Excess and Amateurism

Excess and Amateurism: William Blake, the Chapman Brothers and Hell
For everything 3.4

Excess and Amateurism:
William Blake, The Chapman Brothers and Hell.

The old Irish comic and story teller, Dave Allen, used to speculate on his own fate after death. As an atheist, he said, he was bound to go to Hell. But who would want to go to Heaven? Heaven would be all purity and innocence: a pristine, white minimalist space. It would be dull, colourless, and anodyne, with everything ordered and in its place. It would surely be filled with all the righteous, obedient, religious do-gooders, running around in their white gowns humbly going ‘yes God’ and ‘no God’. Imagine Homer Simpson having to spend the rest of Eternity in the company of Ned Flanders. Much better to take one’s chances in Hell, full of criminals, sinners and dissenters: it’s where all the interesting people go. But God’s clever. He knows this and would send poor Dave Allen to Heaven because for him, it would be Hell.

William Blake had a similar antipathy to organized religion and a similar rhetoric about the impoverishment of Heaven. In his illustrated book, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, he expounds, as the title suggests, a desire to flatten the established hierarchy of Heaven over Hell. This hierarchy, as he perceived it, was shored up by the idea of the division of Soul and Body. In this scheme of things, the Soul is good and dutiful, governed by ‘Reason’; whereas the Body is evil and temptation, its only function to lead the Soul astray. 

But Blake loved the Body: its pleasures; its work; its ability to do things: what he called its ‘Energy’. In contrast, the ‘Reason’ of the Soul was passive, abstract and unemotional. In fact, this ‘Reason’ defined the Soul in opposition to the abilities, the needs and the desires of the body. Blake didn’t wish to invert this hierarchy; rather, he saw the division itself as a means of excluding the bodily from the realm of the heavenly. The ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ is a clear attempt to turn this division into a dialectic: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.”

Blake set about redeeming Hell as a place of creative Energy, where Energy is Eternal Delight. To this end the flames of Hell become productive or even a cleansing force, “melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid.” It is only to Angels, constrained by the blinkers of Reason, that the flames of Hell “look like torment and insanity.” Blake comes up with some stunning proverbs of Hell to counter the piety of Heaven, including the following:

Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead;
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom;
Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by incapacity;
He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence;
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.

Blake goes on to use his own trade as a printmaker as an allegory of Hell. The printmaker uses a series of furnaces in the preparation of the metal plates for printing; Blake puts them in a series of chambers populated by Dragons, a Viper, an Eagle, a Lion, and an Unnamed form, who finally delivers up books to men, in the final chamber, who in turn arranged them into libraries. The point of this ‘Memorable Fancy’ is to associate fire with labour and productivity. Furthermore, this work, this activity, leads to enduring knowledge and wisdom.

Dragons, vipers, eagles, lions, let alone ‘Unnamed forms’, are all extreme creatures. That is, they are defined by their materiality, their bodies, the physical excess of tooth or claw which makes Angels fearful. Reason demonizes those things not governed by Reason. But for Blake this excess of physicality, this emphasis on the body, was not only good but necessary for creativity. These creatures show that it is the body, the physical that forges knowledge and that without this, the ephemeral spirit or soul is nothing.

Blake wants to marry Heaven and Hell: he wants the heat and smoke of the fire as well as the immaterial clouds of Heaven, which intermingle on the cover of ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, as a devil kisses an angel. Heaven is emasculated and dull without physical work and pleasure. Hell is merely the excluded other of Dave Allen’s minimalist, white cube Heaven. Those arbiters of taste, the goody-two-shoes Angels, in their passion for order, discreteness and simplicity have excluded all other passion. A regime of asceticism has expelled and demonized all excess.

Blake, however, loved excess. It is there in the morality of his allegories; it is there in the style of his writing; and it is there in the way the illustrations and text are put together. Every part of every page is crammed with action. Figures, monsters, flames, clouds, and doodles invade every and any gap in and around the writing. Everything Blake does is overloaded, overcharged, overdetermined. 

The illustrations are anything but literal. For example, a naked woman lies with arms and legs open as if to embrace the blood red flames of Hell that engulf her body and in particular rush up between her legs. She looks down at them, mesmerised, with flushed cheeks; she looks quite content. This is above a passage taking a swipe at an old mentor, Swedenborg: “And Lo! Swedenborg is the Angel sitting at the tomb: his writings are the linen clothes folded up.” If there is a connection the historical specificity is lost on me. At the bottom of the page, beneath where he’s gone on to talk about the need for contraries, is another illustration of two naked figures in a landscape that could be clouds or could be rocks. Another naked woman lies with limbs akimbo and head thrown back; something emerges from between her legs, perhaps a baby. The other figure dances away with what might be its shadow or, indeed, another figure. Also on the same page, in varying sizes sandwiched amongst the text, apart from four or five swirly squiggles, are: two red capped fairies; a bird; a red feather; and a romantic looking couple holding hands, standing on another squiggle. It could well be that all this had meaning for Blake and his contemporaries. But what is striking from this historical distance is that every iota of space has been filled up, as if it was a psychotic compulsion. Every page is alive with clutter.

