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Funny or serious? Not necessarily light material


Bob van der Wal, This Area Is For Players Only 2013, photograph: Cesar Mauricio Cachav

Much of what I find funny in life emerges from the exhibitions I go to, so when the art’s humourless, I tend to feel a bit deflated. If work doesn’t have an element of humour in it, it’s hard for me to imagine the artist having any fun creating it, thus making it hard for me to have much pleasure looking at it.

When I complained about this current situation to my flatmate, I discovered not only that she felt similarly but also that she found the same things comical. We then conducted a short assessment of the recent exhibitions we’d been to. Judy Millar, Comic Drop at Gow Langsford gallery: title showed some promise but it was abstract painting, too serious and not funny (to us) in the slightest. Francis Uprichard, Three figures at Ivan Anthony gallery: rainbow figurines on plinths, weird and strange looking but not funny in the really hilarious sense. Nick Austin however is getting warmer—with his snail paintings, mail paintings and giant cups of tea. Austin gets a lot of laughs and, really, they are quite entertaining works. The Mothers Show at Ferari Gallery, on the other hand, was hilarious. (I will save why it was so funny plus the punch line for later.)

While we made jokes in our living room, outside of an art context, we felt safe. Both of us work in the industry and acknowledge that you can’t always know who is going to be standing next to you at an exhibition opening. If you joke around too much, or in the wrong situation, there is a chance that somebody might take it the wrong way or, worse, get offended.

It often feels as though there’s negative stigma attached to jokes in art. I argue constantly with my undergraduate students about this, although perhaps I should take some of the blame due to my constant labeling of artworks as gags and tricks or describing them as novel and kitsch.

To redeem my claims, I’ll expand on examples of comedy in art, where humour is intentionally employed to serve a purpose—i.e., to help present the artist’s ideas. There is real knowledge to be gained through engaging with humorous art and the audience must be actively receptive in order to receive it—to ‘get’ the joke.

On a clear day, Front Box gallery, St Paul Street gallery, Auckland University of Technology, is visible from the top of the Auckland Sky Tower—a colossal eyesore, tourist attraction, bungy-jump facility and casino—and vice versa. For Bob van der Wal’s exhibition This Area Is For Players Only, 2013, the gallery was turned into a workshop. The artist then moved between sites casting objects, propositioning tourists to subsequently buy these handmade replicas of the tower, painted in colour combinations derived from the tower’s theme lighting. The souvenirs were sold, and the casino tokens he exchanged them for taken back to the gallery, and stacked in a pile totaling $420. Although not a huge profit for four weeks’ work, $420 was a considerable sum to take to the casino, where, at the end of the exhibition, it was subsequently blown on the roulette table in front of a crowd of gallery-goers.

The project is as multi-faceted as the intrinsic comedy. Van der Wal’s replica of the Sky Tower is an awkward piece, exaggerated and lopsided, mocking the tower it in all its design-based glory. In deterring customers away from the official Sky Tower souvenir shop, the artist became a minor tourist attraction in his own right, not unlike those who paint or sell pictures outside the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or perhaps a busker or street performer. The fact that van der Wal managed to convince this new audience (tourists presumably quite open to spending) into buying authentic pieces of contemporary art (to the art audience anyway) is comedic in itself.

The title of the project — This Area Is For Players Only — was appropriated from signage inside the casino. By doing this, the artist presents an ardent warning that art, like gambling, should be considered a game and only entered if you want to ‘play’. After some gaming, a few laughs and possibly even some tears, the project ends with a disenfranchised art crowd, led to a curious and ad hoc performance in a potentially uncomfortable and exploitative site—the casino.

While it is considerably frustrating and absurd that he blew all his earnings so frivolously, it’s easy to overlook the other ridiculous sums of money artists frequently allocate to their projects. Not to mention how much money is spent each year on gambling in New Zealand alone, (where it’s a huge social problem) let alone regarding the world epidemic.

Similarly in the first installment of the project Your Message Here, Daniel Webby (Snake Pit, Auckland, 2012, and former Heartlands offices, Wellington, 2013) also employed a public window space, an ex-shopfront on High Street, Auckland CBD, as a constantly open site, where the artist and his activities would be publicly visible. After staging conversations with friends, acquaintances and strangers, Webby chose a sentence from each conversation, then published it on a hand-customised t-shirt and presented it to the participant as a parting gift. By way of conversation, whether intentional or not, Webby prompted his participants to articulate what they were thinking, no matter how absurd it was. In publishing the participants’ statements on clothing, he encouraged them to feel even more comfortable divulging their thoughts through literally wearing them.

