'No Laughing Matter' : Humour and Contemporary Art Practice

Alison O'Connor

Alison O'Connor

Bedwyr WIlliams' performance to open 'With Humorous Intent'

Bedwyr WIlliams' performance to open 'With Humorous Intent'

David Shrigley

David Shrigley

De Appel

De Appel

Dean Kelland

Dean Kelland

Frog Morris

Frog Morris

Gary Stevens

Gary Stevens

Gillian Whiteley,Gary Stevens and Dave Ball

Gillian Whiteley,Gary Stevens and Dave Ball

Gillian Whiteley

Gillian Whiteley

Giselinde Kuipers

Giselinde Kuipers

Hannah Ballou

Hannah Ballou

Jonny Roberts

Jonny Roberts

Lee Campbell

Lee Campbell

Lee Campbell's presentation

Lee Campbell's presentation

Robert Wittendorp participating in Lee Campbell's presentation

Robert Wittendorp participating in Lee Campbell's presentation

Some of the Humorous Intenders 

Some of the Humorous Intenders 

Some of the Humorous Intenders 2

Some of the Humorous Intenders 2

Witty badinage evening drinks

Witty badinage evening drinks

In this article, I explore two projects concerning artistic deployments of humour, starting with With Humorous Intent symposium at Mostyn, North Wales, April 2012 and moving ontoThree Artists Walk into A Bar.. Amsterdam, April 2012. 

I begin with a note on the recent David Shrigley exhibition Brain Activity held at the Hayward gallery in London by Mike Chavez-Dawson;

David Shrigley’s exhibition Brain Activity at the Hayward Gallery earlier this year presented the first-ever extensive survey of his dynamic and prolific oeuvre; drawings, animations, sculptures and installations that ebbed between traditional presentation and the interventional. These playfully opened up further levels of engagement for those who might be familiar with David’s work and mesmerized those who weren’t in equal measure especially with works such as: a neon sign with the words it’s ‘Freezing In Here’ housed in a glass space outside the Royal Festival Hall entrance (first observed by me on one of the coldest nights in history) accompanying music (‘Monkey’ & ‘I Live In Your House’ - available as a 7inch vinyl record with the exhibition catalogue) in the lift to the first floor for the exhibition, a nailed rich tea biscuit above the lift, the taxidermy rat under one of the galleries skirting, a miniature stick figure out on the sculpture balcony beckoning you to join them, and the mini cut away in one of the gallery walls for you to crawl through (and we did - in actual fact someone got temporarily stuck, note to self always take rucksack off when crawling through a small hole) to mention but a few.

David’s works have this innate knack of delicately splicing the obvious with the absurd and balancing it with just the right amount of sentiment in its articulation, which highlights that humor is always tittering on some kind of liminality, and it is with this sensitivity that Brain Activity was curated, of course, enhanced with Shrigley’s Midas touch.

Unfortunately I could not share Mike’s above experience of Shrigley’s exhibition due to a taxidermy-phobia.

ʻMany contemporary exhibitions focus with grim earnestness on the difficulties of social justice, environmental degradation or economic inequity. Adding humor to the equation dismantles the sense of insistent authority and reminds us that we are all complicit in these inequities. Humour can offer an astute as well as cathartic and even magical way to deal with big issuesʼ (Coblentz, 2009).

Embracing humour’s capacity to stimulate personal and social debate through artistic interventions in the same spirit as the above words of Assistant Curator Cassandra Coblentz writing in the exhibition catalogue of Seriously Funny held at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, USA, in 2009, With Humorous Intent was a symposium I organised, held in cooperation with Mostyn and Loughborough University School of the Arts, in conjunction with Politicized Practice Research Group, held over two days which interrogated current artistic deployments of the comic and the humorous to coincide with Ha Ha Road, an exhibition at Mostyn exploring the use of humour in contemporary art with artists including Bobby Baker, Yara El Sherbini, Ceal Floyer and Bedwyr Williams.

The impetus for With Humourous Intent  was to allow me to interrogate my current research interests concerning laughter, document and audience through the conceptual and practical framework of contemporary Performance Art and provide a discursive public platform for Ha Ha Road.

