Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 6 The Chapmans Brothers

A call to auction! –

"There is this strange rite of passage that people seem to go through after they have had their education, they go on to vilify and hate students, as though the young are to blame for entropy and hair loss".  (Jake Chapman, Evening Standard, March 2011

In March 2011 the Chapman Brothers launched Can't Pay Your Fees? We'll Pay Your Fines - a call to auction! to support prosecuted student protestors.  The same month they announced, in Dazed and Confused, more than 90 high profile signatories who have pledged to donate artwork or personal effects to the campaign. Here are just some of the signatories from page 1:

From the artworld:
Rachel Whiteread
Nigel Cooke
Gary Hume
Rebecca Warren
Ged Quinn
David Batchelor
(art dealer) Sadie Coles
(curator) Sir Norman Rosenthal
Jane Wilson
Liam Gillick
Francesca Gavin (Dazed and Confused)
Jenny Saville
Marc Quinn

and other celebrities:
Noel Fielding
Mick Jones (the Clash)
Stella McCartney

This is clearly a political act, and they are artists...but are they political artists?  That is, do they make art politically?  Is their artwork itself political? 
Tragic Anatomies (detail) 1996
If I were writing about them in another context I could focus on shock, or disgust as underlying features in their work.  Alternatively I could focus on their love of horror movies, perhaps avoiding the political all together.  But the Chapmans have always, and consistently, been political artists.

Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000) 1995

Like many people, I had never heard of the Chapman brothers before 1997's Sensation exhibition.  Sensation was great because it was unapologetic, it went full throttle.  The Chapman's fitted into this context by providing perhaps the most sensational work (although Marcus Harvey's Myra has a good claim).  The Chapman's work raised questions about censorship due to its explicit nature.  But what did the Chapman's actually exhibit? We remember the sculptural installation of children with penises for noses and anuses for mouths, joined together by vaginas.  However, it's worth remembering that these sculptures were recognisable as mannequins - a symbol of consumerism - and they were all naked, except for Fila trainers (trainers being a recent symbol of consumer society as rioters and looters appeared to lack any political motive, failing to target capitalist institutions and just "going down footlocker").  Perhaps the Chapmans were not the ones fucking up our children, perhaps it was a comment on how society is fucking up its children.  Perhaps we allow the fetishisation of clothes and trainers to the detriment of society.  Of course, you can't ignore the explicit nature of the sculptures, and herein lies the appeal to tabloid outrage - paedophilic undertones (one thinks of the Brass Eye special "Paedogeddon" - 2001).  This too is political, referencing the sexualisation of youth.  It is also a comment on the media and its fetishisation of paedophiles (in the same way that Marcus Harvey's Myra is a comment on the media's use of the Myra mug shot).  Perhaps one reason why you don't immediately associate the Chapman mannequin sculptures as political is their lack of political answers.  The Chapmans are brazenly nihilistic.  They talk about how art is usually thought of as being redeeming, or essentially having something "good" about it. But they challenge this and ask, what if it doesn't? What if their art is just bad? What if it doesn't have any transgressive quality? In the same way... the best horror movies are like this.  They are scary because they don't explain, don't give a reason why and in doing so they deny us control over the situation.

Great deeds against the dead (1994)

