kind of stability.” Working out what to do and where to be is an ongoing challenge.

“The problem with making art is that by its very nature it’s very inefficient ,” he says. When asked how many ideas the pair reject, he says the ratio is “95% shit. 5% relatively alright.” Let us hope that it’s alright on the night or, if you are an undead member of the Gestapo, all wrong.

Jake and Dinos Chapman are appearing for Museums at Night at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings on Friday May 17 2013. This piece was written for Culture24.

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