Inspired by Gaston Bachelard's ideas in Poetics of Space (1958), about how various environments affect our moods, feelings and behaviour, the absurd ‘out of place-ness‘ of artworks I have installed as an artist and curator in locations as diverse as a kitchen in a suburban house, a pub, a lecture hall in a library, an empty warehouse, a market, a redundant language school to a previous Mexican Foreign Embassy and Foreign Press Association, often generate humorous responses which relates to John Morreall’s ideas around ‘incongruity’ and Alfred Koestler’s 1960’s concept of ‘bisociation’. In environments such as the white cube art gallery which traditionally have demanded a somewhat formal and quiet contemplation of the artworks on show. Using laughter as a device to counter ‘ssshhh...’be quiet-ness’, my interest of using laughter within audience participatory encounters resides in Sherri Klein’s words in a chapter entitled ‘The Public Spectacle : Performance Art and Laughter’ in her 2006 book Art and Laughter

‘Performance Art has tremendous potential as an art medium for the expression of humour because it relies on experimentation, improvisation and serendipity, all of which can result in the unexpected and the humourously incongruous (2006:121)’.

Despite several notable group exhibitions such as Laughing in a foreign language held at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2008 which displayed an array of international artists include John Bock, Doug Fishbone, Marcus Coates, Candice Breitz, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Kutlug Ataman, Ralph Rugoff and endeavoured to highlight the incongruous nature of humour getting lost in translation and ‘cross-cultural misunderstanding’ whilst acting to ‘deflate’ and ‘punctuate’ one’s self-importance’ (Katoaoka 2008:6), there appears to be a relative dearth in both publication and public discussion by way of notable symposia etc. on the humour/art debate. The previous, albeit moderate research into this subject currently available in the public realm, nevertheless suggests that interest is fertile and has the potential to be explored in far greater depth. My current PhD studies and past initiated projects have attempted to remedy this. In 2005, I curated All For Show, a presentation of short films described as ʻslapstick theatricsʼ, ʻawkward and macabre sense of humourʼ and ʻcringingly funnyʼ (Lack, 2005:14) shown in various contemporary art spaces in New Zealand, Germany, The Netherlands and the USA. Films by artists such as Harold Offeh, Beagles and Ramsay and Doug Fishbone tested the acceptable limits of humour in the white cube gallery space. ID magazine critic Jessica Lack (2005:14) wrote ʻthese idiosyncratic films succeed in finding surreal quirks in the banalities of everyday lifeʼ. Jennifer Higgie’s The Artist’s Joke (2007) is one such critique of the subject which dispels any notion that serious attention is not already being paid to deployments of humour as a strategy within arts practices. Whereas Sherri Klein’s 2006 offering is almost elementary in its sophistication towards addressing the fundamental philosophical issues of this subject, Higgie offers an abundance of essays by contemporary and historical theorists as well as practitioners addressing the key concepts of such a study. To any criticism that humour can be bracketed into various boxes, in one fell swoop, Higgie states; ‘..if humour has one characteristic, it is to thumb it’s nose at pigeonholes (2007:12)’, placing  humour in an exciting liminal state of the place where it may choose to inhabit. Discussing the artist as a disruptive force against the seriousness and pomposity of the art world, in Art Relations and the Presence of Absence, Third Text (2009), Dean Kenning states; The image of art is ridiculed through the cliché of excess and through a humour that denatures art’s supposed ‘seriousness’’ (2009:443) when talking about the work of Paul McCarthy.

In developing With Humorous Intent, I posed myself a question to reflect upon; 

 ‘Is it possible to assess the application of humour as a set of methodological strategies within a range of contemporary art practices and if so how are these strategies deployed and their results judged?’

