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Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction
Lot 44: Jake and Dinos Chapman (b. 1966 and b. 1962)
Jake and Dinos Chapman (b. 1966 and b. 1962)
fibreglass, resin, paint, rhinestone, wig and glasses
144 x 72 x 72in. (366 x 183 x 183cm.)
Executed in 1995
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An acknowledged masterpiece of the Young British Art generation, Übermensch has been exhibited throughout the world at most of the major surveys of this groundbreaking movement. Like much of the greatest work from this movement, Übermensch lifts realism to a new level and uses the shocking reality of its depiction to ask important questions about the nature of our existence and the society that surrounds us. Towering above the viewer, Stephen Hawking, one of the great intellectual brains of our time, is raised high on a pedestal surveying all around him. However, what quickly becomes clear is that the pedestal is a rocky crag, and Hawking's wheelchair is perched perilously close to the edge, with one wheel dangling off. The metaphor is devastating and direct, this man who is so wholly in control of his own thoughts that he has transformed our understanding of the origin of our world, cannot control his own physical mobility. Raised on high, we can worship this intellectual god, but he is about to fall off the precipice. Further intellectual depth is added here by the title of the work: the Übermensch was a concept developed by Frederic Nietzsche in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Literally translated as Overman or more commonly Superman, Nietzsche proposed a new generation of man able to live entirely within the confines of the Earth, avoiding any recourse to the spiritual beliefs endorsed by Christianity. Nietzsche criticised those who took solace in the spiritual salvation promised in the afterlife, and instead encouraged people to become masters of their own destiny, to live life to the full, to experience, explore and even exploit the Earth. This was encapsulated in his concept of the 'Death of God.' These ideas had come to Nietzsche while he had been walking in Switzerland, where he had been inspired by the sight of a gigantic, towering, pyramidal rock. Here, it seems, this rock has been re-created with the Superman of our times, Stephen Hawking atop.
Executed in fibreglass, the supreme technical skill brings him alive, photo-realistically, with the figure of Hawking himself appearing as if by magic at the summit, his face animated by the paste jewels that glitter among his teeth. He appears as a visionary, elevated way above the surrounding viewers, a traveller of the mind poised like Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer above his own sea of mist. The Chapmans themselves referred to this sculpture showing him, 'with his saucepan grin, staring into the teleological distance' (Chapman Brothers, quoted in A. Searle, 'Visual Arts: faces to watch in the art world', Independent, 18 July 1995, reproduced at www.independent.co.uk). This is a monument to the great thinker, to the man whose imperfect body contrasts so markedly with his perfect mind, a tribute to this contemporary Übermensch. As has been much discussed over the years, the body of this Scientific genius was tragically dominated by his motor neurone disease which gradually took over his body after he arrived at Cambridge in the 1960s. Despite the severe handicap, he set himself the task of attempting to explain the beginnings of the earth not to be a 'big bang' as proposed by certain religions, but in fact to have a wholly explicable basis in the science of Physics, as explained in his ground-breaking and much celebrated book, A Brief History of Time. This thesis had origins in those of Charles Darwin and his proposals for the Origins of the Species as being wholly explicable by science and nature and not by the intervention of some higher being, a text which was written just before Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the 1850s. The Chapmans had made their name in the early 1990s with a series of sculptures who were evolutionarily challenged, bastardised bodies who were arguably products of our cosmetically-enhanced times but also embodied the Brothers' proposition for the next stage of our evolution.
Übermensch, like all those other works, explores one of the most consistent themes in the Chapman brothers' work, the concept of 'perfect and imperfect bodies,' taking the idea of evolution and twisting it to their own purposes. In a sense, all of these works reflect on Mankind's position as perceived from the perspective of the modern age. The solace offered by Charles Darwin's theory that humankind was the result of permutation after permutation, that it was an evolved pinnacle, has here been thrown into question: after all, one wonders what purpose these new adaptations serve. And of course Hawking's own theories and his explanations of the nature of the Universe made so accessible and popular in his 1988 best-seller A Brief History of Time make such concerns about the nature of mankind seem almost absurd when seen from a cosmic perspective. Our fleeting lives on our far-flung planet are incidental.