    I was excited by Sensation.  It seemed like new art, for my generation.  Since then I've been surprised by the level of criticism leveled at some YBAs.  Obviously if you want to be taken seriously in the artworld you need to slam Hirst and Emin (that seems to be a given) but where do the Chapmans fit in? They seem to be one rung up the ladder of acceptability (but only one rung).  Perhaps they are easy to dismiss as enfants terribles, and that's the case with their defacement of Goya Prints.  The Chapmans talk about the futility of their action here, as by defacing the artworks they actually increased their value.  This is, of course not new.  Piero Manzoni famously canned his own shit, which then accrued a value greater than its weight in gold.  The Chapmans are at least self-aware in doing this.  They talk about YBAs cynically, reminding us that the celebrity almost came before the work, and that anything made or belonging to the artist became valuable and collectable - just like a drawing by, say, Elvis would be valuable (whether or not it's any good).  Gavin Turk's signature is another self-aware example building on the Manzoni precedent (one also thinks of Warhol, Klein, Duchamp... the list goes on).  The act of defacing (a Goya print, or anything else) is inherently political.  The fact that the Chapmans chose Goya's Disasters of War etchings is surely not entirely coincidental.  We know they have been using them as source material long before they started defacing them (see Great deeds against the dead).  Goya's print series was an extremely graphic and political protest against the Napoleonic atrocities committed in Spain (not entirely sure why he moved to Bordeaux to see out his last years, but we'll let that go).  So we have a body of work that is a protest (Goya) which is defaced by the Chapmans, which is a form of resistance - I think.  I think of it in the same vein as graffiti.  Sure, some graffiti can be considered, and political, but most is not politically articulate.  This doesn't mean it's not political though.  The same can be said of the August rioters, much maligned for not banding together for political reasons but just "going down Footlocker and "tieving" shoes".  The youths in questions (only 1 in 4 arrested were under 20 years old by the way, and rioters came from all walks of life including unemployed, employed, students, teachers, postmen...) were quickly branded as "criminals, pure and simple".  The riots were seen by the right as opportunist.  I'm not so sure.  Just like graffiti, the riots were criminal (by definition) and they were not politically articulate, but they were a form of protest and resistance.  People were exploding in frustration and saying "enough".  Of course, it's sad that when law and order breaks down and people feel that can do what they want and get away with it, all they want to do is gather consumer goods - but that's symptomatic of a society where politicians make fake claims for second homes and plasma screen TVs, where the police sell details of dead children to the press and are complicit in phone hacking, where the press have no idea of when they cross the line, where the gutter press feed us celebrity rubbish and we lap it up.  Since before Thatcher we've ushered in a particularly ferocious form of Capitalism called Neo-Liberalism where everything becomes about profit and everything is opened up to the market (national industries first, education more recently, and the NHS to follow).  The Chapmans have criticised Tracey Emin, who Ed Vaizey has described as a Conservative supporter, for accepting a commission by Downing Street.  Emin was also quoted (in the Sunday Times) criticising the 50% tax rate and considering leaving the country to go to France, where she has a holiday home.  (You can read Emin's defense of those comments here and make up your own mind). 
The Chapmans feel that too many of the YBAs aren't doing enough to oppose student tuition fees (Telegraph) but isn't this a bit hypocritical coming from artists whose career springboarded off the endorsement of Charles Saatchi - using money, in no small part made from Tory party advertising campaigns run by Saatchi and Saatchi in the 80s?  OK, forget where the money came from, what about what Saatchi helped create? Are the Chapmans complicit with this?  How about being represented by Jay Jopling - son of a Tory Baron?  Does that not conflict with any political credentials?  Can you be truly political and be in the pockets of such people, and make your money selling through the market? Maybe.  I'm not against artists making money, especially if they are prepared to use it for political means (as in paying protestors' fines - although the Chapmans are hoping not to pay the fines directly from their own pockets but from the proceeds of an auction).

