Part of: Melting Heads

Interview: Jake & Dinos Chapman on Melting Heads

published on 9 February 2001

Marcus Field speaks with artists Jake and Dinos Chapman on Melting Heads – their film directed exclusively for SHOWstudio – and their ever-provocative art output to date.

Marcus Field speaks with artists Jake and Dinos Chapman on Melting Heads – their film directed exclusively for SHOWstudio – and their ever-provocative art output to date.

Before I went to meet Jake and Dinos Chapman I wondered what their studio would be like. I imagined it to be compact and neat, like the headquarters of a modern media mogul. It would have white walls, stylish furniture and lots of phone lines. From this lair, I thought, they would direct operations- the making of dick-faced mannequins here, a production run of plastic Nazi soldiers there. At the centre of this scene the boys would sit in swivel chairs, their hands clean, their features groomed, like the beautiful pair of fashion models they resemble in photos.

How wrong I was. Thankfully, the reality is darker, dirtier and much more thrilling. The Chapmans have a studio in the strange edge-city territory half-way down London's Old Kent Road, but it is nothing like I imagined. To get to their place, you take a turning past a drive-thru McDonalds and enter a yard of light industrial buildings before finally arriving at their first-floor space.

And what a revelation to find such celebrated contemporary artists working in studios that Caravaggio and Rembrandt would recognise. The brothers' space is like a barn with soaring rafters, a patched up roof and paint-stained wooden floors. Every workbench is covered with paper and sketches, there are even dried up palettes of paint that would make Turner proud. Of course, the Chapman's trademark work is different from the older masters'. There's a pile of dismembered mannequins and a scaled-down model of the drive-thru McDonalds (made to look as if it had been occupied by Third-Reich officers and converted into a death camp). On other tables little Nazi soldiers are carefully being painted by assistants (yes assistants, just like Michelangelo had). Dinos and Jake both have mobile phones, but otherwise the general look is as bohemian as you could wish.

To contemporary art groupies the brother's work needs little introduction. Jake (34) and Dinos (39) trained as a sculptor and a painter respectively and both took masters degrees at the Royal College of Art. They began working together as a team in the early 1990's and showed their first works - including a life-size tableau Great Deeds Against the Dead (1994) from Goya's Disasters of War series - at London's Victoria Miro Gallery. Chapmanworld, their 1996 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, won them wide recognition for its shocking display of genetically mutated child mannequins with penises and vaginas for noses and ears wearing only Fila trainers and presented frolicking in a fairy-tale woodland setting. This and other works also appeared in the Royal Academy's 1997 blockbuster show, Sensation. In 1998, the Chapmans parted with the Victoria Miro Gallery and now exhibit with Jay Jopling's White Cube.

At the Royal Academy's 2000 Apocalypse exhibition, the brothers showed Hell, a series of nine glass display cases containing over 5,000 handmade and painted figures which took over two years to complete. The contents create a fantastical landscape of volcanoes, seas and fields. Buildings that conflate modern and ancient architectural forms also appear, but have been adapted for use as chambers of mass extermination. We recognise certain elements, but are confronted with a fictional narrative of murder and mutation as the thousands of figures are frozen in horrifying scenes of abjection. You want to look. But the narrative is unclear - the muscular form of the figures, often of blurred gender, are both desirable and at the same time repulsive. Hell is an extraordinarily rich, layered and provocative work, which is now on a world tour.

For SHOWstudio, the Chapmans made a short film called Melting Heads. To discuss this and other work, we leave their studio and make the short walk to the nearby drive-thru McDonalds, their favourite venue for interviews. We buy coffee (the brothers are both excited about McDonalds' current giveaway - a collection of brightly coloured plastic figures) and find seats. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. For full effect, read it to a soundtrack of kiddie pop and snack on Chicken McNuggets.

Marcus Field: Your work has been very controversial, provoking outrage in the press and among the public. Do you care if people project their own meanings onto it, rather than those you intent?

Jake Chapman: It doesn't matter to us and also it can't matter to us because we can't possibly have control over that. And also it's the condition of all forms of production. The inherent meaning of a work of art actually vacillates at a rate beyond which the artist can pin-point which meaning they actually want for it. I would say we try to increase the vacillation in our work.

But I can't think of any work of art that doesn't operate at that level, that is constantly evading closure. We don't tend to be reductive about the interpretation of our work. We try to encourage a certain linearity. It's lineage is a bit more schizoid than most artist's work.

MF: If people ask you what your work is about, do you tell them?

Dinos Chapman: As Jake said, it's not about anything. It's about interpretation or misinterpretation. Once a piece of work is finished we have no greater right to interpret it than anybody else. We don't necessarily know what it means. It becomes its own thing. It doesn't need us anymore.

We're interested in whether two people can constitute one genius.

JC: We can have ambitions for objects but there's no reason to think that those ambitions will be facilitated by the work. Especially if the work is not formally derived. For us, you make a work of art for masochistic enjoyment. You make something that doesn't give back anything. It is agitated or aggressive towards the matter.

MF: How does working as a partnership, rather than in the traditional manner of individual talents, affect your work?

JC: We always considered art an activity confined by its language, rather than some idea of exclusive personal expression. I think that's the cause that the two of us have been working for. Our work raises questions about the speculative aspect of making a work of art rather than any simple expression of latent content. As soon as you assign the task of thinking about art to more than one person you make your practice critical automatically. It's not about skill, it's about the adoption of different modes of operation, of different modes of being.

