Jake Chapman, Dinos Chapman

Little Death Machine (Castrated)


Aluminium, steel, wood, glass, plastic, rubber, paper, leather, soap and coffee
Displayed: 1384 x 742 x 943 mm
Presented anonymously 1997


The process of making Little Death Machine was empirical. The Chapman brothers assembled various objects they had in their studio and experimented with different systems to make them work. On a wooden surface two brains, cast in latex, and a rubber dildo are linked by plastic tubing and a crude system of wheels and pulleys to a hammer and a milk bottle. The whole mechanism is mounted on a metal framework and encased in a perspex box. Six bottles of liquids simulating milk in various stages of decomposition are displayed on the perspex base underneath the machine. Originally, before becoming 'castrated', the machine operated as a closed circuit. An electric pump directed liquid soap, simulating milk, from the milk bottle to the first brain. A blow from the hammer would then cause it to be pumped from the brain up into the penis, which in turn would ejaculate the liquid into the second brain. From here it would return through the tubing to the milk bottle, whence it would be recycled. The artists disconnected the mechanism in order prevent it from destroying itself. Initially displayed without a cover, the piece has accumulated a layer of dust and dirt, which now seems intrinsic to it. Now under a perspex box and ageing noticeably, it has acquired the look of an archive exhibit.

Little Death Machine … was like a do-it-yourself libido … It doesn't look like a libido but in its action, from the end of the penis to the upturned brain, between those two points, the representation is actually quite correct. It's uncanny that an apparatus so unlike the human can produce something that is mechanically like this splutter from the genitals.
(Chapmans quoted in Hilty: 'Dinos & Jake Chapman: Shock, Boredom, Modernism', Art Press, no. 234, April 1998, p.40.)

The title of Little Death Machine (Castrated) refers to the French term for masculine post-orgasm flaccidity - le petit mort - meaning literally 'little death'. It proposes an endless cycle of self-involved and enclosed cerebral-sexual activity leading to death. Reducing human (particularly sexual) activities to their most mechanical and banal is a Chapman speciality, graphically illustrated by this work. In its state before becoming 'castrated', the machine suggests the sterility of masturbation, as opposed to the possible fertility of real intercourse with another body. Mechanically disconnected, it represents a double-death. With its aged and preserved appearance Little Death Machine (Castrated) recalls the mechanical objects of the surrealists. The inclusion of a paper McDonald's cup containing coffee residues connects the work with Coffee Mill 1911 (Tate T03253) by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), a painting depicting a mechanical device for grinding coffee, and simultaneously brings it back into the late twentieth century.

Further reading:
Chapmanworld, exhibition catalogue, ICA, London 1996, [pp.45-6]
Stuart Morgan, 'Rude Awakening', Frieze, no. 19, Nov.-Dec. 1994, pp.30-33
Unholy Libel: Six Feet Under; exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Gallery, New York 1997, reproduced (colour) fig.ii, [p.82]

Elizabeth Manchester
May 2000

Display caption

‘Little death’ is a literal translation of the French term for orgasm, la petite mort. This work connects the sexual act not only with death, but also with the rhythms of a machine. The reference to castration in the title emphasises the impotence of this inert, broken-down mechanism. The work of the Chapman brothers recalls the disturbing sexual fetishism and fascination with dismemberment of the Surrealists.

Gallery label, August 2004

Technique and condition

The following entry is based on an interview with the artist, Jake Chapman held on 28 July, 1995.

The work is an assemblage of parts simulating a closed circuit in which liquid soap is circulated through plastic tubes from one part to the others; the flow of soap originates from a plastic brain to a pink plastic penis, and then to another plastic brain, to finally return to the starting point and repeat the cycle again. This so-called soap machine, once working, is now in a purposely non-functional state. The mechanical movement was initiated by an electric powered pump. The mechanism or soap machine is mounted on a Dexion metal framework, and the whole assemblage is encased in a perspex box. Six bottles of milk in various stages of decomposition are displayed on the perspex base underneath the machine.

The artist Jake Chapman explained that they worked in an empirical way, using various objects or parts they had in their studio and trying to make them work. The brains have been cast in latex from a model, the plastic penis bought, the hammer is from their studio, the paper cup from McDonald's, and the soap that circulated in the circuit purchased from Boots' the Chemist. Every object or part used had a specific function.

The artist pointed out that 'everything is sort of invisibly connected ... all things are drilled through the underside' and fixed mainly with screws. Some of the elements are supported and fixed to small blocks of wood. These are mounted and fixed to a piece of fibreboard, itself supported and fixed diagonally to a plywood base. This base is supported by a metal framework. The perspex cover sits over the perspex base on which are displayed, unfixed, the milk bottles. As specified by the artist, the paper cup containing coffee residues should stand upright, loose, anywhere on the exterior plywood. The perspex box is a later addition and is to be considered as part of the work. Almost all the surface of the fibreboard panel is covered with a greyish textured layer of soap resulting from when the machine was functioning. The overall surface is purposely covered with dust that has developed with time.

Overall the work is in a fair structural condition. The different plastics are already degrading and will continue to do so with age, and there is some corrosion on certain metal components. The milk contained in the bottles was sour, decomposing and represented a bacterial hazard. Jake Chapman agreed to dispose of the decomposing milk in the bottles and to have them replaced with a simulated liquid made from safe materials, as the bottles of milk are 'not the finite elements' of the work. The artist also agreed to dispose of the bottles and to have them replaced with other similar glass milk bottles. The brown stain on the base is from the residue of one of the milk bottles.

Chapman indicated that the natural degradation of the sculpture and its different elements was intentional and part of the work. Although, he further added that because the viewer will try to understand the mechanics of the work, it is therefore important in the future to have the brains and the penis in a recognisable state. The artist is willing to make replicas of the brains from their mould if they should become unrecognisable with time.

Michelle Leplage
July 1998