This passion for excess, the reluctance to stop, select or differentiate, is a mark of amateurism. The first thing my art teacher at school told me was not to start in the top left hand corner and carry on until I’d filled up the page. In the amateur Dime Store paintings Jim Shaw collects (shown recently at the I.C.A.) one sees the same inability to leave space; to let go of details; to make distinctions. The amateur painting is a manifestation of passion or obsession. The amateur paints because she or he loves the process or the subject matter or both. Thus the true amateur is not an unsuccessful professional. The amateur is an amateur because the priorities of the amateur are different from the priorities of the professional. Any ‘incompetent’ technique, in professional terms, of the amateur is not a sign of failure but rather a sign that the amateur is interested in other things. The way in which Blake fails to show artistic professionalism is not by sometimes having a fascinatingly awkward style (although sometimes he does) but by failing to compose his pages: he just fills them up because he can’t leave them alone: because he loves what he’s doing.

The Chapman Brother’s version of ‘Hell’ (shown recently at the Royal Academy) is rather different from Blake’s. This ‘Hell’ is a landscape made using the techniques of model railway enthusiasts. In the modelled landscape, perhaps four metres square, a central volcano erupts. Instead of magma, Nazi soldiers spew out of the volcano in all directions. Around the volcano the Nazi soldiers find themselves in settings familiar to any viewer of world war two films: the beach landing; the chemical factory; the mine; the rickety wooden bridge; the pit full of dead bodies. There are tanks and motorbikes and guns and props aplenty. But just when you think this is a war film, you realize that it is, in fact, a horror film.

As the soldiers move away from the volcano they are mutilated. There are thousands and thousands of figures and they are engaged in every act of debased torture, decapitation, and violation imaginable. The Nazi soldiers become the Undead, turning on each other and devouring each other. A few scenes to give you some idea (although I don’t know how to convey the sheer extremity of it all in words): a cut-away tank shows the interior half full of blood as the figures inside rip limbs off each other; from a bridge, gleeful zombies rain down barrels of chemicals onto Nazi soldiers in the lake below, who writhe in agony as they are dissolved; there is a field of stakes each with its own bloody head; and a vast pit of corpses contains an uncountable number of broken, mutilated and dismembered bodies. Every one of these figures, each a couple of centimetres high, is rendered with immaculate attention to detail. Every gaping wound, every severed limb, is rendered with the same miniature realism one expects to find with model hobbyists.

This is a landscape that has been filled in bit by bit. The sheer labour involved is obvious but, interestingly, the description of the work at the Royal Academy emphasises this by telling you how long it took to make (over two years, apparently). I don’t recall ever before being informed how long it took to make art. This is a splendid amateur justification for the work. I’m reminded of the man who built a model of the Taj Mahal out of match-sticks in his spare time: the first things you are told about it are how long it took to make and how many matches. These facts are not important in themselves but rather stand in for a measure of what cannot be measured: love. He must really love what he does to spend so long doing it. The fact that the Royal Academy is explaining the work in these terms, shows how effectively it demands to be seen in the same world as amateur, hobbyist creations.

Love is, in a way, immune from criticism. Trainspotters, for example, may be widely derided for being boring, or whatever, but few would ascribe to them ulterior motives. In other words, you might question why they love what they do, but not whether they love it. However bizarre an amateur’s passion and activity, it tends to be both validated and measured in terms of dedication. And dedication is proved by, amongst other things, time invested. An occasional enthusiast just doesn’t cut the mustard. Of course, this contrasts with the philistine criticism of ‘modern’ art: that it is some kind of scam; that there is an ulterior motive. This is backed up by the fact that the work looks quick and easy to produce: a lack of toil. It is not easy for an artist to invoke love as a reason for what they do.

The spectators of ‘Hell’ were, on the whole, looking at the work intently and close up. It is too big to be contemplated at a reserved distance but spectators engagement was more than a matter of proximity. People were peering, pointing, moving round, ducking down to spy more closely, pointing things out to each other. The work was intimate and engaging. The spectators were unreserved, active and actively looking. Blake would have approved. People were being themselves.

Despite this, using the techniques of amateurism as a professional artist is not necessarily the same thing as letting amateurism infect your motivations. Are the Chapmans motivated by love, by a certain kind of obsession? When Art & Language made their first ‘Hostage’ paintings in the late 1980’s, they claimed the one thing that professional art could not colonize was amateur art. They made themselves ‘hostages’ to the attempt to be amateurs at a given time in the future: an attempt that would be a kind of Pyrrhic failure. It does not seem possible to be a naive amateur qua artist working in a ‘professional’ art world. Nevertheless, such a claim seems far from clear cut these days, when so many artists are allowing their everyday passions and vices into their work. That is, some artists are trying to problematize their ‘professional’ selves by not patrolling the boundary between their ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ lives: another marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Chapmans cannot be naive amateurs (not even in the sense that Blake was); but their amateurism seems more than a token of accessibility. A spectator who is not prepared to be an amateur spectator, is not going to see very much.

