Serpentine Gallery

By the time I got around to visiting the new Serpentine complex, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, the much-touted Hadid-designed restaurant had closed for the Christmas break, which meant that the tramp across cold Hyde Park went under-rewarded. But surely the exhibition by the Chapman Brothers must have been a reward? Well…

The show is a kind of retrospective since it features very early work such as 200’s Hell and 2001’s Disasters of War, and new work as well. The familiar themes of horror, body-shock and black humour are there,and are surely crowd-pleasers. It’s not clear if the brothers still do actually make their sculptures themselves (as they used to do) or like so many artist, have them made (it’s called “outsourcing”) What was surprising though is how the Chapman’s oeuvre has remained almost static in both conception and form over the course of the past 14 years at least. Some may say that the remake of ‘Hell’ (destroyed in the Momart fire) is redundant, and the Nazis vs Ronald McDonald diorama is puerile at best. I can sympathise with that argument, though the dinosaur-riding Nazi skeleton did raise a smile. But as I wandered around the pavilion, I kept feeling that there was just no point to it.

But then the brothers wrong-footed me, darn them! Tucked away on a wall, neglected by most of the (many) visitors is a series of stunning pencil drawings. ‘what really happens to us after we are dead’ is a series of drawings on old paper (blank leaves from old books, perhaps). I saw the series in reverse order so I had no idea what it was supposed to be until I reached the end, and read the title. Yet it was quickly apparent that the Brothers were trying to capture – in pencil – absolute spirit, essence. Life force, whatever you call it. And have made strikingly good job of it. This series of pencil drawings was worth the whole trip – the bus ride from Hackney the slog across the park, the lack of coffee, getting up in the morning even.

There was more. I had actually dismissed the inner room at first; then I went back for another look, and this time I fully admired the cardboard sculptures. These are renderings of imagery and forms that the Brothers have already created – in drawing and their other sculptures – in rough corrugated painted cardboard. Ridiculous and crude, they are powerful and amusing, disturbing and jolly. Here the hand-made aspect of the work is palpable, gleeful, inspiring.

There is also a rather good – well, intermittently good – film running on a loop. I say intermittently since the sound is poor – I felt I was missing some of the jokes; some of the film seemed a bit repetitive too. But the Bro’s have avoided most of the clichés of the gallery-based artist-film, with some (not enough) really good animation. If we are lucky, perhaps the Chapmans are sliding into a new role: taking over from the Quays and Jan Svankmajer as the masters of creepy stop-frame animation. I’ll be the first in line at the cinema for that.

Svankmajer came to mind when I moved onto the original Serpentine building, still called the Serpentine Gallery. This featured a show (Myths and Legends) by the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky: a set of marionettes and films based on puppet shows, as well as a live-action film. Due to the subject matter – the use of myth and the reinterpretation of history- this was a show I was really looking forward to and expected much from. The puppets are beautiful, but their provenance is not clear. The website says they were made by the artist and if this is the case, that is rather impressive. But the actual display says they were designed by the artist but made in a traditional puppet-making workshop in France. Does this mater? Possibly not. Possibly.

The real problem came in the actual film rooms. The films are meant to be narratives, but the flat and ultra-traditional way they are made, meant that it was very difficult to sit attentively through the whole film – especially on the Serpentine’s excruciating seating (like cemetery benches, awful). The pace is slow and portentous and this does not change. Had these been live puppet shows, I am sure they would have been electrifying, but you cannot simply film a puppet show and expect it to turn into a film. No filmic techniques are used at all, no animation. This is of course the artist’s prerogative – but it’s just not that effective. The stories themselves are strangely static too. There is a feeling that the stories are just being told, not played with.

On the whole, I felt that the show was just lacking imagination, vision. It is as if the artist is unaware of the kind of creative approaches that the Quays made in their version of the epic of Gilgamesh (This Unnameable Little Broom ) or Svankmajer’s peerless retelling of Faust.

The shoe featured a new work, Al Araba Al Madfuna II (2013), based on Egyptian novelist Mohamed Mustagab’s stories, Horsemen Adore Perfume and The Offering. Shawky uses children to enact the stories, in the strange and magnificent landscape of El Araba El Madfuna, with a voiceover of adult voices. The cinematography is awesome, though over the course of the film the style becomes a little repetitive. The conceit of the children speaking in adult voices also wears thin after a while and you cease to notice it. It is easy to lose the thread of the story since the children’s acting is crude and the disconnect between the voice and the actor is so huge. The presentation of the figures in the landscape is magnificent. But again, the experience is curiously static and uninvolved. I wanted to love this work, but it made me yearn for the film it consciously wishes to imitate but cannot: The Night of Counting the Years by Shady Abd El Salam. This magnificent film is virtually unobtainable though a restored print did screen at the London Film Festival 2009 and just may arrive here again one day.

By the time I left the Serpentine night had closed in. I would like to feel that my sojourn at the gallery left me with much food for thought and reflection as I made my way back across the blackness of the park. But in fact it didn’t. I remained unmoved by both artists, though in the case of the Chapmans I saw a few things that will keep me hanging on to see if they develop them further. As for Shawky, although I have said that I found the work somewhat uninvolving, I do fully appreciate the Serpentine for bringing this artist’s work to London; we get too few solo shows by Middle Eastern artists. Still, my verdict is, if you like macabre puppetry that updates a timeless story, watch Svankmajer’s Faust.