Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Ecology of Hell

The End of Fun
A few days ago I went to the St. Petersburg State Hermitage, again, this time to see a rather extraordinary exhibit. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a work by Jake and Dinos Chapman, two English artists. Titled The End of Fun, it is an elaborate tableau of hell, carved up into nine rectangular sub-tableaux, each piece placed in a glass case. (It is a recreation of a previous work, titled Hell, which was lost in a warehouse fire.) The glass cases are, in turn, arranged in the shape of a swastika. The effect of viewing each one is like that of peering into a terrarium in some sort of menagerie where the animals—at the time the clock stopped—were busy torturing and killing each other in maximally cruel and unusual, highly ritualized and choreographed ways.

The animals in question are all miniatures: all are somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-3cm tall. There are Nazi soldiers, some in uniform and wearing helmets, some in various stages of deshabillé, sans trousers especially. There are also animated blackened skeletons wearing Nazi helmets and armed with spears. The skeletons play the role of prison wardens, herding the Nazi soldiers along and doing a wide variety of unspeakably cruel things to them (which the soldiers seem to tolerate with reasonably good cheer). There are also mutants. These are naked human forms with extra heads, torsos, legs and limbs. One mutant in particular stands bent over and has an arm protruding from its anus which is tensed in a snappy military salute (and it occurred to me that this is a most proper way give a military salute, although a bit challenging for us non-mutants). There are also pigs, goats, cows, rats, dogs and vultures.

In spite of the diminutive size of the actors, the work is monumental in scope. There is a cast of thousands, all of it very actively disporting itself in an orgy of violence. Some of the action is grotesque, some comic, but all of it is quite bloody and gory. The sight is, at first, overwhelming, but after becoming acculturated to the phenomenon of Chapmans' work it begins to seem almost quaint. I hope they don't hate me for saying this, but after a while I began to see their work as conventional, representational and a bit old-fashioned. It reminded me of Hieronymus Bosch and of medieval German wooden statues and crucifixes: gaunt Jesuses twisting in pain, with festering stigmata and rivulets of blood dripping down their faces from the crowns of thorns puncturing their skin.

But I think the Chapmans go far beyond such older portrayals of hell, because their work is devoid of simplistic moral content: there is no identifiable sin and there is no identifiable punishment—just the curious and multifaceted ebb and flow of hellish existence. The motivations of the various actors remain inscrutable, beyond being able to state the obvious: they are what they do. This is not an unreasonable view of humanity. After all, we can see that popes roll around in popemobiles and bless things, that politicians lie and shake hands, that basketball players dribble while boxers try to punch each other in the head. Why they do these things is obvious: they are defined by their behaviors, just as Chapmans' skeletons, Nazi soldiers and mutants.

To point this out, as Chapmans have done, is far more significant, and accurate, than any moralistic statement or commentary could be. It could be said that our world resembles hell because people are defined by what they do: financiers create more debt even though we are already drowning in it; Western militaries pursue self-defeating campaigns to bomb and occupy foreign lands; industry burns more coal, oil and natural gas and produces ever more plastics and toxic chemicals even though we already know that these actions are killing us. To make this point, the Chapmans specifically chose to make use of worn-out concepts: Nazism, Christianity (their landscape is studded with crucifixes; nailed to them are Nazis, some naked from the waste down, and pigs) and... the clown Ronald McDonald, the unfunny, litigious, corporate champion of bad food who can't understand why he is evil.

The exhibit at the State Hermitage got off to a rocky start. Christians were scandalized and insulted, thinking that crucified Nazis and pigs insulted their religion. Others were up in arms over the use of Nazi symbolism. I am not sure how the Chapmans fought off the lawyers of McDonalds corporation, but apparently they did. Stephen Hawking, whose mostly disembodied brain contemplates the mysteries of the universe in a shack on an island on the outskirts of hell probably wasn't pleased either. Lawsuits were filed, and dismissed, the prerogatives of art were defended, and the show went on. What the Chapmans in effect did (inadvertently, I would think) was create their own sideshow of miscreants who have no capacity for art and are insulted by it, to serve as a free publicity machine for their work. There is never any shortage of people wanting to be insulted. The use of insult in advertising and marketing art seems to have a bright future.

The Chapmans venture into new territory by synthesizing a detailed vision of how hell functions as a system, complete with structure and function. Taking a pass through the various reviews of Chapmans' work, I have not found a single instance of anyone attempting a structural analysis of it. That is, while the Chapmans have created a detailed, synthetic model of hell and how it might function, nobody seems to be particularly interested in the details of that functioning. My time was too limited to undertake a full analysis of it, but here are some patterns that stood out.

The currency and feedstock of the entire operation seems to consist of severed human heads. These are exhibited on spikes which stud the landscape in wild profusion, some wearing Nazi helmets, some not. They are also arranged into piles and packed into oil drums. They are used as a feedstock to manufacture Hitlers: there is an underground factory of sorts which transforms severed heads into Hitlers, which emerge completely formed with beige uniforms and swastika armbands like Aphrodite out of sea-foam or like the orcs in the Lord of the Rings. The Hitlers serve a ritual function: there is a procession of Volkswagen Beetles (which are pushed; very little of the industrial machinery littering the landscape of hell appears operational) and each one has a Hitler in the passenger seat delivering a Hitlergruß. Human heads are also eaten by cows, which give birth to the skeletons, which, armed with spears, herd the Nazis around. The skeletons are birthed into existence by the cows, then proceed into a church where some sort of initiation ritual is performed involving a cauldron of blood. They then proceed to their various tasks, such as crucifying Nazis.