The project blog (www.yourmessagehere.weebly.com) contains documentation of the participants wearing their new t-shirts: white, round or v-neck cotton with hand-painted black text on the front. In contrast to the other slogans that we are used to seeing on t-shirts—‘I’m with stupid’, ‘Just do it’, etc.—the irony is far subtler. Some of the participants’ texts are humourous: ‘Clean enough’; ‘Trust me, I am from New Zealand’. Others make the person wearing them look goofy: ‘Feel me’, ‘Big brother wants to give you a cuddle’. One could be seen to exemplify a not-so-civil exchange of ideas: ‘You remind me of a dung beetle I once knew’—but this could be read either way.

Apart from the humour, viewing these images presents the nature of how our everyday clothes are manufactured. It also explores what our own motives are for wearing the garments, and how these motivations can be seen as marketable by other people.

An ongoing artist project that offers a consultancy-type service to artists in Auckland is Personal Best Public Relations. PB PR operates under the guise of a public relations company—a exploration into the agency of branding and how artists could, like people in other professions, consider getting some professional advice on how to present themselves and their product.

The proposition is farcical because, as is stereotypically understood, artists are not very good at advertising themselves, i.e., they need art dealers to do this. Realistically speaking, it’s probably not just artists, we could all potentially benefit from some instruction in this area.

PB PR’s debut at Ferari Gallery, PB PR Presents: Boundless Energy, 2012, simulated the perceived conduct of the marketing and PR industries in a highly satirical manner. Luxury products like sparkling water and fish oil capsules were installed and distributed during the exhibition, as they would in an office foyer or at an event. In the centre of the gallery was a flat screen television playing a promotional video of Ashlin Raymond and Zhoe Granger (the PB PR team), having their hair blow-dried, talking on cell phones, rejuvenating and working out to a hypnotic soundtrack. The amusing clip provided an introduction to the project and served as their advertisement explaining what they could do for you and your career.

Like Webby’s project there is a lucrative commercial proposal buried beneath the humour, i.e., there is also a lot of truth in the idea that artists could find ways to market each other or re-organise to create a (real or pseudo-) business venture.

Generally, it’s often common for start-up businesses to start in garages and PB PR is no exception. PB PR Presents: Boundless Energy took place at Ferari Gallery, an artist-run space situated in a stand-alone double garage in the backyard of a Grey Lynn flat. Ferari Gallery’s nonchalant approach to running a space has led to some interesting and enjoyable projects, such as their end-of-year group show Saloon Des Ferari, 2012. This included a free Mr Whippy ice cream truck on the street, accompanied by a mass of local artists’ work in the gallery space. In the garden is a permanent sculpture plinth. Anyone who lives in Auckland knows public sculpture is not our forte. (There is a particular pohutukawa sculpture on Pitt Street that is the butt of many jokes.) Since sculpture on plinths is also a big faux pas, the irony is twofold. (Something discussed by my students and I, regarding the taboo in art.)

The last show I saw at Ferari Gallery was Motherburgh or The Mothers’ show, by artists Emil and Isobel Dryburgh, in 2013. Although I was initially frustrated by the queue to the door, which precluded me entering Motherburgh, I realised in hindsight how much I actually liked the show. The main feature of the show was that gallery-goers were invited to stand outside the gallery to drink cheap beers, while their mothers were led into the space, served champagne and canapés, and were serenaded by a concert violinist. One mum ventured outside to pass some food to her hungry children, such a mum thing to do. This was by far the funniest part, but the group of husbands waiting impatiently outside was funny also.

The artists could not have anticipated any of these things happening, in that the generosity was intended to occur on behalf of the children when they invited their mothers along to the event. In this scenario the comedy attached itself to the situation; it was facilitated by the artists (and the gallery) but brought into play by members of the audience.

Art is not unlike comedy—it is always directed at someone in a privileged position and, even if you are a part of the audience, you might not get the joke. If you do, however, you might not see the humour, as jokes really are ‘each to their own’ when it comes to taste.

There are different kinds of art and, of course, varieties of humour. More often than not, comical art produces funny, serious and knowledgeable outcomes all at the same time.

Anya Henis is an artist and writer who lives in Auckland, New Zealand. She is co-editor of arts publication Magasine.