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I arrive for lunch with Jake and Dinos Chapman five minutes late and very flustered. What a hellish journey! The train to east London was cancelled so I frantically called a minicab while withdrawing £100 from the cashpoint, only to discover on arriving at the meeting place in Hackney – no £100. In my distraction I must have forgotten to pick up the money. Idiot!
Thankfully the Chapman brothers are later than me. The two artists enter Namô, a Vietnamese restaurant around the corner from their studio, and Dinos slides on to the bench next to me while Jake sits opposite. I relate my tale of cashpoint woe. They listen sympathetically and offer advice about breaking the news to the co-owner of the cash, my wife. “Don’t tell her,” the brothers chorus.
My guests are the enfants terribles of British art. Or rather they were. Nowadays Jake, 47, and Dinos, 51, are middle-aged men with balding close-cropped grey hair and five children between them. The Serpentine Gallery in London, where an exhibition of their work opens next week, holds them up as “heroes and trailblazers” to younger artists – an ambiguous promotion for the veteran provocateurs.
“Trailblazing, isn’t that what people on mountain bikes do?” Jake says.
Both men are wearing dark jeans and thick plaid shirts; red checks for Jake, green for Dinos. Jake is bearded and the bigger of the two. He does most of the talking. Dinos, to my left, tends to look at Jake when speaking. Each chips in when the other talks. Occasionally they exchange glances and crease up with laughter. Unlike their art, in which emotions are treated as a joke, there is obvious warmth between them.
The pair came to prominence in the 1990s as part of the generation of “young British artists”, a grouping loosely arranged around Damien Hirst’s leadership and Charles Saatchi’s patronage. Amid stiff competition, the “brothers grim” took the YBA talent for provocation to the furthest extreme. Their work is rife with sexual obscenity, savage violence and a purposefully puerile humour that makes Beavis and Butthead resemble Algonquin wits.
I have lugged their 2011 book Flogging a Dead Horse to the restaurant, a hefty hardback full of glossy photos cataloguing their 23-year partnership. Weird childish mannequins with oddly mutated genitalia disport with one another. Goya prints and 19th-century oil portraits are defaced with drawings of clowns’ heads and bestial monsters.
Detractors dismiss them as juvenile pranksters whose only currency is shock value. Supporters praise their teeming grotesqueries as linking the apocalyptic tradition of Hieronymus Bosch with the conceptual rigour of Sol LeWitt. All agree on one thing, however. The Chapmans’ art is more likely to turn your stomach than make you want to tuck into a hearty Vietnamese meal.
“I think that’s a good thing,” says Jake. Dinos agrees: “Art that makes you hungry is doing the wrong thing.”
Menus are inspected. “I might just have the noodle soup, actually,” says Jake. Dinos decides on the same. “We should get some crispy squid, too,” he says. Jake asks what I’m having. The mackerel, I reply. “Oh,” he says, surprisingly fluent at aimless lunch-table chit-chat. “Have you had it before?”
The pair have not always been so mild-mannered. In his 2009 book on the YBA, Lucky Kunst, Gregor Muir, now director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, recalls seeing the brothers get into a vicious pub fight with a stranger after a show in 1992, ending with Dinos being carted off to hospital with a busted nose. Any hopes I might harbour of getting out of my gourd with two of Britart’s finest topers are in vain, however.
“I can’t drink at lunch time,” Dinos says, “apart from at weddings. I’m always surprised when I see loads of people outside pubs at lunch, their decision-making in the afternoon must be so fluffy and ill-considered.” The ex-enfant terrible orders Coca-Cola to go with his spicy prawn soup.
In their wilder days, the Chapmans liked to depict themselves as scourges of bourgeois mores. In 2006 Jake expelled a journalist from their studio after taking umbrage at the perceived inanity of her questions. “You may grace your readers with the meek tones of plum-mouthed middle englanders,” he subsequently wrote in a communiqué to her newspaper, “but don’t send them round to my studio I’ll make fucking mince meat out of them, ha ha ha.”
They are nothing like so combative today. In fact, they are good lunching companions, a slippery but stimulating mix of facetiousness and thoughtfulness, their own bourgeois background evident in murmured “pleases” and “thank you very muchs” to the waiter. At one point Jake worries about fellow diners overhearing us talking about a novel he wrote, The Marriage of Reason & Squalor (2008), which they plan to turn into a film. Its heroine is called Chlamydia.