These patterns make it easy to see and explain (in a rather unusual sense of that word) what goes on in the Chapmans' hell. But at the center of hell stands a mystery: a volcanic or nuclear explosion of some sort, where a drama of death and rebirth is enacted. In and out of the caldera stream masses of humanity (if it can be called that). In stream processions of Nazis; out stream processions of mutants and skeletons. I did not have a chance to contemplate this mystery in detail, but it appeared to me that while the skeletons and the Nazis continuously stream into hell from its outer margins—the Nazis in procession, the skeletons as an amphibious assault force floating in on oil barrels—the mutants issue forth from the caldera.

One of the nine cases contains a scene that is, more so than the rest them, a scene of truly unspeakable carnage. It contains all of the usual elements—the heads on spikes, the skeletons, the Nazis, the mutants, various animals and bits of wreckage, but these are arranged rather homogeneously. The scene is reminiscent of how a half-eaten plate of loaded nachos might look near the end of a drunken frat party. All and sundry are still actively at it, torturing, molesting and slaughtering each other, but unlike the highly organized patterns of the other scenes, the action in this one is one of undifferentiated mayhem. Even hell, it would appear, is not immune from the laws of thermodynamics and, as it runs its course, it reaches a high level of entropy.

One of the largest failures we face as we peer uncertainly into the future is a failure of imagination. People still keep talking about whether the future is Mad Max or Waterworld. Artists like the Chapmans are there to help us. Let us internalize their message as we move forward, machine-like, with our meaningless, self-destructive, environmentally harmful lives. Sartre pointed out that hell is other people; the Chapmans, I think, took it one step further and pointed out that hell is me and you.


pathman said...

Hell? You're soaking in it.

Dmitry Orlov said...

It's a dirty job but somebody's got to do it.

cmaukonen said...

"Even hell, it would appear, is not immune from the laws of thermodynamics and, as it runs its course, it reaches a high level of entropy."

As do most nation/states.

Robo said...

Thank you Dmitry. Quite a piece of work... Here's a video interview with the artists that shows many scenes close up:


There are many hidden elements of the diorama that are just as horribly detailed as the visible parts. Exactly like in real life.

My donkey said...

"after a while I began to see their work as conventional, representational and a bit old-fashioned."
It seems we're all getting to that point with certain types of visual art such as those ubiquitous PowerPoint slideshows (of 50 or so exceedingly gorgeous photos from around the world) that get forwarded to everybody and their dog. After a while you start flipping through them with hardly a glance, and eventually you decide to hit the Delete button rather than endure another batch of breathtaking pictures.
I think big-name artists, aware of the public's ennui, have been more-or-less forced to cook up the most revolting and blatantly offensive schtick just to grab a minute of our attention.
It's a tough task, considering they're competing for the glazed-over eyeballs of a populace that responds to a movie showing beheadings and emasculations by saying, "Meh; it was OK I guess."

My donkey said...

Maybe today's displays of visual art are suffering from the same problem that afflicts TV and movies, namely: passive receptors (i.e. viewers) with "no skin in the game".

To remedy this, tomorrow's artists should strive to provide a more interactive "artistic experience" that combines, for example, the pain of tatooing, the fear of mob control, and the exhilaration of paintball.

How about a future exhibit named "Anything Goes" set up like a Fun House at the Fair? But instead of wavy mirrors that make you look funny, and bursts of air that mess your hair, you'll be liable -- though not assured -- to get tasered or teargassed or pepper-sprayed or hit with rubber bullets or a water cannon or billy club, etc. Throw in some painfully loud detonations & temporarily blinding flashes for an all-round scintillating experience, and -- after signing the waiver -- you're good to go.

I reckon such an attraction might become so popular as to displace "the running of the bulls" as the world's most idiotic activity, but so be it. Never underestimate the enthusiasm of idiots. And for those who love living on the edge, rest assured that the Anything Goes artistic experience would be at least as titillating as auto-erotic asphyxiation, which claims numerous lives a year.

The only remaining question is: Where do I sign up?

KolapseKid said...

While I love Olov and this site I could sure live without crap like this.

Ozymandius said...

All part of Gaia's grand plan. Next trick please.

Stephen Bach said...

It has always been a challenge for us homo sapiens - especially those of us who consider ourselves civilized - to accept the 'shadow' aspects of ourselves.

This work of art, it seems, works to push us through the barriers we put up to fully accept our dark sides. To say 'accept' is not to say suggest approval of the forms of behavior which our darker impulses would move us to. But if we don't accept them, it's difficult to create a truly positive culture.

Clifford Dean Scholz said...

I don't see how anybody can look at that work and not see a rather profound statement about gender.

Breedlove said...

Kolapsekid, don't you need a break sometime. I don't think any of the readership needs more primers on collapse and crisis. This essay, like those investigations of language and Russian art, help show the depth of the collective identity crisis accompanying collapse. And for those of us who have niether an art history background, nor are well-traveled, I think these musings are wonderful. Thanks, Dmitry.

Patrick said...

I agree, Breedlove, they are all threads in the cloth being woven around us. And we all, to some degree, have a hand at the loom.

Unknown said...

If only we could get Bon Scott of AC/DC back to remind us that "--hell ain't such a bad place to be!"

Ooops, sorry, I realize he was speaking metaphorically of the woman/man & man/woman relationship as the hell on earth but I was more hopeful something could be reconfigured anyway from the statement.

I'm so glad some folks were offended, too, by this blog entry.

Their pride in being D.O. groupies needs to be worked over anyway and put on exhibit by the Chapman Bros.

Thanks, D.O. and--


Jagger said...

There is some spiritual speculation that our current existence is "hell" but we just don't realize it. Along this line of thought, the test is how much we reject or stand up against the values of this existence. Those that reject the values of this existence move to a higher plane of existence after death which reflects higher values while those that endorse...are kind of stuck. Kind of a different way of viewing things.

pepintheshort said...

That crap is not art. Yak!