The Chapman brothers have worked as a collaborative team since the early 1990s. Disasters of War was their first major work. It is a one in thirty-second-scale model based on a portfolio of etchings by Goya (Fransisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1746-1819), of the same title, depicting the atrocities of war experienced and witnessed during and after the Napoleonic invasions of Spain in 1808. Goya's eighty-three etchings contain scenes of brutality and horror such as bayonetting, mutilation and decapitation. The Chapmans have translated each of the etchings into a three-dimensional tableau made of hybrid toy figures which have been pieced together from various sources and painted over. Goya's dark settings have been replaced by clumps of simulated grass of the type used in architectural models. Each miniature scene is set on a grass-covered island of irregular form; the islands are clustered together on a large white plinth and covered by a perspex box.
The connection between making toy soldiers and making mannequins seemed to be the only way to maintain a relationship between found objects or readymade, which we could manipulate … Disasters of War … was made with the intention of detracting from the expressionist qualities of a Goya drawing and trying to find the most neurotic medium possible, which we perceived as models. It gave us a sense of omnipotence to chop these toys up.
(Jake Chapman quoted in Maloney, p.64.)
By bringing together Goya's eighty-three part series of etchings into one entity, in which all parts are simultaneously visible, the Chapmans' Disasters of War suggests a reduction and encapsulation of events of momentous emotional impact. The tiny size and anodyne manufactured appearance of the figures transform the horror of the original material into the representation of a war among toys, a comic-strip rendition of brutality. Both the large white plinth, which provides a broad margin between the figures and the viewer, and the perspex box, which seals the figures off from the viewer, add to the reductive and distancing effects of the work. The Chapmans have said: 'We fantasise about producing things with zero cultural value, to produce aesthetic inertia' (quoted in Unholy Libel, p.149). This work, like their subsequent Hell 2000 (Saatchi Collection, London), stages a neurotic fixation with an ironic edge: the hours of careful work required to cut up and reconstitute the little figures to represent grotesque human acts in a time of social uncontrol. Disasters of War reflects the detachment of Western societies from the realities of war-time killing, both through computer and missile technology (which have produced weapons that fire long range and permit operational distance) and through the comfortable spectatorship provided by television and the film industry.
Chapmanworld, exhibition catalogue, ICA, London 1996, [pp.46-7], reproduced (colour) [pp.28-9]
Unholy Libel: Six Feet Under; exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Gallery, New York 1997, reproduced (colour) fig.xvii [pp.98-9]
Martin Maloney, 'The Chapman Bros.: When will I be Famous', Flash Art, no.186, Jan.-Feb. 1996, pp.64-7, reproduced (colour, detail) p.67