suicidal at the Serpentine

In his high-collar lambs’ wool jersey (navy, of course), he is bellowing into the slender i-Phone in his palm. “We’re at the Chapmans’ show, Ems. Fabulous building. That Muslim woman did it.” He’s standing, legs apart in a capital A (is-for-arse), as if preparing to piss down the side of one of the large glass cases that form the show, left hand wedged into lightly gelled greying hair. “Hold on, Ems, just a mo’ darling.” A child is calling him from behind. “Daddy, Daddy, when can we go? I want to go. Daddy.” The child’s mother is trying to distract it, trying to educate it possibly, trying to stop it upsetting Daddy. “Look, darling, the horsey, darling. Look at the horsey.” She presses the child’s face up against another of the large glass cases, close to a horse, part of the scene of carnage inside, a massacre, a genocide — call it Hell if you like, but I’d rather keep it in the real world, not tucked away in the corner of a faith that bows down to the supernatural — that could be a snapshot from a part of the world in which we all live right now. (Syria, anyone?) Yes, there are Nazis in there. Hitler’s in one peaceful corner, a pet dog, a little garden, the picture of petty-bourgeois desire. Ronald MacDonald is there too — indeed, another mother of another small child offers helpful reminders in Putney tongue: “Corrie, sweetie, have you seen Ronald MacDonald?” She neglects to mention that the clown of obesity is also nailed to a crucifix in some cases, and apparently killing or maiming or torturing in others. Unfortunately for me, she also doesn’t name the blow-up purple figure that reminds me of a 1970s Weeble, but is probably a cartoon creation after my time. Meanwhile, Daddy’s still shouting into his phone to Ems. “Chapmans. Fabulously fucking weird sweets, hah!” They arrange to meet in a cafe in Kensington. They leave.

Show your kids these scenes if you like. I honestly don’t care. I don’t want censorship, or signs up banning the under-12s. So bring them to this show, and laugh at it with little Hugo and nine-year-old Muffy. It’s only art. It’s just a joke. It must be: apparently, Jake and Dinos have been doubled-up in giggles too. If it has no purpose other than to make us laugh — or to allow others to laugh at me (and people like me) when I don’t laugh — then classes of primary school kids should be bussed in and made to stare into the detail so that we can laugh at them when they have nightmares. What bothers me (much more than the kids’ expressions of consternation) are the adults.

Walking through Come and See yesterday was like looking into a huge mirror. I saw not only my reflection, but the reflection of the world, stretching out of Hyde Park, down Oxford Street, all the way to Goma and Homs, San Francisco and Aberystwyth, Grozny and Hong Kong. The presence of the Ku Klux Klansman (which one critic seems to scoff at because they aren’t real) reminded me of the ever-expanding crater between poor and rich, and of the many migrants who have tried to get in to the UK but who end up being held inside private prisons controlled by men in uniform who work for companies run by men in suits who might as well be wearing white cones on their heads. The KKK figures wore striped wool ‘hippie’ socks and Birkenstock sandals, dragging me to thoughts of the intense gentrification of my own neighbourhood of Walthamstow, where property prices are escalating at such speeds it’s starting to seem as if the local estate agents (who invent new rules of play for price bids and who establish glossy magazines that are more popular than the borough’s own dedicated paper) have levels of power our local MP might soon start to envy. Strolling through the show, I felt implicated. Because I am implicated. I am part of this vast hypocritical class that seems to have been chosen to enjoy a good life, for the time being anyway.

But don’t be fooled, not even by Dinos and Jake. There is no ‘if’ in this show (as the Telegraph’s critic also suggests): of course, we are fucked. As I listened in on conversations between couples in their Campers — ‘This is spooky! Ha ha ha!’ — I began to wonder if they, too, were part of the exhibition. The Chapmans are watching me, I thought. They are ramping up their parody to new heights and the joke is on me. The paranoia got worse. Allusions to Auschwitz made me miserable. Thoughts of my own book came to mind, of conversations with Angolans who were held in concentrations camps in the late 1970s, camps that one of them compared with the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland. Funny? Hardly. Kids entertainment? Probably not. But perhaps the ones I saw yesterday won’t have sleepless nights because they’ll end up like their parents — who seem to have had every last drip of empathy hoovered out of them, and every last line of political nouse snorted up the nostril of some unassuming celebrity chef who’s art-dealer-of-a-husband turns out to be a thug — so it won’t matter anyway.

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2 thoughts on “suicidal at the Serpentine

  1. Well, I am not a Chapman brothers fan. I feel that there is absolutely no empathy on THEIR part. (I haven’t seen this exhibition but I have in the past seen some of the exhibits you refer to.) I feel, looking at their work, that they are attempting to push a few emotional buttons to elicit a cheap reaction. And, with me at any rate, it doesn’t work. Enjoyed your article, by the way! x

  2. Maybe you are right, Mike. Maybe there really is none on their part either. And yet, I think that they produce something very powerful. For me, anyway. But, later, when I read an interview they’d done about it, it did seem to support what you say – that they have no empathy. It’s all just a bit of a joke.

    It reminded me of something Gabriel Josipovici wrote, in his recent book *What Ever Happened to Modernism?* about the failings of contemporary British fiction. He points to writers like Adam Thirlwell, Julian Barnes, Craig Raine, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and others, who he thinks are void of empathy. This particular layer of British writers, Josipovici says, seem only able to make jokes about stuff that is beyond joking, such as the Holocaust. The more I reflect on it, the more I wonder if the Chapmans are the art world’s answer to these literary folk.

    How very depressing.

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