Is life funny, seriously?
I was in Glasgow recently, to see the International Festival of Art. During this excursion, I had the opportunity to visit the studio-spaces of two Singaporean artists, Chun Kai Qun and Joo Choon Lin, and speak with them about their recent works. On the topic of art exhibitions in London, Kaiqun exclaimed,”You must see this!”, referring to the exhibition by Glasgow-based artist, David Shrigley. It became apparent from our conversation that David Shrigley is an important influence on Kai Qun’s work (arguably other Glasgow-based artists), as far as ‘one liner’ artworks were concerned. Not used derogatorily, ‘One liner’ artworks are those you can almost immediately get, like a good one liner joke: the viewer doesn’t need obfuscated or contorted theory to understand what the artist is getting at. Fanned by curiosity, I made another excursion to Hayward on May 10.
Upon reaching the gallery entrance, after being distracted by the red carpet preparations for the World Premier for Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator (2012) at the Royal Festival Hall next door, I hesitated: Jeremy Deller’s Joy in People or David Shrigley’s Brain Activity, first? Deciding that I deserve some perking up on a gloomy, wet day, I interrupted the gallery’s ticket attendant before she could finish belting out the name and location of the exhibitions. “The funny one,” I said, “before the serious one” and she chuckled, nodded almost approvingly, and sent me up the stairs.
But funny isn’t the right word to describe Shrigley’s work; the exhibition guide used more than some, including ‘dark, anarchic humor’, ‘sideways take on life’, ‘paradox, absurdity, incongruity’, or ‘provoke surprise as much as laughter’. Shrigley provides stabs of light and darkness, poking fun of the most banal, aspect of every day events and objects: sleeping, hiding, holding placards; light switches, eggs, wellington boots, doors, gates, tombstones, and of course, doodles. For instance, my favorite work, What Decay Looks Like (2001) shows a large model of a tooth, posing in front of a large mirror. Marred by countless holes suggesting the ultimate tooth decay, the tooth is adorable, caught in an innocent moment of looking oneself in the mirror; yet repulsive, no doubt every dentist’s nemesis. To some extent, the work represents unimaginable pain, and catharsis – a moment of relief because the decayed tooth is out of the mouth. This detachment from reality is a key feature of Shrigley’s work, but not nearly as random or nonsensical as the Dadaist or the Surrealist. Notwithstanding the fact that anyone could have scribbled the drawings on exhibit, the scribbly charismatic mark of the artist is clearly present.
As an apt contrast, Jeremy Deller’s artworks defy the presence of the artist. In some circles, these will not be declared art at all. Instead, they resemble events and documentaries about various sub-cultures: re-enactment festivals, acid-punk, amateur brass bands or Depeche Mode fan clubs. Calling himself an events organizer, or collaborator, his artworks deal with folk and naive aesthetics, which fortunately sits nicely with quirky ‘bad art’ aesthetics of Shrigley’s. All diverse projects (rather than calling them artworks), resist categorization and one will struggle to pinpoint the voice of the artist. Like an ethnographer, the voices of his participants are more important in any project. These projects carefully conceal the presence of the artist, in an attempt to circumvent the paradigm of the capitalist art market. How well this works will surely draw polarized opinions.
Without the aura of the art gallery, will we even look at these projects? But here lies precisely the subject of his artistic inquiry: the intangible, invisible social relations between people, more than objects people leave behind. To elaborate this, we might study Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s quote from Le Petit Prince (1943) more carefully, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye”. The value of Deller’s work is to prompt us to think how we live and how we might change things.
Pondering on life’s inconveniences will perhaps bring us to the heart of these two exhibitions, and to some extent, the intuitive working methods of both artists. Both analyze modern society in their own charming way: Shrigley with humility and humor; Deller with academic disinterest and distaste for status. Both, no doubt, will have their own fans for taking life so serious.