In the realm of the unmissable
In a triumphant return to Hastings, the Chapman Brothers put on an epic show at the Jerwood Gallery which leaves HOT’s Chris Connelley gripped.
I have always been a huge fan of the Chapman Brothers – and where better to see their work than here in Hastings, the town where they grew up, as the Jerwood Gallery presents a pleasingly vast retrospective of their work in what they are pushing as their “biggest, baddest” exhibition to date.
The entirety of the gallery’s ground floor has been given over to the show, In the Realm of The Unmentionable, which offers up some classic works alongside new pieces, spanning etching, sculpture and some of the installations for which they are best known.
In a notable coup for the Jerwood, some of the work, like the fantastical bronze sculpture, Sturm und Drang, is being shown for the very first time, whilst their mesmerising installation, the truly immense Sum of All Evil, has been especially reworked. Its rainbow-socked, hacked-off-at-the-ankle god-like figure presides over thousands of models, dead and barely alive, in an uncompromising killing fields landscape that demands our extended close attention, taking the traditional museum battle diorama to an altogether different level.
Any tweedy military type down for the day hoping to reference regimental motifs must expect to be shocked at the cacotopian scene, which depicts primary coloured, creepy, smiley Ronald McDonald figures marshalling helmeted figures into the gates of hell, towering body piles – summoning up images of the 2001 foot and mouth corpse pyres, except that this time they are human – and copulating stegosaurs amidst the carnage.
Everyone with even a basic grasp of contemporary art knows that it is work like this that forms the basis of the Chapman Brothers’ reputation as brooding, moody, dark, sometimes gory, agents provocateurs; as artists exhibiting a definite Marmite effect that entrances many audiences, whilst repulsing others. Part of the majesty of the current show, though, lies in its epic scope, allowing space for a consideration of less high-profile works, such as the One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved sequence of embellished Victorian portraits, which subvert sober, serious images of respectable bourgeois souls with a range of facial deformities that transform us into territory more readily associated with the Hunterian Museum. These pictures work alongside, and complement, Los Caprichos, the reworked set of 18th century etchings by Goya.
In contrast, and by far the most surprising element of the exhibition, is the brothers’ exact remaking of the iconic Tracey Emin tent, detailing everyone she had ever slept with, which was destroyed by fire in 2004.
All in all, In the Realm… is a triumphant homecoming, which grapples with dark, disturbing and distressing themes with such a playful, arch, even comic touch that it prompts easy, regular, ready smiles alongside our uncomfortability, upset and unease. The work on display quite simply demands our fullest attention, and is genuinely engrossing, ensuring our visit is an unusually immersive experience in our often-vanilla walk-on-by contemporary visual culture.
And that’s not all. The show is important for the cultural economy of the town and the closest the two year old Jerwood Gallery has come thus far to scheduling a blockbuster. Moreover, it has been made possible through ‘Art Happens’, the Art Fund’s crowd-funding platform, which saw a whopping £29,528 donated to put it on, easily exceeding the initial £25k target, in a sign of the local interest in, and affection for, the Chapman Brothers, who memorably curated the gallery’s victorious Museum Night in 2013.
In the Realm of the Unmentionable is a must-see show that guarantees all open- minded visitors an unquestionable treat. Make it part of your autumn.
The exhibition runs to 7 January 2015 at the Jerwood Gallery, Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings TN34 3DW. Opening hours 1100-1700 Tuesday-Friday; 1100-1800 Saturday and Sunday. Admission £8 adults, £3.50 children, concessions £5.50. Free entry first Tuesday of the month.
All images: Jake and Dinos Chapman, courtesy White Cube.