Colin Brazier: Grubby suicide vest art still has the right to exist

Art that reflects life is important, although - sadly - it’s not a global right

Published Last updated

Yesterday marked the end of an exhibition in Bournemouth that was designed to shock. It was the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman, who make a living by producing art that people find revolting. And, at that, they are highly proficient.

Their latest effort showcased a collection of stylised suicide vests. Actually bronze, but once painted black and swathed in wires and fake explosives, quite convincing. Last week a Tory MP took the bait. Tobias Elwood lost his brother in the Bali bombing and he found, as many did, the idea of turning these instruments of murder into objects of art, repugnant. He described the exhibition in Bournemouth as “tasteless and insensitive”.

The Chapman Brothers, who’ve previously been nominated for the Turner Prize, have form on this. They specialise in outrage. And are shrewd operators when it comes to knowing how to provoke horror and a helpful headline.

Their work, for instance, was removed by a gallery in Italy after a Children’s rights group complained that their use of graphically modified mannequins was tantamount to child pornography.

Closer to home, an exhibition of their work in Lancashire inspired more indignation than admiration, after they re-imagined a crazy golf course to include one hole which featured a model of Hitler saluting a winning putt.

And in Russia, their depiction of the Crucifixion - with the form of Jesus replaced by Ronald McDonald - prompted demonstrations by members of the Russian Orthodox Church.

For the record, I think the Chapman’s work is meretricious, exploitative and grubby. I’m entitled to my view and, like it or not, they are entitled to put on shows like theirs, no matter how objectionable. In a free society, that’s the deal.

But I do hope they avoid any grand claims about being bravely transgressive. It’s one thing to irritate a Conservative MP, even one who’s brother was blown up by jihadists, another to offer an artistic exploration of what prompted someone to put on a suicide vest in the first place.

Because, although suicide bombers were first widely used by Tamils in their fight for independence in Sri Lanka, in recent years they’ve become associated with one particular ideological position. Why is it, do you think, that the Chapman Brothers seem to be limiting their artistic study of suicide vests? After all, as their past works have shown, they seem very happy ridiculing the follies of organised religion. Might it be that they’ve calculated that it’s one thing to offend Christians and Jews, but wise not to antagonise anyone who might feel that suicide bombing actually isn’t such a bad thing. Could it be that they are part of a cohort of artists and comedians who like to consider themselves as plucky convention defiers, slayers of sacred cows, but who actually draw the line at poking fun at Islamists. They know how that might end.

Personally, I don’t see why people have to go out of their way to mock religion. As a Catholic I don’t like it, even as I can see lots of things that have been done in the name of my faith that are worthy of mockery. So I understand, more than some, why a fair few Muslims are sensitive to satire, when it’s aimed at their faith. But I would defend the right of other people, braver people than me, who don’t feel that way. You might think that the Chapman Brothers, with their Ronald McDonald Christ and Hitler crazy golf, would turn their twisted artistic thoughts TO this. Instead, they depict suicide vests almost as inanimate objects, devoid of a body, yes, but also missing a guiding mind or theology. As I say, I don’t blame them for this, just so long as they don’t pass themselves off as heroic paragons of free expression.

The gallery in Bournemouth defended the suicide vests, by the way. A statement read: “Obviously we think it is really sad that he [Tobias Elwood MP] lost his brother and terrorism is wrong and terrible, but artists will make work about the world around them and it is important that they do.”

Which is true, art that reflects life is important, although - sadly - it’s not a global right. I say this because, as they were getting ready to dismantle the Chapman’s suicide vest exhibition in Bournemouth, the Taliban were murdering young people at a party in Afghanistan. What heinous crime against piety had they committed? What act of free expression cost them their lives?

They were playing music. At a wedding.