I went to the Frieze Art Fair last Sunday.  I hated it.  Hundreds of people are herded into a tent and shuffle around endless art, which you can't even look at because someone's either in the way or barges you out of the way in order to take a photograph.  I only saw one or two pieces that I liked in the whole show but I couldn't even enjoy them because of Art Fair Fatigue.  Knackered, the poor public, who have already been fleeced for the best part of £30 just to get in, head to one of the corporate style cafes to be fleeced even more.  Be in no doubt, it's the art students and wannabe artists who keep this going.  Their footfall means the fair can cover its costs regardless of any sales.  In 2007 the Chapman brothers exhibited at Frieze.  They made a protest against the money making market machine by defacing £10 and £20 banknotes, which they subsequently sold for... well, more than £10 and £20.  The point is this, a drawing can be worth whatever the market is willing to pay - it's irrelevant how much the paper it's drawn on costs.  No one really thinks that a drawing is worth more or less if it's drawn on Fabriano paper or on cheap, found paper.  However, when you draw on a banknote you are confronted with its material value (it's written on the note in case you forget).  This means you are unable to avoid the history of Piero Manzoni, Gavin Turk etc.  The Chapmans' drawings are made quickly enough to be read as a signature.  Of course, defacing the Queen's image is a crime and therefore the act of doing so is political.  Defacing currency is political.  The debate around value also becomes political.  The Chapmans have one more political layer to this project though - a copyright issue.  A graffiti artist, D*Face, has made remarkably similar images on banknotes since 2003 (see image above).  The Chapmans claim to have never seen his work or heard of him and that defacing currency is as old as graffiti, which is as old as Lascaux cave paintings, so no one can lay claim to it.  They claim that it's not original, and that's what interests them... it has no authorship.  You can read a relatively neutral account in the Independent.  D*Face claims that the Chapmans' claim to not know who his is is laughable.  He says that he created a billboard sized version at the bottom of their road, read more here.   The Chapmans' response is typically nihilistic.  It reminds me of their frank explanation of the effectiveness of the Cant' Pay Your Fees? We'll Pay Your Fines project where they admit that they can't erase criminal records so having your fines paid is only the tip of the iceberg and that the protestors will inevitably face financial penalties over their careers as a result of the stigma.  If their position on market forces is ambiguous so is their position on originality.  But their position on tuition fees is very clear.  They may feel that they can't change government policy, they may not have an alternate solution, but they definitely oppose tuition fees.  This article in the Evening Standard sums them up pretty well, "Jake and Dinos Chapman have carved a niche for provocative ambiguity...the brothers have delighted in prompting awkward moral dilemmas for the viewer, and provoked endless speculation about their own views on society".  No one likes being lectured, so an ambiguous position is always intriguing.  It allows us to question our position as we question theirs.  Hence, regardless of any hypocrisy, I think their work functions well as contemporary political art.  It confronts us and challenges us and in doing so allows us to consider our position and what we might want changed in our ideal world.

If Hitler had been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be?
Adolf Hitler famously attended an exhibition of modern art called Entartete Kunst (degenerate art).  Some high ranking Nazis bought some of the works.  The most valuable were sold at auction in Switzerland.  Over 4000 artworks, by the likes of Max Ernst, Paul Klee and even Picasso, were burnt.  Hitler did not like modern art, and he did not see the term degenerate in a positive light.  The Chapmans bought 13 Hitler watercolours and defaced them with images from hippy culture.  In 2008 they re-introduced them to the art market with a valuation six times higher than the price they paid for them (Independent).  The idea of defacing Hitler's work with such a "degenerate" style by such degenerate artists is poetic.  The fact that they profited off Hitler is brilliant. 

"Dinos Chapman said the work, entitled If Hitler had been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be, was a rumination of what might have been had Hitler not been refused entry to Vienna's art school. He added they showed a "blankness" rather than any hint of the deadly pathology that he would later demonstrate". (Independent)
 Of course, Nazis feature heavily in the Chapmans' work.  In works such as Hell the Chapmans showed us apocalyptic and dystopic visions of a world not too far away from ours, referencing Auschwitz and McDonalds.  Part of their vision of dystopia is the power of capital (as seen through their defacing of banknotes or opposition to tuition fees).  Part of the dystopic nature of the power of capital is corporate and consumer greed (as referenced through mannequins and trainers).  The Chapmans don't aim, or claim, to give us any solutions to our contemporary malaise, and they don't.  But they do confront us with the causes in confusing and ambiguous ways, in the same way that punk replaced political action with a defiant nihilism and transformed apathy and pessimism into a weapon of resistance. 

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 7 Charlie Woolley

I heard Charlie Woolley, who shows at David Risley, speak at the Saatchi Gallery on Tuesday night and immediately knew I had to include him in my Top 10. 

Woolley is an interdisciplinary artist who often works in collaboration with other artists, and other organisations.  His last such venture was We Have our own Concept of Time and Motion with Federico Campagna (who had previously organised the excellent conference Radical Publishing: What are we Struggling for? at the ICA), Huw Lemmey, and Michael Oswell at Auto Italia South East last August.  It featured a temporary bookshop run by the new cooperative organisation Book Bloc.  Woolley made the furniture for the temporary bookshop... from the (no longer needed) wood from local shops boarded up during the August Riots.  The full title of the exhibition, We have our own concept of Time and Motion: a four day event devoted to the idea and practice of self-organisation, gives us a good idea of what happened.  Woolley was very clear, at the Saatchi Gallery, that the making of art (any art) is a political act.  But his use of materials, the fact that he got them for free and in order to help out another local group further politicises the work.  The space became became a base for the production of new work and new ideas.  Workshops were held by the gallery, Book Block and by the Deterritorial Support Group (a self professed ultra-leftist propaganda machine).  The line up of speakers for the workshops was impressive, here's some examples Mark Fisher, Nina Power, Franco "Bifo" Berardi

