Arbeit McFries 2001 is a tabletop sculptural tableau centred on a half-destroyed architectural model with gas chamber chimney, mock-classical Greek pediment and column as well as the sign of the fast food restaurant McDonalds. It was made by the British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. The building is surrounded by a barbed wire fence and then a row of trees on three sides. A swathe of model bodies pour out of the structure, most are naked, bloodied and eviscerated, some are dismembered. Many are piled high as though dead, while others adopt sexual positions. Also among the debris are figures wearing Nazi uniforms. Birds of prey pick at the bloodstained bodies. The title is a play on the German phrase ‘arbeit mache frei’ which means ‘labour makes you free’; the phrase which was placed over the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps – most infamously Auschwitz. The Chapman brothers have ironically conjoined the slogan with the McDonalds format of applying the prefix ‘Mc’ to their food, hence ‘McFries’, so when read, the original phrase is invoked.
Working in collaboration, brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman have created numerous miniaturised worlds that they term ‘hellscapes’ – panoramas of apocalyptic destruction and totalitarian genocide. One of their most ambitious works, Hell 1999–2000, was a miniature model with over 30,000 remodelled two-inch-high figures, many in Nazi uniform performing acts of cruelty. While owing a debt to such pre-modern artists as the late fifteenth-century painter Hieronymous Bosch and the eighteenth-century painter and draughtsman Francisco de Goya, these highly detailed models scenes of death and torture manifest the spectacle of violence that characterises modern times. They address the idea of ‘compassion fatigue’ that is frequently experienced following over-exposure in the media to images of excess violence or suffering.
The Chapmans’ art is notoriously confrontational, engaging with such inflammatory subjects as the Holocaust, Nazism and religion, while exploiting an aesthetic of obscenity and horror. The artists plunder the history of art as well as philosophical and sociological theory in order to produce a body of work that derives much of its impact from being politically and morally ambiguous. Their work wilfully resists straightforward interpretation. They have commented, ‘however misanthropic we might appear, it is still in service to a certain critical discourse’ (quoted in Turner Prize 2003, exhibition pamphlet, Tate Britain, London 2003, unpaginated).
With its references to both Nazism and McDonalds, Arbeit McFries conflates the totalitarianism of fascism with that of contemporary commerce. It is one of a number of works by the artists that make reference to McDonalds; others include The Rape of Creativity 1999 (private collection), Rhizome 2000 (private collection) and The Chapman Family Collection 2002 (Tate T12755).
Jake and Dinos Chapman: Bad Art for Bad People, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 2006.
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