“I wonder how this sounds to other people,” he says in a lowered voice as Chlamydia’s pestilential name echoes around Namô. “It must be like three people with Tourette’s.”
Originally from Cheltenham, acme of English gentility, the duo moved as children to Hastings, a rundown but picturesque seaside town on the south coast. They are Greek Cypriot on their mother’s side: Jake’s full name is Iakovos while Dinos’s is Konstantinos. Their father was an art teacher. Attempts to probe them about any link with their own art prove futile.
Their decision to work together was partly inspired by another artistic double act with an opaque past, Gilbert & George, for whom the Chapmans worked as assistants before striking out on their own.
I hold up their book to show their first exhibited artwork. “We are artists” is a mud wall painting made in 1991 featuring a fevered artistic manifesto. “We are sore-eyed scopophiliac oxymorons,” the text begins. The brothers make embarrassed noises. “It’s very early,” they groan.
Scopophilia? “It’s when the idea of looking supplants the sexual act,” says Jake, chewing a piece of squid.
I chopstick a squid myself and turn to 1993’s “Mummy and Daddy Chapman”, only to regret placing the battered cephalopod in my mouth. The picture shows a male and female showroom mannequin, each covered with a disturbing rash of genitals and sphincters. The brothers munch as they study their work of 20 years ago.
“God was it that long ago?” says Jake. “The point about that is to underscore, in a really cack-handed way, the notion that there’s no point asking about the biological input of us as brothers since our mum and dad [ie the mannequins] can’t even reproduce.”
The duo may find their early work naive now – “Yes,” both agree – but the themes it introduced have remained remarkably constant. One is the idea of the two as voyeurs of their own work, not authors of its meaning. The other is the teasing refusal to accept autobiography as a factor in their professional partnership.
“It’s just uninteresting,” says Dinos. Uninteresting to you, I reply. Jake: “Well, we’re the producers of the work.” Surely the viewer’s viewpoint matters too? “Only” – Jake again – “if you pursue art from the point of view of the confessional mode or the expressive mode, which are not necessarily the most interesting ways of looking at works of art.”
My attempts to uncover hidden family details are sidestepped. Will their parents, I ask with all the stealth of an elephant buying crockery, be at the opening of their new show?
Jake crosses his arms, leans back and fixes me with look of deep solemnity. “Our parents are blind,” he says gravely. Dinos leans forward with a smirk, toying with a squid. “And they can’t cum. At least not in the right place.” The brothers dissolve into smutty laughter.
I sock them with a question about childhood rivalries. “Well, they’re just the same as everyone else’s, aren’t they?” says Jake.
There is a sharp exhalation of breath. Have I touched a nerve? No: it’s the spiciness of the soup. Jake winces as he spoons some more. “It’s good, actually. Quite sour. Whoo!”
“I was told not to eat too much spicy food,” Dinos reveals between spoonfuls. Jake looks at him. “Why?”
“I get these things in my mouth, they kind of irritate you,” he explains. I diagnose ulcers. “I think it might be, yes.” He chuckles, the YBA who in 14 years will be an OAP, living dangerously with his big bowl of spicy soup.
A criticism levelled at the Chapmans in recent years is that they haven’t developed. The same ideas resurface; the same language of provocation recurs.
“But it’s the same criticism you could level at Mark Rothko,” Dinos says. Jake chips in: “Is it imperative for the artist to be novel?”
The Chapmans don’t believe in progress. Their art is anti-humanist, anti-Enlightenment. They choose to illustrate this dead end not by striving towards silence like Samuel Beckett (one of their heroes) but by expending a profuse amount of energy constructing crazily excessive but essentially nihilist artworks.
The paramount example is “Hell”, a vitrine containing more than 30,000 tiny Nazi soldiers on an orgiastic killing spree, which took several years to make and was widely considered their masterpiece – until it suffered an ironically infernal end in a warehouse fire in 2004. They have since painstakingly constructed three follow-ups.
