‘When our sculptures work they achieve the position of reducing the viewer to a state of absolute moral panic...they’re completely troublesome objects’
—J. AND D. CHAPMAN
‘Shock is an indicator of our shared frailty and our common fate as a species. Shock humanizes. An aesthetics of shock is the cultural equivalent of the ethics of care’
Among the most provocative works shown at Charles Saatchi’s aptly titled Sensation exhibition of 1997, Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000) is a monstrous apparition. A tangle of childlike mannequins with airbrushed skin and neat, bobbed haircuts are fused together in a nightmarish carousel of mutant sexuality. Their smooth fibreglass bodies are disrupted by the startling intrusion of sharply realised anatomical details: erect penises replace noses, gaping sphincters are substituted for mouths, vaginas emerge between adjoined faces. The aesthetic cacophony is compounded by Fila trainers worn on each of the chimera’s 28 feet, as if outfitting it for athletic or predatory activity. Crashing the hellish visual impulses of Bosch and Goya into a contemporary consumerist horror show, the Chapmans play with moral outrage as a way of critiquing what they see as bourgeois constructs: here, they expose our ideas of childhood as a symbolic condition that is contingent on shifting social fashions and ideologies as much as biological development. As with other works from the Anatomies series, this Dr Moreau organism is calculated to make the viewer question their initial shock and discomfort; with the language of science and engineering, the title indicates that this being is a genetically manipulated specimen, magnified a thousand times. Our reading of the sculpture as grotesque depends on the sex, anxiety and violence bubbling beneath our own surfaces: a glimpse of seething horror within ourselves far more troubling than what we see before us.
With its insistent materiality, sculpture makes an acute demand upon viewer response, intruding upon real physical space without the comforting distance of illustration. The uncanny power of polychrome anthropomorphic sculpture, in particular, can be felt in the draw of waxwork museums that persists into our modern age of screens and simulacra. Indeed, the Chapmans see themselves as resurrecting the gothic titillations of museums, galleries and even religious buildings of old: spaces full of lifelike dolls and automata that blurred the distinctions between imagination and reality, past and present, now largely relegated from the temples of art to places like Madame Tussauds or Disney’s EPCOT Center. The brothers’ 1994 Great Deeds Against the Dead, a three-dimensional realisation of a plate from Goya’s Disasters of War – a gallery of images of vertiginous terror which has long obsessed the brothers – is perhaps the defining icon of their aesthetic, and Zygotic acceleration is its mutated descendant. As Jake Chapman has written, the brothers’ work ‘parasitically, or vampirically, depends upon all the forms of art production which should under the conditions of progressive modernity and liberal humanism, have been buried, being Luddite or non-teleological. So our excavation of all these zombified art techniques visits the healthy, vital modernist body with all the diseases which give it its momentum’ (J. Chapman, ‘Jake Chapman on Georges Bataille: An Interview with Simon Baker,’ Papers of Surrealism, 1, Winter 2003, p. 8).
As Jake’s pseudo-academic language indicates, the brothers are interested in spectacles of corruption and obscenity less for the horrifying physical objects in themselves than for the responses they provoke: they aim to needle a Freudian pre- or subconscious latent beneath our civilized exteriors, and force us to recalibrate our critical vision. For all its graphic shock value, absurdity and kitsch mythological overtones, Zygotic acceleration is essentially a springboard for high-minded theoretical disquisition. Discussing the Anatomies, the brothers have said: ‘They’re polymorphous sexual beings and people get very anxious about those grey areas around their morality. They’re so desperate to place everything in a comfortable box that, the moment you put something in front of them that doesn’t fit in with this, they run around screaming their heads off. Which is the reaction we were trying to provoke; the effect is more interesting than the object. They’re like moral hand grenades in galleries. But if you go into a gallery you should be expecting to see things like that. That’s what a gallery is: a place where you leave your baggage by the door and you look around and hopefully you see something that makes you think a little bit’ (J. & D. Chapman, quoted in D. Barrett, ‘Interview with Jake & Dinos Chapman,’ http://www.royaljellyfactory.com/newartupclose/chapman-iv.htm [accessed 05/05/16]). Whether this ‘moral hand grenade’ will retain its controversy with the lasting potency of Goya remains to be seen: still, over twenty years after its creation, the work’s undeniable force endures, opening the eyes and minds of hardened art enthusiast and casual gallery-goer alike.