To answer this question, I aimed to set up an international platform for academics and practitioners to interrogate how humour may function within contemporary art practice, potentially the first of it’s kind to be held in the U.K. To achieve this, my objectives consisted of bringing together artists, curators, theorists and academic researchers composed of invited guest speakers; Gillian Whiteley (aka bricolagekitchen), Gary Stevens and Frog Morris who were joined by Andrew Paul Wood (University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand); Dave Ball, curator of Ha Ha Road, Mostyn and QUAD, Derby; Jonathan Roberts; Alison O’Connor (Oxford University); Shaun Belcher (Nottingham Trent University School of Art and Design); Eve Smith (Liverpool John Moores University); Jennifer Jarman; Hannah Ballou (Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London); Steve Fossey (University of Northampton); Simon Bell (Anglia Ruskin University,Cambridge); Waldemar Pranckiewicz; and Dean Kelland (Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London). The symposium was video recorded by James Alex Newman and Frog Morris.

Presenters were invited to interrogate four areas of enquiry:

  1. humour as an artistic methodology deployed both historically and in contemporary practice embracing fine art forms including painting and sculpture as well as performance-based art practices.
  2. traditional and contemporary perceptions of humour against the ‘serious’ backdrop of the art-world institution where  humourous artistic endeavours seeking to poke fun at the art world if as Barbara Pollack has stated, ‘humour is one of the most effective means of puncturing pomposity’ (Barbara Pollack: 2004).
  3. humourous devices within artistic practice to shed light on John Morreall’s theories of humour as connected to ‘superiority’, ‘relief’ and ‘incongruity’ (John Morreall:1983)
  4. humour as an artistic, disruptive, and transgressive act, a form of personal and social catharsis to   

    destabilise social norms of correctness.

Kicking off the presentations, Dave Ball gave a paper entitled How to Curate an Exhibition that Doesn't Make Sense where he considered humour as a passage from the realm of normality or sense into the realm of abnormality or non-sense via artworks. In the next presentation, Silly, sick, slick: the fall and rise of comedic art, Gillian Whiteley considered humour as a strategy within contemporary art, creating a counter-world in relation to Michel de Certeau’s The Practices of Everyday Life. From her own experience of socialising in working men’s clubs, with their particularly offensive, often sexist and racist forms of humour, she spoke about humour as a working class resistance and its ‘capacity to puncture and prick and disrupt the status quo’ in what she referred to as ‘ludic disruption’. This group of presentations was concluded by Gary Stevens who suggested that the transgressive and subversive quality of humour often makes visual arts people uncomfortable. This was followed by a question and answer session between speakers and audience members which was met with lively debate. This format was repeated over the course of the two day symposium.

Amongst the other presenters, Frog Morris searched  for the elusive point where comedy ends and art begins, highlighting a series of solo and curatorial artistic projects combining elements of comedy, music and art whilst Jonny Roberts gave an introduction into how he explores guilty pleasure, formal parameters and hidden dialogues, in order to subvert the absurdity of a perceived hierarchy. Alison O’Connor interrogated  what she referred to as the ‘redemptive capacity of stand-up comedy’ whilst Jennifer Jarman’s performative lecture drew parallels between the artist and ventriloquist  and Hannah Ballou shared her research into the naked female comic body in performance praxis. Steve Fossey questioned what is funny about piss as Simon Bell’s presentation asked whether Laibach and the Neue Slowenische Kunst are often misinterpreted as a comic turn and Shaun Belcher presented a comic dog. Presentations concluded with Dean Kelland’s research on Steptoe and Son. Both Waldermar Pranckiewicz’s analysis of Douglas Huebler’s photographs and written statements and my exploration of slapstick comedy and mechanical reproduction encouraged the audience to engage in a participatory activity which had humorous results.

Answering my question, the presentations illustrated a diverse set of strategies towards the contemporary and historical use of humour within a range of artistic practices. I had set up an effective discursive platform where an eclectic range of viewpoints was shared. The symposium became a convivial encounter where social badinage acted as a coping mechanism for some of the presenters who stayed in Llandudno’s version of ‘Fawlty Towers’. Such stories supplied much of the narrative for banter throughout the symposium and made for witty conversation during evening drinks in the Palladiium-turned-Wetherspoons.

A month after the symposium, I was invited to present  findings of With Humorous Intent and elements of my  PhD research as part of a humour/art-based project initiated at De Appel in Amsterdam which staged a number of lectures and workshops by internationally renowned practitioners from the field of art, theory and comedy including humour theorist Simon Critchley.

