Jake Chapman’s head appears from a giant vagina, like a gurning Jack Nicholson in full-on ‘Here’s Johnny!’ mode. A stop-motion artist-cockroach gets soaked with spoodge. But these aren’t the best parts of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s queasily awesome film ‘Fucking Hell’ (2013). The highlight of the duo’s scintillating sort-of retrospective at the Serpentine’s new Sackler Gallery has to be a series of biopic vignettes based on the lives of famous artists. Titans of art history are played, remarkably convincingly, by liquid-filled rubber gloves. Here, dangling from a string, comes Jackson Pollock, dribbling and drinking before jumping into his car and – splat! – hitting a tree. Here’s Andy Warhol perving over some porny Factory shenanigans (acted out by yet more gloves), before sloping off for a – pop! – fateful encounter with a pistol.
It’s not often you experience an art audience rolling in the aisles (okay, I was, at least), but that’s the effect of this toxic mix of William S Burroughs’s ‘Naked Lunch’ and Tony Hancock’s ‘The Rebel’. The only people not to react in the Chapmans’s darkened ‘Kino Klub’ are the Ku Klux Klansmen. Did I mention those? Dotted around this show are dozens of shop mannequins dressed in white robes and pointed hoods.
They’re part far-right oppressors, part handwringing lefties: beneath their smocks they sport rainbow-coloured socks and sandals. On their sleeves are smiley faces. Neither funny nor fearsome, they seem in their proliferation to point out nothing more (or less) than the terrible, dulling effect of repetition. They huddle together, eyeing up traditional portraits bought by the Chapmans and doctored with schlocky additions, or peering into display cases teeming with tiny model figures engaged in endless cycles of violence – mass carnage on a minute scale. In the ‘Kino Klub’ they shield their eyes against the horrors conjured on film by the Chapmans.
For decades, the Chapmans have mined a strange territory, somewhere between contemporary art’s ability to cause offence and its patent failure to have much of an effect on the world. What they always remind us, however horrific or depraved the worlds they imagine, is that the real horrors are being committed elsewhere, and often by those who claim to be the most affronted by contemporary art. Now middle-aged, the brothers remain scrupulously committed to their sense of schoolboy puerility as well as the precision of their craft. ‘The Sum of All Evil’ (2012-2013) features cabinets filled with tableaux of detailed depravity in the manner of ‘Hell’ (2000), which was destroyed in the 2004 Momart warehouse fire. In one glass tank, dozens of Ronald McDonalds are crucified by Nazis. In another, Ronald turns torturer.
You can catch up with the Chapmans’ career in miniature by visiting their retrospective within a retrospective, or ‘Shitrospective’ as they call it. Here, their greatest hits – including ‘Great Deeds Against the Dead’ (1994), the sculpture based on one of Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ etchings, and one of their many-headed shop mannequin mutants – are reimagined as endearingly cackhanded cardboard maquettes.
If there’s a linking thread between works old and new it’s a sense of deflection going on behind the scenes. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the Chapmans they turn the tables, lambasting not just the bad guys but the art world, themselves, even you, dear gallerygoer – standing there in your metaphorical Birkenstocks. It would make for a closed loop of cynicism were it not for their slavish attention to detail, so fantastical it leaves you feeling heady.
You’ll leave this brilliantly acerbic show thinking how tepid so much contemporary art is by comparison. And how marvellously ironic it is that the Chapmans, whose nihilistic fixation on man’s inhumanity to man runs counter to the idea of progress, continue to evolve, engage and amaze. Don't miss this last-minute contender for exhibition of the year.