Sunday, 25 February 2018


I have started writing for the excellent and visually punchy magazine ELEPHANT.  You can see  material from my picture essay on COMEDY for Issue 33 below, including some unpublished material - you always need the odd reserve for such items. The new print Elephant 34 has just come out, featuring my picture essay on the issue's theme of SEX. And you can see my choice for Elephant of what to see in Brussels  here.  

Daniel Firman's elephant balancing on its trunk was a bit too obvious for the comedy article, though the horizontal wall-sucking version is less well-known... (Nasutamanus, various versions since 2008)


What makes for successful comedy in art? If there were rules, it wouldn’t work, but the key may be that surprise or incongruity leads to a recognition that there are deeper issues to dig into under the surface of the joke.  That may, of course, bring in disturbing or melancholy or aspects: Richard Prince rubs the punchline in just too hard; Bruce Nauman is one of many artists to edgily play out the cliché of the sadness behind the clown’s mask. Here are six recent examples which lure us with humour only to reverberate with psychological, environmental, economic or social concerns.

Paola Pivi: I am Tired of Eating Fish, 2017

Italian artist Paola Pivi is best-known for working directly with live animals, putting ostriches, zebras and donkeys in surprising, yet unphotoshopped, situations. Her full size bears surprise differently: they act in a far from ursine manner, and are made of feathers, absurdly parodying the possibility of flight and, perhaps, idealists who talk up how ‘you can be whatever you want to be’. Recent examples take the surreal turn a stage further by sporting neon colours and bearing light-hearted titles. It’s almost enough to banish their frightening aspect, but a slight frisson does remain when one looms over you… 

Sarah Anne Johnson: Uck, 2016 – chromogenic print with glitter 

It’s not so easy to be funny about the environment, so credit to Canadian photographer Sarah Anne Johnson: what seems at first like an immature – if still amusing – fallen letter gag turns out to incorporate a protest against immature thinking which betrumps nature. The addition of real glitter ties Uck into her series Field Trip, in which she alters her images with paint and digitally to revisit the in psychedelic colours the idealistic hedonism of her own festival-going youth through a nostalgic yet more knowing lens.


Martin Creed: Work No. 2814, 2017

2001 Turner Prize winner Martin Creed tries to avoid the stress of taking decisions in his art - not even whether to turn the lights on or off. As something of a hoarder (presumably he can’t decide what to throw away) Creed has recently  been evading choosing his art materials by using stuff that’s piled up incidentally in his house – plastic bags, for example. We’ve all seen the odd bag tangled in branches, but multiplying them into synthetic blossom plays on the language of abstract painting while making for an ominously absurd vision of the dangers of waste displacing nature. 


Cao Fei: Rumba II: Nomad, 2015 - 14 min video and installation 

China’s leading new media artist, Cao Fei, set domestic vacuum cleaning robots free to roam a building site on the fringes of Beijing on which – as is the Chinese rule - the structure of the past was being pulled down. The bots come across as alien and threatening yet friendly and comical. Sometimes chickens stand on them to hitch a ride. Evidently, and metaphorically, their ‘cleaning’ task is hopeless: there’s no reversing the rolling cycles of urbanisation. In front of the film, to stress the point, three bots acted out their edge-sensitive dance on top of the traditional form of plinths.

Dana Schutz: Boy with Bubble, 2015 - Oil on canvas 100 x 128 cm

Dana Shutz’s characters tend to seem stuck between composition and decomposition as they attempt the absurd, such as eating their own faces. They’re funny, yes, but troubling. Here she wittily rhymes all sorts of circles, including the head of a bubble-headed lederhosen lad, and sets them against the angularities of the Alps. Is that a smile or just a concentrating tongue as he anticipates popping the bubble? Does art, we might wonder, transform the surroundings or merely reflect its creator? And either way, how long will it - or we - last?



John Smith: Steve Hates Fish, 2015still from 5 minute video  

John Smith – that’s the John Smith, of course – has subversively exploited misunderstandings since his seminal The Girl Chewing Gum, 1972.  In Steve Hates Fish he scans signs with a translator app – but having set his phone to convert French into English, causing the programme to thrash around hopelessly  when faced by a London street. ‘Fruit & Vegetables’ becomes ‘Profit Venerable’ and ‘Current’ rentals become ‘Surreal’, parodying the verbal clutter of the cityscape and challenging our instinct to make sense of it. And what could it mean, in the Brexit context, to see a Briton self-defeatingly misapply what comes from Europe?


 Christian Jankowski: Massage Masters, 2017

Christian Jankowski has a way with public statues as part of his wider strategy of playing people outside the art world into his multimedia productions. For Heavy Weight History, he challenged powerlifters to raise the great and the bad, a light-hearted way of engaging with such burdens on history as Stalin and Reagan. Now, he has recruited masseurs to optimise the wellbeing – and, who knows, maybe in consequence the communicative effect - of stone figures around the streets of Yokahama. When he screened his film of the event, viewers in turn received massages, surely rather wasted on flesh.

James Hopkins: Scaled Ladder, 2014 - Wood and Stone

James Hopkins presents an implausible object, its spindly wooden slats bearing heavy rock to no apparent purpose. We’re tempted to seek a logic. Have the small rocks risen because they weigh less? It can’t be that, their density’s the same. Is it that the relative mass of a mountain as you climb it is echoed by the stones’ sizes as we imagine ascending the ladder? Meantime, the title puns on 'scale' as the act of climbing a summit, a fundamental concept of sculpture, and a reference to the diminishing size of the stones – and that brings out the resemblance to an abacus.

Gelitin: Golem, 2015 - Glazed ceramic, 21 × 23 × 25 cm  

The sexual and scatological are perfectly unrespectable zones for art humour, and Gelitin are often found there. That said, their series of Golems seem innocent enough – until you see the film of them being made in what the Austrian collective term ‘an oneiric ritual to unhinge their primordial spirits’ for which, in their gallery's deadpan words, 'they immerse themselves in clay and model it using their own bodies as a medium'. Never mind the macho male artist metaphorically ‘painting with his penis’, or Henry Moore’s spatial use of holes, the film shows the four men literally fucking the forms into being. 

Sofia Hultén, Reality Plural, 2017 – three drain covers, cement, asphalt, preserved leaves

Berlin-based but Birmingham-raised Swede Sofia Hultén draws you in to what looks like three ‘slices of reality’, perhaps in the style of the Boyle Family’s casts of the earth’s surface. Has she pulverised them and recast the material tautologically into a new version of itself, as in her ‘Partical Boredom’ series? No, there’s something else amiss: the tarmac underlay, paving surface and fallen leaves are presented in three different orders, as if the world could easily be differently scrambled. Maybe it could… Hultén has made films documenting such comparable actions as eating an apple before removing it from the plastic bag.

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.