"I have never met anyone who was shocked by our work, or even talked to anyone who had met anyone who was shocked by it." – Jake Chapman, 2006.
In the Tate's Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, there is a sculpture whose presence may yet provoke the most lapsed of Catholic art-appreciators to sweat from their closed-up stigmata: this life-sized Christ – a quadruple amputee, the stumps of whose limbs (in their raw, textured marble) suggest the interior of some slab of whitening meat, whose eyes are closed and whose mouth is downturned in a manner too violent for resurrection – has all the hallmarks of what might be a Chapman meisterwork. It is violent, blasphemous, and primitive in its antireligious heft.
In some alternate gallery or universe, one might imagine a plastic figurine of the dead Messiah dismembered thus by the Bruvvers of BritArt: this statue, however, dates from the 16th century, or thereabouts, and is exquisite in its craftsmanship. Discovered underneath a London church in the 50s, the limbs were supposedly removed by a group of reformers. Religious violence is everywhere in this show; to those who view the gallery as a kind of church, this metaphor may stretch further.
As Dead Christ, the Saviour appears in transitu – between His death and His resurrection, existing as a vulnerable and human corpse on the verge of putrefaction. Might some of the artworks destroyed by iconoclasts, in turn, be said to have been in transitu themselves, to have existed in a state between the original meaning of their creation and their reinvention by the very hands which destroyed them? Those who wrought the damage to some of these artworks might argue thus. Take, for instance, the attack on the Roqueby Venus – featured here – by the Suffragette Mary Richardson, who believed that the slash of the cleaver might turn an inert and subjugated female figure ("[I didn't like] the way that men visitors gaped at her all day long," she explained in 1952, almost four decades later) into a symbol of feminist power. The inclusion of Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII, likewise, suggests the destruction not of an object, but of a status quo – an art world itself in transitu, perhaps, awaiting its own resurrection. (In 1976 – completing the cycle – Equivalent VIII was defaced.)
The intent at the core of Art Under Attack is that the show conveys the differences between vandalism and iconoclasm proper, between the wanton destruction of creative works, and their political defacement or re-appropriation – violence conceptual and literal. The Chapmans, of course, have work in the show; how could Tate have resisted? Their media patter, after all, has consistently seen them position their practice as an act "both creative, and destructive, though in [their] case, mostly destructive." The message in these is more complex, however, if this "in transitu" principle is applied: the works in the series are unremarkable nineteenth-century portraits, defaced by the artists in horror-movie styles to create stiff-collared monsters.
Jake and Dinos Chapman, One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved II (No.6), 2008; Courtesy the artists and White Cube © Jake and Dinos Chapman Photo: Todd-White Art Photography.
If the defacement of these brings about their resurrection, what of the brothers' applications of the same technique to their Goya sketches? And can defacement be iconoclasm if the item – however inert – was never of any real significance at its creation: was "uniconic"? Attack... provokes, in this instance, debate, in lieu of assault via cleaver.
(Image on top: Allen Jones, Chair , 1969 © Allen Jones / Courtesy Tate)