Review by Freddy Syborn
Of all the leaps of faith the New Testament asks us to make, ‘blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5:5) seems the steepest. The promise is so physical. One associates material acquisition with selfishness, the unchecked unmeek. No matter what’s taught, no matter that in Matthew 5 Christ reworks the Ten Commandments - those things ‘said by them of old time’ - to condemn desire to acquire as well as the act of acquisition, the meek can’t count on earthly inheritance. As Frank Zappa puts in, The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing.
The title of the Chapman Brothers’ new sculptural group comes not from Zappa but J. Paul Getty, oil and art tycoon, who said ‘the meek shall inherit the earth. But not the mineral rights.’ Getty lived by this maxim: when his grandson was ransomed, Getty refused to pay. That inheritance looked like it’d have to be over his dead body, though, in the end, the boy’s severed ear softened Getty sufficiently to lend his son the money at a 4% interest rate. Though the shapes of the Chapman Brothers’ dinosaurs are reminiscent of the make-your-own sets children play with, then, there is a darkness and an irony to the group which undercut what might seem like a celebration. Constructed of hand-drawn planes taken from educational plywood assembly kits (an evocation similar to that of Warhammer in Hell), there is a subversive edge to the dinosaurs just as tangible as the rough, rusted steel.
Their position in Jesus College, Cambridge, is firstly funny. The college’s own urban legend says an undergraduate faces immediate expulsion for jumping up on Barry Flanegan’s Bronze Horse. How much more tempting is it to ride a T-Rex’ And you wonder if the Fellows of Jesus find their reflection in them: the dinosaurs are not the only fossils in the college. The crude simplicity of the figures, moreover, imply that - whatever they teach you there - the university is best when it thrives on an unpretentious, intuitive, even childlike way of thinking, quite different to academic discipline.
These dinosaurs are not dangerous, thanks to their rigid legs and smiling faces, the clumsily harmonious, herbivorous positions they’d been placed in by sculptors as though at play. Walking around them (careful not to step on the grass), you can’t help but think of them as modern images: they are not, after all, carefully preserved in Cambridge’s Museum of the History of Science. Perhaps because of the context of their title and location, I began thinking about the fight that persists over teaching evolution to children as an alternative to intelligent design. I was reminded of some graffiti that turned an Alpha Course advert on Hammersmith Roundabout into a joke. To its question ‘if God exists what would you ask’‘, someone had sprayed one word: ‘dinosaurs’’
I return to the title: fossils turn to oil. Colleges in Cambridge, and universities throughout Britain, have investment and pensions portfolios which include shares in such unethical companies as (according to CAAT) as BAE, General Dynamics, Boeing, Rolls Royce and QinetiQ. Dinosaurs live in the earth and the imagination. Both environments can produce energy out of them. It is clear, however, that one environment can turn them into understanding, and one to ash. Another irony of the Chapmans’ group is that the same people who sculpt young imaginations will draw their pensions from the dividends of corporations seemingly bent on upsetting harmony on earth.
Whether these thoughts occurred to me within the narrow context of Cambridge - whether I would have responded in the same way at the White Cube - is hard to say. But I do think that the meekness of their design disguises a challenge not to turn the other cheek. And, unless more people resist the urge to take what they desire, the mineral world will certainly not be inherited by anyone except yet more of the benighted Gettys. Old time morals.
The human mind is capable of reconstructing and understanding the most remarkable things. But human beings seem to rather these miracles were liquidated or burnt like books. There are still some dinosaurs who are dangerous.
Pieter Hugo: Nollywood, Yossi Milo Gallery, New York, USA