Monash University Museum of Art
7 October – 16 December 2017
The Humours at Monash University Museum of Art brings together six international and Australian artists whose work spans moving image, sculpture, performance and photography and includes two new commissions: one from the artist collective, Barbara Cleveland, formerly Brown Council, and the other from Sydney-based artist Matthew Griffin, who was included in Mami Kataoka’s Laughing in a Foreign Language at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2008. Some might also remember the 1993 exhibition Wit’s End at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, curated by Kay Campbell, among a number of international exhibitions that have looked at the role of humour in contemporary art. More recently in Melbourne, there was BACKFLIP: Feminism and Humour in Contemporary Art curated by Laura Castagnini for the VCA’s Margaret Lawrence Gallery in 2013 and The Joke curated by Zara Sigglekow for Bus Projects and Neon Parc in 2016. The last two issues of un Magazine also took humour as their theme.
The catalogue accompanying The Humours at MUMA has a number of commissioned texts, including one by stand-up comedian Zoë Coombs Marr and a comprehensive scholarly essay by Sophie Knezic which situates the artists works in the exhibition within a literary, cultural and art-historical lineage. Humour has held two conceptions throughout Western history. It first originates from the Greek physician Hippocrates who devised a medical system derived from the four bodily fluids – blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. These fluids made up what was known as “the humours” the equilibrium of which was essential to overall health. It was believed that any imbalance of these fluids would lead to disease. The second meaning and how we define humour today is a comic, absurd or incongruous quality that makes something amusing. This “amusement” can (to name a few of its functions) be light relief, a way to reinforce prejudice, or a form of social critique. A balance of humour in the Hippocratian sense is required for overall health and, especially in today’s volatile world, is an outlet beneficial to our individual and collective wellbeing. These two concepts overlap in the body as a site where humour is performed and experienced.
Curated by Hannah Matthews, The Humours continues her longstanding interest in the body and performance. It is this focus on the performing body, largely through video works, that the physical and linguistic make-up of humours are given tangible form as a contemporary study. While some works in The Humours elicit a chuckle, they are largely focused on dissecting the craft of comedy for their own ends: cleverly employing various comedic and absurdist strategies centered on the body, such as parody, intertextuality, scripted dialogue, exaggeration and comic timing. Here, comedy is also used as a social interface to explore more serious issues, such as artificial intelligence, gender and racial politics, various forms of oppression and disruption to convention that activate repressed impulses and comment on power relations. Humour’s capacity to liberate an audience from conventional modes of thinking has made it a popular vehicle for feminist strategies, including feminist performance art.
The female body as a site of self-ridicule and physical endurance is central to the practice of art collective Barbara Cleveland (whose name is based on the mythical Australian performance artist). In their durational performance The One Hour Laugh (2009) the four artists subject themselves to ridicule, dressed in dunces’ caps and bibs to embrace humiliation, the women erupt into uncontrolled laughter. Over the course of an hour, the laughter becomes unsettling as it alternates between hilarity and humiliation, converting the comic act into a repetitive and excruciating performance. As Sophie Knezic states in her catalogue essay, “in Barbara Cleveland’s performances the feminine is cast as eruptive and discomforting, complicating comic conventions and enacting a return of the repressed.” Sigmund Freud believed that humour was a rupturing of desire from the unconscious, and this performance can be seen as a return of the unsettling female. In their new work Bad Timing (2017), the comedic aspect of timing is explored to enact and articulate what Barbara Cleveland declared in 1977 “a feminist strategy.” Selected pages of her manifesto are displayed on the wall adjacent to a video of the four artists performing her declarations and instructions. The women appear uncomfortable in the group’s awkward enactments of the text, upending the performance methods they draw upon to comment on the absence of women in both comedy and art.
