The Chapman Family Collection comprises thirty-four wooden carvings, displayed on plinths and dramatically illuminated by pools of light in a darkened room. The work was first exhibited in 2002 at White Cube gallery, London, where the press release for the show heralded it as an extraordinary collection of rare ethnographic and reliquary fetish objects from the former colonial regions of Camgib, Seirf and Ekoc, which the artists Jake and Dinos Chapman’s family had amassed over seventy years. The mode of presentation is typical of any Western ethnographic museum. Writing in Artforum, Michael Archer has described its effect as ‘sepulchral, reverential, almost holy in a self-consciously contrived and artificial way’ (Archer, p.182). This is echoed by the tone of the press release which claimed that the exhibition sought to demonstrate the impact of such artefacts on modern artists, to show how ‘ethnographic art was both reconciled and fused with Modernism, creating timeless forms and enabling Global culture to harmonise in a single poetic language’ (http://www.whitecube.com/exhibitions/chapmanfamilycollection/ , accessed 12 May 2009). However, on walking through the installation, the inauthenticity of the objects gradually dawns on the viewer, as the unmistakable face of Ronald McDonald leers out from one of the works. Flame-haired and grinning, the familiar mascot of the world’s most famous burger chain forces the visitor to review what has been seen. Closer inspection reveals countless references to McDonald’s – various squat fetishes can be re-read as cheeseburgers, while the spiky protruberances on many objects are clearly french fries, and the name McDonald’s is carved across the centre of a shield-like object. Indeed the supposed sources of these ethnographic treasures – Camgib, Seirf and Ekoc – can revealingly be read backwards. The catalogue numbers assigned to each object – such as CFC76311561 and CFC77227084 – are the telephone numbers of McDonald’s branches in central London.
The Chapman Family Collection also makes overt references to the history of modern art with, among other examples, a miniature version of Endless Column 1938 by Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957) topped by a red-haired mask. By invoking modern art, the Chapmans make the issue of cultural trespass the broader issue addressed here, rather than any simplistic reference to a fast-food chain. The Chapman Family Collection appears to comment on Modernism’s appropriation of so-called ‘primitive’ art by associating it so strongly with the very face of capitalism. But it also draws attention to the way in which some museums present ethnographic artefacts, draining them of their sociological and religious functions and re-presenting them as aesthetic objects. In Modern Painters, Neal Brown argues that the work is most interested in ‘squeezing the maximum value from its pun on “fetish” – relating the Chapman’s fetish objects to the Marxist understanding of capitalist economy and “commodity fetishism”’ (Neal Brown, ‘Burger Fetish’, Modern Painters, Spring 2003, p.95). He adds that ‘[Georges] Bataille’s appropriation of economic terminology as a template for social theory was also invoked ... The Chapman’s critique was one of mischievous conceptual slipperiness: both excessively silly and eminently sensible’ (Brown, p.95).
The Chapman brothers have been working together since the early 1990s. Their art is deliberately confrontational, engaging with such inflammatory subjects and Nazism, the holocaust and religion, while it exploits an aesthetic of obscenity and horror. They appropriate elements from the history of art and philosophical and sociological theory to produce a body of work that derives much of its power from being politically and morally ambiguous, wilfully resisting straightforward interpretation.
The Chapman Family Collection 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 Arbeit McFries 2001 (private collection).
Christoph Grunenberg and Tanya Barson (eds.), Jake and Dinos Chapman: Bad Art for Bad People, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 2006, p. 85, reproduced pp.86–91.
Michael Archer, ‘Jake and Dinos Chapman’, ArtForum, May 2003, vol. XLI no.9, p.182.