 Woolley himself has stated aims of radical and autonomous politics and aesthetics and is interested in how artists engage with radical politics - what better arena?  He spoke of a crisis of aesthetics in politics - a refreshing change from the constant news of political crises: "there is a crisis within certain forms of aesthetics, and political propaganda is one problem and it's taking place on the internet" (artists' talk at the Saatchi Gallery 3/10/2011 - "Francesca Gavin - 100 New Artists).  Woolley never saw himself as an internet artist until asked about internet art for a project.  It was his wife who reminded him that he uses Google image searches to generate some of his work (digital and traditional collages), broadcasts his radio show, from gallery spaces, on the internet etc.  In this way we can re-consider what internet art is.  As Woolley said, what we think of as internet art has already happened and something new is already happening.  One hour of YouTube footage is uploaded every second - we're already, always so far behind!  Artists like Woolley are of the last generation to remember a pre-internet work.  Lilah Fowler - who also spoke at the event - agreed saying that art is now generally seen online (or on screen), not in the flesh. Students bring images of their artwork into college, lecturers view the work on students' laptops, people don't have time to visit the gallery so they look on the gallery's. 

Woolley's series of digital photographs of TV screens The Flicker Effect are also political.  When blown up, the images of black and white films and TV shows reveal that they are anything but black and white.  The television set, from which the photographs are taken, broadcasts in RGB and a rainbow of colours appears in the photographic image.  This serves to remind us of subliminal messages and that we don't always know what we see on TV, but also it allows us to reflect on how often images are re-translated from one medium to another, from one context to another - and what affect this has on meaning.  Of course, once these photographs are documented, appearing online or printed in catalogues, they are reduced back down in size and become black and white again ruining the effect, or further reinforcing the message (you decide). 

The notion of the artist as collaborator and activist came up at times during the talk.  Apart from the example above, Woolley spoke of how he makes flags, in the tradition of the political banner, using family members.  His mum is "really good at sewing" and another family member is a weaver - so he makes the flags with them.  Woolley thinks it's only right to use skilled labourers, and t credit them for their work.  Woolley spoke about artists' squats on more than one occasion - once with reference to the crisis of tired aesthetics in Belgravia flats: bedsheets hanging from the windows emblazoned with the word "occupied" (how does this engage the Belgravia community?)  When an audience member asked a question about Art Schools Woolley again demonstrated his activist credentials arguing against Francesca Gavin's claim that "some people look at your work more seriously if you've got an MA from the Slade, the RCA or Goldsmiths" by asserting that the big name schools don't produce anything special, except for the peer group.  Woolley told us that he thought the most important course he had studied was his Foundation, (a sentiment with which I agree - the Foundation is the most important course for an artist) followed by his BA, then MA then PhD.  For me the MA came next in importance.  Of course, you can't (or shouldn't) do an MA without first studying for a BA, and my BA was good, but I never progressed at the same rate that I did on the one year intensive courses that are the Foundation and MA.  The Masters was also a chance to reflect on my experiences as an undergraduate: returning to education after several years working as an artist was an extremely rewarding experience and the peer group, of mostly BA Fine Art graduates made for interesting debate and shared learning.  The single most important part of my education though did not occur at University, but through travel.  I think travel is political.  Travel to Europe or the US and you are confronted with people, in many ways very similar to us in Britain, but with different philosophies about how to live their lives - different political opinions.  Travel outside of North America and Europe, beyond the white western world and you will find the space for political reflection and space for political alternatives to arise.  Woolley did not speak of travel and this is not a major factor in his work.  Collaboration is, but could this be stronger if he were to collaborate with people beyond his immediate surroundings, both geographical and in terms of the art word?  I have a feeling that travel will reoccur in my Top 10.  Woolley ended by reminding us that you could get a good art education, if you're savvy, just by attending free events in London. Working together we can overcome capital.  The internet helps us make art and distribute art without the need for (much) capital.  Helping friends, setting up your own parties, visiting each others' houses (instead of buying into the commercialisation of leisure) doing things not for financial gain - these are ways to overcome capital and, in my Top 10, I will endeavour to find artists who do this.