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death drive

Inside the Death Drive: Excess and Apocalypse in the World of the Chapman Brothers (Tate Liverpool Critical Forum, Vol. 11)

by Jonathan Harris (ed.)
Liverpool University Press/Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, UK, 2010
240 pp., illus., 50 col., 20 b/w. Paper, £ 35.00
ISBN: 978-1-84631-192-5.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


This book is challenging, at times irritating, and not for the faint hearted. Further, it is not really suited to the general interest art reader. The essays are mostly based in postmodern critical theory and as such are deeply intellectual, convoluted, and at times both obscure and pure fictional fabrication. Anyone who still has doubts that history has nothing to do with “facts” but is “writ large” by critics, the media, and correspondents will have those doubts removed after reading this book. The Chapman brothers' actual artwork is only incidental to the stories woven around their work by the book's contributors. The discussions could have just as easily been about excrement, snails, and maggots. Yes, these do all feature in the Chapman's works.

Inside The Death Drive has nine chapters together with colour and black & white illustrations. I found many of the detailed colour images too small to see properly. This is most annoying as fine detail, such as thousands of tin soldiers, are features of the Chapman's work. The book was edited by Jonathan Harris, Professor of Art History at the University of Liverpool. I very much enjoyed his introductory essay (Chapter 1), The Future Remains Excluded: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, “Slow-Motion Fascism' and the Chapman Brothers (and Sisters). For me this essay nails the Chapman's work accurately (well, as accurately as possible) and introduces the approaches of the following contributors. Chapter Eight Inside the Death Drive is an extensive conversation/interview between Harris and Jake Chapman. This discussion reveals far more about what the Chapman's work is really on about than the other essays combined.

As Harris mentions in his introduction, the book is divided into three types of commentary. “The first, three contributors [Baker, Adams and Lotringer] write relatively conventionally about the Chapman's work”. “The book's second movement consists of an extensive interview I carried with Jake Chapman in September 2008 at the brothers' new studio in the east end of London”. “The third movement of the book attempts to go determinedly beyond this 'world of the Chapman brothers', both historically and in contemporary art terms, examining other artists and artworks that have entered into some kind of deathly embrace with violence and violation in the modern world” (p. 20).

It is not my purpose here to offer a detailed critique of the Chapman's artwork. For those who may not be familiar with their work the following may help. “Brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman enrage some with their art and reduce others to hysterics, but no one is neutral [Really?] about two of Britain's most outstanding artistic provocateurs ” (cover note).  The Brothers' work consists of graphic, sculptural, and installation pieces, often with titles (and overlaid text) consisting of expletives and profanity.  As some of the contributors suggest the Chapmans do not just create work to shock viewers; they are much deeper than that. Maybe? However, calling these two “outstanding provocateurs” would seem to contradict this. It is my contention that the Chapman's work would only shock or enrage those who have led a very sheltered existence indeed, living under a bushel, as it were. For those of us who have had real life experiences of the most horrendous kind — children or siblings dying of hideous cancers at a young age, friends being torn to pieces in motor vehicle accidents, being a refugee fleeing the death regimes’ of insane political leaders (including holocaust survivors) or having a severe debilitating illness — the Chapman's work on the shock-horror level is simply a big yawn!

This book is the result of the ongoing relationship between the Tate Liverpool and the University of Liverpool in their Tate Liverpool Critical Forums series. It will no doubt be of interest to fans of the Chapman Brothers. Also to students studying critical theory, art history or perhaps psychoanalytical theory. It will thrill those who wish, “… to focus attention on the dynamic construction of art histories as stimulated by the act of exposition” (cover) [my italics].

Last Updated 5 September, 2010

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