As was the case with Hawking's appearance in Fucking Hell, Dinos and Jake Chapman's other great sculpture where he is sitting on a tropical island surrounded by prospective carnal pleasures in the form of mutated, double-headed bikini-clad women, the Chapmans have invoked their own dark humour to lend Übermensch greater impact. The absurd eyrie upon which Hawking's wheelchair sits is ridiculous, indeed perilous. One wonders how he gained this perilous summit: his pedestal clearly doubles as a predicament. Regarding their deliberate pushing of the boundaries of taste as a weapon in their artistic arsenal, the brothers have explained that their sculptures 'achieve the position of reducing the viewer to a state of absolute moral panic... they're completely troublesome objects' (D. and J. Chapman, quoted in D. Fogle, 'A Scatological Aesthetics for the Tired of Seeing', Chapmanworld: Dinos and Jake Chapman, exh. cat., London 1996, n.p.). This is certainly the case in Übermensch, which ultimately strongarms the viewer into finding humour in a place that we know should be wrong. Even the rhinestone teeth, lending their ritzy glamour to the celebrity scientist, add a dark and bitter twist of irony to this image. Yet it is through this manoeuvre that the Chapman brothers may be encouraging their viewers to become Supermen in their own rights, following another of Nietzsche's precepts: 'Laughter means: being schadenfroh but with a good conscience.'
Thus with sculptures such as Übermensch, the Chapman Brothers have taken the history of sculpture to a different level. Throughout their career they have moved between different mediums in order to adapt their ideas and thoughts to the correct visual form, each time excelling technically with the use of the medium. Here in the medium of fibreglass, we find an immaculately rendered image of Stephen Hawking which becomes a treatise on the way we live today. The sculpture provokes us, meaning that it is not only its physical, formal attributes to which we respond, but also our own reactions, which are thrown into the light by this extreme vision. Übermensch reflects our own deepest darkest beliefs whilst also challenging them with a staggering intellectual depth. In a world where the appearance of God is being challenged on a daily basis and his position in people's lives has been taken by 'celebrity' worship, the Chapmans ask questions about the guidance we are receiving today and the fundamental boundaries of our morals and ethics, and they do so with extraordinary sculptural dexterity.
Victoria Miro Gallery, London.
Saatchi Collection, London.
Anon. sale, Christie's London, 8 December 1998, lot 130.
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Brilliant! New Art from London, October 1995-January 1996. This exhibition later travelled to Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum, February-April 1996.
London, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Chapmanworld, May-July 1996 (illustrated in colour, unpaged). This exhibition later travelled to Graz, Kunstverein, November-December 1996 and Berlin, Kunst-Werke, January-March 1997.
London, The Royal Academy of Arts, Sensation Young British Artist From The Saatchi Collection, September-December 1997 (illustrated in colour, p. 66).
Copenhagen, ARKEN Museum for Moderne Kunst, MAN-Body in Art from 1950 to 2000, September 2000-January 2001.
Groninger, Groninger Museum, Enjoy More: Jake and Dinos Chapman, October 2002-January 2003.
Avignon, Collection Lambert, Coollustre, May-September 2003.
Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, Mike Kelley: The Uncanny, February-May 2004. This exhibition later travelled to Vienna, MUMOK, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, July-October 2004.
Guangzhou, Guangdong Museum of Art, Afterschock: Contemporary British Art 1990-2006, December 2006-February 2007. This exhibition later travelled to Beijing, Capital Museum, March-May 2007.
J. Kastner, "Brilliant?", in Art Monthly, December 1995-January 1996, pp. 10-15 (illustrated, p. 14).
P. Johnson, "British exhibit knows attitude, some brilliance", in Houston Chronicle, February 1996 (illustrated, p. 6).
S. Dewan, "England's Edge", in Houston Press, 21 March 1996 (illustrated, p. 35).
Unholy Libel Dinos & Jake Chapman, exh. cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, 1997 (illustrated in colour, p. 137 and detail illustrated in colour, p. 136).
J. Stallabrass, High Art Lite - British Art in the 1990s, London 1999, (illustrated, p. 146).
R. Timms, A. Bradley and V. Hayward (eds.), Young British Art - The Saatchi decade, London 1999, (illustrated in colour, p. 247).
Jake & Dinos Chapman: The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, El matrimonio de la razón y la miseria, exh. cat., Malaga, CAC Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, 2004 (illustrated in colour, p. 19).
D. Barret, Jake and Dinos Chapman (New Art Up-close), London 2007 (illustrated in colour, p. 25).
C. Grunenberg and T. Barson (eds.), Jake and Dinos Chapman: Bad Art for Bad People, exh. cat., Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, 2006 (detail illustrated in colour, p. 68, installation view illustrated in colour, p. 140.)
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