The theatrical romps of Athenian playwright Aristophanes are the oldest examples of comic drama. Characterised by actors, commonly wearing masks and bodily appendages, these bawdy dramas incorporated a corresponding sophisticated literary style. In this exhibition, artist Mary Reid Kelley (with Patrick Kelley) takes this rowdy and disruptive body, using satire, to draw attention to historical injustice. In The Thong of Dionysius (2015), she casts Knezic’s troublesome female in the role of Dionysius, the Greek god of wine and fertility. Reid Kelley plays every character in the all-female cast, donning various masks, bodysuits and appendages while presenting an aggressively female self-determination. The film’s overtly theatrical style and the exaggerated facial features of its characters, reference German expressionist film as well as Commedia dell’arte. Her interpretation is full of bawdy narratives that parody moral and sexual taboos, while reinstating the female voice in history. There is clever word play and timing in the rhythmic poetic verse, such as “picture a pitcher bewitched by her status, her standing and how she comes last …”
Meanwhile, in Mika Rottenberg’s elaborate visual narrative the female body returns as social agent, employing a mix of documentary and fictional footage to explore gendered labour conditions, globalisation, the economy and the production of value. Her video installation Squeeze (2010) uses the exaggerated physical attributes of an all-female cast to examine what the body grows and produces to represent its commodification. Each process in the production line is rendered repetitive and absurd. The video is full of surreal details and scenarios; for example, a woman is literally squeezed by compressing walls until she expels particles of sparkly blush, which are collected and processed into the final product. In Rottenberg’s telekinetic construction, visual slippage between several locations (a lettuce farm in Arizona, a rubber plant in India) occurs from a portal in the machine, allowing the workers to collaborate on production. The ultimate product in Squeeze is a compressed cube made of freeze-dried lettuce, rubber and blush, commenting on the intriguing way we assign value to a manufactured commodity. In this absurd visual narrative, the use of humour as a social interface draws attention to the inequality and oppression of gendered labour conditions.
In his seven-screen video installation Live (2014) acclaimed US artist Glenn Ligon dissects African-American comedian Richard Pryor’s stand-up performance, Richard Pryor: Live On The Sunset Strip. Pryor’s racially charged comedy was characterised by his distinctive voice and rhythmic delivery. But by rendering the comedian mute, Ligon takes away his comic tool as crutch. Furthermore, by dissecting Pryor’s body into close-up images of his hands, mouth, crotch and shadow, Ligon forces the viewer to focus on Pryor’s physicality. Ligon is interested in how the body can communicate without sound. Unaccompanied by his voice, the comedian’s gestures appear violent and frenzied, this bodily fury drawing attention to the social construction of black masculinity. Live explores the socially-determined idea of race by considering the non-verbal language of the body; that is, how meaning is assigned to and conveyed through the body.
Freud argued that absurdity was one of the mechanisms through which humour could give indirect representation to rebel instincts. For his new body of work, co-commissioned by MUMA and Melbourne Festival, Matthew Griffin employs slapstick comedy and tomfoolery. In Drone (2017) the artist dons a green bodysuit and uses drone camera technology to film and document his own performance in the museum space. He plays with the viewer, drawing attention to the latest technology, surveillance and exposure. In Clog (2017), a smartphone hidden inside a wooden clog films up a women’s skirt, while we read the wall text to discover that there is a further surveillance camera in the ceiling and we are being filmed and streamed live online. There is no escape from the camera’s omnipresent eye. Griffin’s work speaks to serious concerns about surveillance and its intrusion on the body, but dissipates such serious intent with the work’s irreverence.
The absurdist narrative of Gabriel Abrantes’ cinematic work Os humores artificiais (The Artificial Humours) (2016) follows a young Indigenous girl from the Xingu National Park to São Paulo, where she falls in love with a robot called Andy Coughman (a punning reference to the comedian Andy Kaufman) who is being re-programmed as a stand-up feminist comedian. While the robot’s programmer searches for the algorithm for humour, Abrantes explores the anthropology of humour, philosophy and artificial intelligence to comment on humans and their relationship with technology. His documentary style parodies Hollywood films in a tale that tells the impossible romance between a human and a machine.
The interpretations of the works in The Humours hinge on the highly theoretical text of the exhibition catalogue, which provides a detailed analysis of the function of humour throughout history, in particular articulating Freud’s conception of humour and its manifestation in the double or alter ego which embodies unconscious desires. Jokes are often a more acceptable way to tell the truth, making serious political statements more palatable. The human body is a site where humour is performed and experienced, but it also speaks to the nature of the social body to more broadly support humour’s role as a coping mechanism in times of turmoil, tragedy and oppression.
Helen Newton-Brown is an independent arts writer and curator based in Melbourne, she has a Masters of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne and has worked in public institutions and as an art advisor.