Sozita Goudouna
7 min readJul 11, 2023

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Jake Chapman and the Unwellness of Well-Being

Curation and text by Dr. Sozita Goudouna

Jake Chapman solo exhibition at The Journal Gallery in Tribeca June 2023

Images 1–5 Jake Chapman Installation View Courtesy of the artist and The Journal Gallery

Jake Chapman’s first solo show in New York since the end of his artistic collaboration with his brother Dinos is built on two main pillars. It comprises of a series of tapestries and a group of sculptural pieces. Setting up a visual laboratory, Chapman’s installation of current works brings many questions to the forefront, among them whether the constant pursuit of wellness is still pertinent in the age of mass extinction, and if so, why is it still an antidote to our existential discomfort. As he argues, why is it easier for us to “imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?”

Unpacking these imaginations of (un)wellness, Jake’s installation the “Unwellness of Well-Being” foregrounds the fear of human extinction, as well as the modern anxiety that accompanies the relation between “persons” and “things.” Chapman’s quasi anthropological imaginary museum at the gallery animates a series of sculptural objects to interrogate the boundaries between images of totems, fetishes, tribal art, pre-modern rituals, savagery, and contemporary popular icons like a snowman in juxtaposition to a series of smiley-faced embroidered tapestries.

Images 1–5 Jake Chapman Installation View Courtesy of the artist and The Journal Gallery

The smiley-faced embroidered pieces expand the intrinsic statement of the artist’s work into a specific formal arrangement in relation to his sculptures. Jake describes these pieces as “large, embroidered tapestries hanging on the wall, depicting a colorful smiley face set in the midst of a crimson ground, with two colored dots for eyes and a simple upward curve for a smile.”(1) SMILE AND THE WORLD SMILES WITH YOU! as one of the artist’s voices states in his recent novel titled “2+2=5.” Each sculpture is placed in the forefront of these tapestries with their “kindly eyes watching over us with the greatest solicitude,” but instead of positive smiles the selected banners depict inverted smiles and feature the words Annihilation and Extinction, while they call for Protest and Anarchy. By becoming entertainment, the cultural world participates in the capitalist exchange: “museums proliferate as protest culture performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue consuming with impunity…”(2)

At the same time, the sculptures acquire a human like presence in this artificial environment, as if they were entities that resist objectification. Animism was the term that was used by nineteenth-century social scientists to describe the projection of human qualities onto objects and the incapacity to distinguish between object and subject. Animism is a term coined by the anthropologist Edward Tylor who aimed to articulate a theory on the origins of religion and found in it what was to him the primordial mistake of primitive people who attributed life and person-like qualities to objects in their environment. In terms of art history, however, as Graw notes, according to Michael Luthy and philosopher Christoph Menke, all artworks function as “figures of the subject” and as these theorists argue “in their continual negotiation between subject and medium, artworks dissolve such stable categories in a give-and-take that results in the medium assuming anthropomorphic qualities, while the subject in turn takes on the properties of a “quasi medium.”(3) The narrative that James conveys, however, with the inclusion of these sculptural objects that become figures of the subject (subjected to) is the destructive foundation of colonial histories and colonial subjugation and, as he says, “the naturalization of neoliberalism at a fundamentally primitive level.”(4) Thus, the artist’s medium becomes the deployment of imitation, appropriation, and excess in discursively reanimating these objects; and this process reflects the overall trajectory of his career and his attempt to unpack the positivist riddle of modernity in new ways.

Images 1–5 Jake Chapman Installation View Courtesy of the artist and The Journal Gallery

Chapman has always forewarned us about the inherent anomalies of his work and of the fact that these anomalies are exposed to undermine any coherent historical lineage. In his writings and interviews, he has expressed an interest in debunking the establishment of outmoded social values in times of social mayhem and in exploring the darker aspects of human nature and society. His anti-aesthetic project has also been critical of what he sees as the shallow optimism of contemporary culture, which he believes ignores the reality of suffering and violence in the world.