The activity and ‘Energy’ of the spectator in relation to the art was only partly because of the form and the scale of the work. The genres that the Chapmans have crossbred are instantly recognizable, although highly loaded: the model landscape; the war film; the horror film; the disaster film. These forms are all common cultural currency, with familiar conventions and expectations. As a spectator one is familiar with the various narratives used in these genres. And as a spectator of the Chapman’s ‘Hell’, one is engaged by familiar narratives, even as they merge, mutate and confound expectations.

The Chapmans have used the miniature model making technique before: ages ago they reproduced Goya’s ‘disasters of war’ paintings as miniature models. But it did not have the same sheer scale, and dizzying narratives, of ‘Hell’. What’s more, the Chapmans have often been talked about in terms of depravity, vulgarity and shock: i.e. registers of excess. But as entertaining as the ‘Goya’ work was, it’s provenance was clear: it was easy to grasp the mismatch of hobbyist technique and iconic image. Goya is clear cut: a picture of barbarity. There is little room for narrative manoeuvre. Similarly, I would argue, the sexually mutant, child mannequins were always too smooth, too composed, too contained to be either horrific or excessive. It was always clear what one was looking at, even if that happened to be a penis where one would normally expect to find a nose. The join was always seamless and the bodies always dry, smooth and flawless. There was no sense of a threatening, unreliable, inside to their bodies; no monstrous signs manifest as oozes and leaks and rashes and wound and hair. There was no hint that bodies disintegrate, that they cannot maintain their form. This threat of the failure of the outside to contain what is inside it, is the threat of the failure of the symbolic: the threat of things stopping being discrete things and dissolving into raw ‘stuff’. The failure of the world to keep its shape is truly horrific. The mannequins did not have any insides to be scared of: no pubic hair pushed its way out; no scratches dripped blood; no orifices leaked. There was no excess.

But ‘Hell’ is very excessive.

The reaction of spectators, as I’ve said, was unusual because it was so active. But what was extraordinary was the diversity of reactions. Some were fascinated; some were shocked; some were laughing; some were analysing it bit by bit; and I overheard (on three separate occasions) someone say that they had to leave because it was too disturbing to look at it any longer. Most spectators seemed to oscillate between various reactions. These active and conflicting reactions seems to confirm that the work is engaging yet escapes being brought under any adequate description. 
The all-over, hobbyist, obsessive rendering of detail is disturbing because the soldiers are no longer pristine, uniformed clones (as in war games) but rather mangled individuals suffering a particular horrible fate. You want to look at every one but there are too many. Way too many. This is not just a landscape that has been filled up like one of Blake’s pages (although it has); it also overflows. There are just too many incidents to take them all in. As you’re transfixed by one bloody tableau you notice another, and another and another. The spectator is caught up in an endless series of deferments.

But the excess of this work is not just to do with the gore, nor the scale; it is also there in terms of narrative. Every part of the work looks like part of a story: but what is going on? Close scrutiny does not seem to be rewarded with greater understanding. For example, could it be that these are Nazis freshly arrived in Hell because they are Nazis. And as they get further away from the volcanic entrance to Hell they turn on each other becoming more depraved as they go. But the more Undead they become, the more they seem to be having a good time. The skeletons seem happy enough. And plenty seem to end up dead all over again. Is death possible in Hell? And what of the war scene settings? Could this be the room 101 principle: that the soldier’s worst fear is an attack of zombies? It doesn’t sound too convincing. What is striking about the war scenes is their variety and ability to remind you of various war films. They compete with the zombie action rather than emphasising it. And why are some of the Undead just about engaged in a kind productive labour, mining or making chemicals? And what are we to make of the very few women who appear? All the ones I spotted were not mutilated, naked and seemed to be having a reasonably good time. And so on.

One can make sense of some of this work for some of the time but not all of it, all the time. The parts are more than the whole. There are just too many references and allusions. There is an excess of narrative.

Blake uses the idea that Hell has been misrepresented and misunderstood as a way of redeeming passion; the Chapmans use the idea of Hell as a place of excessive horror to take away certainty. Blake’s Hell is inviting, which you wouldn’t say about the Chapman’s. But, as I’ve described, the similarities are striking. For both, Hell is a place of the excluded and repressed. In a sense, Hell is no more than everyday life as re-described by the repressive tyranny of propriety. No wonder Dave Allen can parody Heaven as a pristine, white and empty space.

In fact, I’d just like to suggest that Dave Allen’s sensorially impoverished, white cube Heaven sounds a lot like an art gallery. There are proper ways of behaving in an art gallery and proper sorts of things to be seen in them. This propriety is defined by its exclusions: the cultured, accomplished and distinguished is what is not vulgar, amateurish or philistine. Both Blake and the Chapmans, it seems to me, are interested in Hell, not for its own sake, but as a way out of Heaven.