Sunday, 12 October 2008

Not for the Faint Hearted

I wonder how many people know Jake and Dinos Chapman who I referred to in my last post.

They are brothers, both conceptual artists, who work in tandem and are patronised by Charles Saatchi. I love their work. It is never comfortable, always challenging, inventive, thoughtful and sometimes witty.

They have been accused of been pornographic, even pedophiliac, because of some of their early sculptures represent pre-pubescent girls whose bodies are merged and melted into a single undulating whole, with the noses of some being replaced with penises.

On paper these images do not sound particularly edifying neither are they in reality; they are extremely shocking. However, to my mind, they are very moral. They take the lie of the pedophile and turn it on its head; the lie being the self -justifying rationalisation that his or her perverted desire is justified because children, being small sexual beings, can therefore consent to sexual activity. The amorphous nature of the sculptures depersonalises the individual child and so signifies and dramatises the anonymous insignificance of the individual for the sexual predator. Equally they admit to the fact that children are sexual beings, and I know in writing this I am on thin ice. Children cannot, by definition, be sexual beings insofar as they are not sexually mature. However, children are extremely curious about their genitalia, not with the imperative desire of an adult, but with the same innocence that they enquire of the rest of the world. It is as unhealthy to suppress this natural interest as it is to exploit it, though, of course, the latter is on a completely different order of magnitude of damage. In both cases the damage arises when adults conflate and muddle their own sexual complications in terms of desire and repression with those blameless explorations of the child. So, to me, this melding of one child into another also symbolises this mutual, generally guileless, voyage of discovery.

I hope you now understand why I find the brothers so powerful.

One of the first of their pieces I saw was called After Goya. It is a sculpture using contemporary materials that takes its inspiration and execution directly from one of a series of Goya etchings called The Disasters of War, itself titled Great deeds! Against the dead!. (These too I have seen and, indeed, own a small ancient book of.)

Francisco Goya is another artist I greatly admire. He was, in recent contemporary British terms, the Don McCullin of the Peninsular War in the sense that he uses his art and observation to report on the atrocities of the Napoleonic War in that country. They again are not edifying. The Chapman brothers' recreation of his work use sanitised, high-gloss materials to make an ironic comment on our, the public's, remote-controlled, remote TV relationship with the violence that is currently happening in Darfur, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. We keen briefly before settling back to the reassurance of the high production values of the commercial break.

So now for the images:

Which is more shocking? Is either glib? Are you moved? Is this art?

On the subject of the Peninsular War, the one poem I remember from my early youth was The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna, the first verse goes thus:

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corpse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero we buried.

The coincidence is that in 1803 he was in England commanding a brigade in Shorncliffe camp, near Folkestone. It is where I was born.

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