As he stated in a Guardian interview: “I think that there’s a kind of enforced optimism which is a bit like a disease, and it’s dangerous. It’s not just a case of being pessimistic, but it’s about acknowledging that there are things that are wrong, and trying to address them.”(5)

This enforced optimism, the constant pursuit of self-expression and wellness and the ways it is affected by the emergence of a specific ideology and market — as a distinct category in the constellation of contemporary concerns — seems to be determining the status of the individuals and their role in the community. At the same time, the return and resurgence of a “theology of optimism” is receiving a renewed relevance that can be examined alongside its attendant political, and social ramifications, in particular in relation to the on-going importance concerning the rapid technological advancement and engagement with more recent investigations of the sixth mass extinction. But is this “new fundamentalist humanism,” as Chapman describes it, and the ways the gentrified counterculture challenges the radical politics of emancipation, related to the constant pursuit of “wellness” and if yes, in what ways?

Consumerism and materialism continue to dominate our culture, and the pursuit of wealth and status is still a driving force in many people’s lives. The excesses of capitalism and consumerism in the 1980s as well as the violence and brutality that reflect the extreme individualism and narcissism are inherent in capitalist societies. The current pursuit of wellness seems to be the other side of the coin, namely, of the empty and meaningless nature of the consumer culture that dominated the 1980s. The obsession with brand names, fashion, and luxury goods, and the use of these things to define people and their social status is now replaced with wellness consumerism. As the artist himself states matter-of-factly and sarcastically in his book in the voice of one of his characters: “is it right for these beautiful, blameless foreign children to suffer whilst our own young drink freshest almond milk, eat fresh tofu and are freely hot housed? Act now before it is too late! Too late! Too late! Too late! Too late! The crowd chanted delightedly[…]. The parade swelled in a sea of smiley-faced flags that waved it on and on.”(6)

Images 1–5 Jake Chapman Installation View Courtesy of the artist and The Journal Gallery

On and on, the exhibition returns to the words “Annihilation” and “Extinction” as they are embroidered on the tapestry. The scale of the extinction is sometimes difficult to comprehend. The realities of extinction however aren’t new. They have already affected entire cultures since colonialism, but, as writers Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Déborah Danowski state: “End of the world only has a determinate meaning in the discourses of extinction — on the condition that one determines at the same time for whom this world that ends is a world, who is the worldly or “worlded” being who defines the end.”(7) The planet is currently undergoing the “sixth mass extinction,” a unique event in the history of the world as it has been shaped by humans as the primary force of climate change.(8) The loss of biodiversity and mass death in nearly every category of life on the planet evokes and appears to foreshadow the extinction of the human species.

In taking a close look at what it means for humans to exit vicious cycles of false optimism and acceleration, in society and in art, to slow down and reflect, Chapman, like Bonnet, reminds us that “the fear of human extinction is a necessary part of empathy that dismantles human privilege.”(9) By challenging the binary understanding of well-being for human species and unwellness, and placing it front-and-center in his work, Jake Chapman remains faithful to the redemptive value of transgression and to the shock value, radicalism, and convulsion that permeates his oeuvre. In doing so, he dismantles conventional imagination of what art might look like, which bodies deserve to be well and why.

– Sozita Goudouna

Images 1–5 Jake Chapman Installation View Courtesy of the artist and The Journal Gallery

Sources

1 Jake Chapman, 2+2=5, Urbanomic Media, UK, 2021.

2 Artist’s exhibition manifesto.

3 See Isabelle Graw, ‘Ecce Homo: Art and Subjecthood,’ Artforum summary of Michael Lüthy and Christoph Menke, in their introduction to Subjekt und Medium in der Kunst der Moderne (Zurich: Diaphanes, 2006), 10.

4 Artist’s exhibition manifesto.

5 More in https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/may/11/we-had-a-seething-disdain-for-each-other-jake-chapman-on-splitting-from-brother-dinos

6 Jake Chapman, 2+2=5, Urbanomic Media, UK, 2021: 168.

7 Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World (Malden, MA: Polity, 2017), 20.

8 See the co-authored book Ambayec, van Baarle, Burke, Gaspar, Goudouna, Ovalıoğlu Gros, Hafez, Kühling, Laine, Lucie, Moraes, Moritz, Palani, Rachev, Stojnić. MOURNING THE ENDS:

Collaborative Writing and Performance. Punctum Press, 2023.

9 François Bonnet, Après la mort. Essai sur l’envers du présent (Paris: éditions de l’éclat, 2017), 10.

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Sozita Goudouna

Sozita Goudouna is adjunct professor and the author of Beckett’s Breath (EUP, 2018). She is the founding director of the non profit organization Greece in USA