Three Artists Walk into a Bar... aimed to, as it’s manifesto read;

‘use(ing) the quality of humour to test the potential of art as a critical instrument for the analysis of social, political and cultural issues, this project aimed to build a community of peers, professionals and a variety of publics. The commitment to humour, stemmed from a belief in its social quality; in its capacity to bring subversive voices and unexpected perspectives to mainstream awareness’ 

I was lucky enough to present alongside Giselinde Kuipers, Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology at the University of Amsterdam and Editor-in-chief of Humor International journal of humor research. Giselinde, asked the audience to consider how transgressive humour works ‘in practice’ and focused on how humour may be understood as a way of exploring social relations. Issues raised in both our presentations were later discussed in an informal workshop I gave around bodily slapstick and humour as being in-convivial. Where it was fascinating for me to get feedback on my artistic deployment of humour from Giselinde, a social scientist, who I must thank for encouraging me to explore laughter through the lens of a sociolinguist, discussions about the deployment of comedy and slapstick in the classroom became the subject of a lively conversation between myself and workshop participant/Three Artists.. artist Robert Wittendorp as both of us drew on our teaching experiences of how we believe humour may operate in the classroom.

To combat prejudices that humour is simplistic, non-academic or non-serious,  as Mike Chavez-Dawson refers to above, humour, I believe in it’s ‘liminality’, can provide a method to open up serious debate of a range of issues, having the capacity of revealing itself in the most unlikeliest of places. 

Humour can act as communicative interlocutor between artists, social scientists, teachers and guests of a ‘Basil Fawlty’ alike.

On near completion of this article, I received an apt SMS message from Mr Chavez-Dawson:

"I inherited a painting and a violin which turned out to be a Rembrandt and a Stradivarius. Unfortunately, Rembrandt made lousy violins and Stradivarius was a terrible painter." 

Tommy Cooper.

Ha. 

Lee Campbell, Artist, PhD by Practice Student at Loughborough University School of the Arts will be presenting his School of Laughter at this year’s SUPERNORMAL Festival at Braziers Park in Oxfordshire for further details http://www.supernormalfestival.co.uk/arts/biaw-alumni/.He will also be participating in Michael Portnoy’s ‘Experimental Comedy Training Camp’ at the Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada, September-November 2012. 

Further information on my participation at the De Appel Three Artists Walk Into a Bar project can be found at

http://www.threeartistswalkintoabar.com/saturdays/

Mike Chavez-Dawson, Artist, PhD by Practice Student at MIRIAD, is currently working with David Shrigley on his forthcoming show ‘HOW ARE YOU FEELING?’ at Cornerhouse which opens on the 6th October, 2012 for further info: http://www.cornerhouse.org/art/art-exhibitions/david-shrigley-how-are-you-feeling

References.

COBLENTZ, C., 2009. Seriously Funny [Publication of an exhibition held at Scottsdale Museum of
Contemporary Art 2009] Ed. Ann Neff R. A 2009 SMoCA
HIGGIE., J., 2007. The Artist’s Joke. The MIT Press.
LACK, J., Funny Peculiar I-D Magazine London. July 2005
KENNING, D., In Art Relations and the Presence of Absence, Third Text 23: 44 435-446 (2009)
KLEIN, S., 2006. Art and laughter. London I. B. Tauris.
KATAOKA., M., 2008. Laughing in a foreign language. London : Hayward Publishing
MORREALL, J., 1983.Taking Laughter Seriously. State University of New York Press, Albany
POLLACK, B., The Elephant in the Room in ARTNews. September 2004. p118-9

1 However, I am unconvinced that all performance art practices necessarily ‘rely’ on such factors as improvisation and serendipity. It is indeed how the performance protagonist wishes to control both the performance and his respective audience that dictates the importance of improvisatory elements and the possibility for serendipitous moments to occur during the performance.

2 I would like to remark that despite an artist’s disruptive potential against the art world, there appears to be a case of ‘the hand that feeds the mouth’. On the one hand, the artist wants to expose the art world but then also needs it to validate his/her actions, i.e to give the action symbolic importance.

Lee Campbell