DC: I think working as a double act has caused us to fracture away from the kind of single-minded genius prototype of a normal artist. It doesn't just turn into binary equation, it turns into a totally fractured equation whereby everything is available to us – art history, popular culture, music. So the things we make become a conglomeration of not just Jake and my thoughts. We're interested in whether two people can constitute one genius. There's a very romantic notion of the great artist that still exists from the sixties.

MF: Does this way of working make you more like directors than the traditional idea of artists?

DC: I don't really see a difference between being a director and being an artist because I think being an artist - the persona of an expressive artist - is a latter day construct anyway. If you go way back, artists were far more like directors. Jeff Koons is a director as well as a great artist.

MF: Obviously you're busy making work in your studio and thinking about future projects. But is it important to you that your work gets shown in public?

DC: I think it would be pointless making it if it wasn't shown. Art is a spectator sport. It's part of the entertainment

MF: You have invoked the holocaust in Hell and other recent works, why?

JC: It would be very difficult to analyse human subjectivity without recourse to technological genocide because it changes everything for everyone all the time. The promise of civilisation carried forward by technological innovation delivered us at the doors of Auschwitz with a sign over the door saying 'Working Makes You Free'.

MF: Your model of a McDonalds adapted for use as an extermination camp, is that a suggestion that institutions like this could become involved in something evil?

JC: Well, another reading of it could be that it counters intensely naff liberal thoughts which are exactly like that. We can have this intense paranoid view that fast food restaurants don't only pollute our environment, but they pollute our taste. Which is much more offensive for us sophisticates. We get these people who see that work saying: 'Oh yeah, I really fucking hate McDonalds because they fuck up the environment.' It's really easy to trip people up. These works are aesthetic fly traps for the people we're interested in catching.

DC: The interesting thing about our work is that everybody has an imperative to build a narrative around it, even if the narrative is rather crude. When we finished Hell, we thought there would be plethora of histories. It's interesting that it hasn't happened.

JC: It's amazing to put two and a half years of work into an object and offer it as a generous gift and then watch the critical response. The work is so verdant with its own pretensions, its own offerings. And then we had virtually no critical response. I would write 2,000 pages about it.

MF: Do you think there's currently a lack of outlets for meaningful critical writing about art?

JC: I think there's a lack of outlets and a lack of ability to actually drop the social obligations. Historically the job of a critic has been so clearly about anchoring the work to some profitable social meaning. They think: 'What does it mean and what am I going to offer the reader which will give them some engagement with the work?' rather than offering them something which is erratic or a bit more schizoid. The problem with the critic / artist relationship now is that it is fused too quickly. It functions too well. Instead of elaborating on the idea of a work of art by applying more speculative meanings, criticism has to close them down.

MF: One of the most dismissive comments critics and others dish out about contemporary art is that we've seen it all before. How do you respond to that?

JC: It's very lazy criticism. The idea that the greatest work of art can be made and therefore we don't need to make any more is ridiculous. People are always trying to punctuate the end of art of the end of painting or the end of history. We think the death of art is probably a good thing, but that is has to be repeated. It doesn't seem very intelligent to me that because Duchamp presented a urinal it closes the possibility for that idea to keep infecting its public over and over again. We're repetitious animals. It's not that there are new things to say, it's that saying them again is important. We've always been at pains in our work to make sure that there's nothing original in it. We try to use something that exists already and just reorder the processes.

DC: I'm curious to see what a work of art would look like if nobody had done it before.

MF: Do you think viewers have a problem with how to interpret the work, to open themselves up to it?

DC: It's amazing how people can hive off areas of a work so they can have a centred, rational argument. There was somebody looking at Hell and she said: "Why is there a woman drinking a milkshake?" And I said:  'Because she's been to McDonalds.' And she said: 'But they didn't have McDonalds then.' And I said 'But they didn't have three heads then either'. Why can't they just say it's not real. It's not about anything. It's a blip, a strange anomaly.

JC: You see, we're still operating under the pressures of Christian morality. People think a work of art should be redemptive. However nasty it might be it must still have something to say which is good. And I think the problem for people with a lot of our work is that it really doesn't offer that.

MF: Cinema can often be nihilistic in its view. Do you think your work goes further than many films?

JC: Cinema is like group psychoanalysis. It's a medium for social cohesion. You can't infect people with the idea of social chaos. They want sentimental closure. It's tough enough living in a city without thinking that other people don't have the same sense of morality as you.

DC: The thing is that when you leave a cinema you're no longer involved. But when you're in a gallery you're in the real world. When people saw our mannequins they said: 'How can you do this to little children?' In the cinema people say: 'It's all right, it's only make believe.'

MF: What do you think about the Internet as a medium?

DC: Potentially I think it's very interesting. But it's meant to be this noble network of information and the only thing that's outdated about it is the people who use it. Your ability to make choices is so limited because you're used to a linear

Interview by:
Jake & Dinos Chapman



Interview: Tim A Shaw on Hospital Rooms

25 April 2018
Artist and co-founder of Hospital Rooms Tim A Shaw talks about the influence of the project on his work and collaborative practice.

Interview: Tamsin Relly on Hospital Rooms

24 April 2018
Artist Tamsin Relly explains the challenges she faced in decorating the Eileen Skellern 1 mental health ward to Georgina Evans.

Interview: Lucy Orta

24 June 2004
Curator Christabel Stewart interviews artist Lucy Orta about 'Transgressing Fashion', her political performance piece at the V&A.
Back to top