Dinos characterises their outlook as “deeply pessimistic”. Jake elaborates: “We offer a very good social service to our patrons and employers, who are the bourgeois intelligentsia. Our little antics and our melodramas and our psychodramas furnish the bourgeoisie with the sense that their world is radical and dangerous and audacious and all these big nice words. It’s what art expresses for them.”
The memory of my lost £100 flashes into my mind. It strikes me Jake is being disingenuous. His “patrons and employers” aren’t just the “bourgeois intelligentsia” who will be visiting the Serpentine. They are also, more lucratively, the super-rich who can afford the prices of the art market – the immense rise in value of which has paralleled the trajectory of the Chapmans’ own career.
In 1991, when the Chapmans made “We are artists”, the global art market was worth an estimated $9.7bn. Last year it reached $64bn. Days before our lunch, Francis Bacon’s portrait of Lucian Freud broke records by selling for $142m at auction.
“We’re not exactly in that part of the pool,” Dinos says drily. “We’re in the bit you put your feet into to get the germs off.”
He and Jake don’t do badly, though. Recently they were provided with a 17th-century crucifixion scene by a follower of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, which they altered by turning the spectators in the painting into ghoulish monsters. The painting was then placed in an installation in front of a sexually aroused mannequin in a Ku Klux Klan hood and called “Oi Pieter, I k-k-kan see your house from here”.
Jake points at his brother. “That was Dinos, not me.”
Dinos: “I was told it wasn’t a very expensive work.” They laugh.
Jake: “Brueghel isn’t a very good artist”.
Dinos: “Well that one is particularly good now. It’s a Bosch now.”
The original painting cost $310,000; after Dinos’s intervention it went for much more. “I don’t know,” Dinos says. The exact figure was $1.2m. Jake: “Worth every penny.”
Do they have feel any responsibility for who buys their art? “We can’t have any responsibility for that. We don’t make it for that purpose,” Dinos says.
The “Brueghel” painting was sourced for them by a private Moscow gallery that mainly caters for wealthy Russians. “It was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Jake says. Financial? “Everything’s financial,” Dinos replies. But aren’t some sources of money worse than others? “I think anybody who has surplus money at the end of the week, once they’ve bought food and heated their house, is a criminal to some extent,” Dinos says.
Jake picks up a paper napkin. “The second that Martin Creed does that” – he crumples up the napkin – “then it’s worth £50,000 or whatever. The point is there has to be some sort of syndicative agreement that if he or she does it” – he gestures at other diners – “nobody is going to pay 2p for it. The point is that the collectors, these are people who have made their money by hanging on to money. They’re not the kind of people who just say, ‘Of course I’ll pay 50 grand for that.’ No, these are people who know the intrinsic value of everything they see. So when they see that” – holding up the crumpled paper ball – “what they’ve done is recognise that this has some kind of symbolic acceleration to high value. They can see the trick.”
He speaks like a spectator, not a participant. “The best thing I can do is place us as what we are, kind of collaborators,” he says. In the Vichyist sense? “Absolutely. We’re implicated, of course we are. It’d be crazy to think that at the best level some things escape the misery of our prostitution, but it’s not really much that does.”
To test if charity exists in the Chapmans’ worldview, I ask Jake if I can have the water left in his bottle. He agrees. I take a swig.
“I’ve got to tell you that Dinos dribbled in it. And it wasn’t spit. When you weren’t looking,” he says.
“Come on, we need to go,” says Dinos. Time to ambush Jake with the fruits of his “prostitution” – a picture of his charming Cotswolds home I found on my iPad, located on a website devoted to celebrity houses.
For a moment he looks transported to a happier place as he gazes at the image of the converted Victorian farmhouse with its heated outdoor swimming pool filled by natural spring water.
“Mmm. Nice isn’t it?” he says. He laughs and gets up. “If you’d started with that, I’d just have got up and walked straight out. That is so below the belt!”
After they exit I notice the crumpled paper ball. Of course! An original Chapman artwork, untitled, executed as a pastiche of Martin Creed. Mine! I swipe it. If anyone wants it, it’s yours for £100.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic
178 Victoria Park Road, London E9
Crispy squid with chilli and garlic dip x2 £12.40
Spicy noodle soup with tiger prawns x2 £19
Caramelised mackerel £9.50
Steamed rice £2.50
Sparkling water x2 £5.50
Total (incl service) £60
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