The wall painting We are artists 1991, the earliest work in the exhibition, summarises the philosophical basis of the Chapmans’ work and their aesthetic attitude. The exaggerated language employed mimics that used by two of the Chapmans’ principle influences, the anti-Enlightenment philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and Georges Bataille (1897–1962), to undermine rational discourse as the basis of knowledge and instead emphasise non-knowledge, the irrational, foolish or absurd. In GCSE Art Exam 1999, the Chapmans parody the principles and structures though which aesthetic value is judged, undermining the mechanisms that maintain the artistic status quo and questioning the act of ‘reasoned’ judgement itself.
The series of mutated mannequin sculptures, or anatomies, shown here dominate the artists’ work of the 1990s. Zygotic acceleration biogenetic de-subliminated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000) 1995 is composed of a group of child mannequins fused together, whose misplaced genitals replace other orifices. Such works evoke the Surrealists’ fascination with shop-display mannequins, waxworks, automatons or dolls, relating them also to Sigmund Freud’s (1856–1939) concept of the uncanny, because they hover between the living and the inanimate. The Chapmans’ mannequins only become truly uncanny when, like Hans Bellmer’s dolls, the artists play with their bodily coherence, fragmenting and fusing bodies together to create monstrous hybrids, displacing usually concealed or hidden parts of the human body (genitalia, pudenda) onto their faces. They also refer to a Freudian view of displaced sexual desire or libido, or desires that are repressed and then released (de-sublimated), as in The Return of the Repressed 1997. Furthermore, they evoke contemporary concerns with genetic manipulation and cloning - or ‘Frankenstein science’ – and vanity or celebrity driven plastic surgery.
The Chapmans’ series of kitten paintings employ similar tactics to make comically gruesome hybrids from originally saccharine imagery combined with human genitalia. These works play with notions of taste and kitsch: soppy images of pussy-cats, evidence of the depths of banality to which culture has plummeted, are lampooned as facile by the various mutations performed on them and through titles that employ clichéd sexual terms and lewd innuendo.