Exquisite Corpse is a portfolio of twenty images. It was produced in an edition of thirty. Ten of the sets were hand-coloured in watercolour. This set, the tenth in the edition, is in black and white. The edition was printed and published by Charles Booth-Clibborn under his imprint The Paragon Press, London.
The series is based on a game, developed by the Surrealists from the traditional game of Consequences, called Le Cadavre Exquis, or Exquisite Corpse. The Surrealists' game involves a piece of paper, folded horizontally concertina-fashion onto which, in turn, each member of a group draws a part of a body, without being able to see what others have drawn on the paper. The final result is a body or character of composite parts. The Chapman brothers have collaborated artistically since the early 1990s and decided to use the game to emphasise the dual nature of their work together, exploring difference within a unit. In this case they drew onto etching plates instead of pieces of paper. Each brother created ten head sections and had them covered by an assistant before exchanging plates and proceeding with the torso sections. The plates were again covered and exchanged for the remaining sections, ensuring that all four parts of the etchings were randomly matched. On some images the quarterly divisions are clearly visible and the background shaded in a horizontal segment; on others the different parts are less distinct. The artists have used a range of different drawing styles making it hard for the viewer to identify any one section with any particular hand. A selection of tools and differing degrees of pressure on the plate have resulted in a variety of effects. One section has been created using tiny dots made with a delicate tool, many others are finely etched in intricate lines. Simpler cartoon figures contrast with convoluted, messy and highly textured areas. The project was completed in twenty days.
The figures created in the portfolio are multi-limbed and frequently many-headed, like many of the Chapmans' sculptures. Disasters of War 1993 (Tate T07454) and Hell 2000 (Saatchi Collection, London) are composed of cut up and reconstituted bodies. The etchings feature imagery common to the Chapmans' work in other media: skulls, eyeballs on stalks, grotesque animal heads, liquids dripping and spurting from wounds, orifices, nipples and shower-heads, writhing intestines, claw-like hands and feet. Around the edges of the figures tiny spiders hang from threads and flies crawl. Insects' wings and branching roots appear in the place of limbs. The images recreate the worlds of such artists as Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516) and Goya (Fransisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1746-1819) with a contemporary feel. The Chapmans have referred to their work as having an 'infantile dialectic' (quoted in fig-1: 50 projects, 50 weeks), expressed through their exaggerated, comic-horror aesthetic.
The Chapmans are highly aware of the conceptual aspects of their work. Ever since they stencilled their self-defining anti-aesthetic manifesto We Are Artists onto a mud-splattered wall at the ICA, London in 1992, they have attempted to direct readings of their work and its subtext. Influenced by Surrealism and George Bataille, they are interested in psychological and psychoanalytical approaches. They have claimed of Exquisite Corpse that 'it is an incredibly sincere project', saying:
With two people, the work always originates from the point of view of conversation - not necessarily egalitarian dialectic, but at least it is some kind of an ego battle of one-upmanship and game playing … the Exquisite Corpses [sic] suggest that in another possible way: that we can produce work without us having to bend and reduce it … One of the things that we would be interested in … is to inject ideas of the artist's mark of creativity, of drawing … It's not about compromise … It's a constant battle between [my brother's] desires and my desires … And that makes a friction that you make something out of. (Quoted in fig-1: 50 projects, 50 weeks.)
Ant Noises at the Saatchi Gallery 2, exhibition catalogue, Saatchi Gallery, London 2000, [p.2], reproduced inside front and back covers
Patrick Elliott, Contemporary Art in Print, London 2001, pp.260, 329, reproduced pp.261-9
'Week 9, March 20-25, 2000: Jake + Dinos Chapman', fig-1: 50 projects 50 weeks, boxed loose-leaf exhibition catalogue, fig-1, London 2001, reproduced (colour)