The Humours

Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne
7 October – 16 December 2017

The Humours is an exhibition that engagingly explores comedic discourse in art. Innovatively articulating the ways in which humour manifests and the devices through which it is articulated, the exhibition features recurrent references to stand-up comedy, but also word play and the natural emergence of conversational humour.

One of the first works encountered is Bad Timing (2017) by Barbara Cleveland, a new work commissioned by Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA). Formerly known as Brown Council, the Sydney-based collective recently changed their title to the name of a fictional 1970s-era artist of their invention. Within their practice, they re-enact the fabricated performances of this character, as though performing a homage. With an origin story seemingly posited to justify a practice based on anachronism, Barbara Cleveland’s work is a pastiche of tropes of second-wave feminist performance art. Bad Timing serves as a pertinent example of this methodology. The single-channel video depicts various members of the collective apathetically performing tropes of comedy, from slapstick antics to hack stand-up routines, sometimes dressed in a clown wig or red nose, repeatedly asking ‘Is this funny?’ On the adjacent wall, notes from Barbara Cleveland’s journal are displayed. Contrary to the typical authoritarian rhetoric of avant-garde manifestos, these pages articulate a manifesto of bad timing, which is interpreted as a ‘feminist tactic’ that ‘disrupts’, ‘negates’ and ‘challenges’ production.1 Echoing much early literature on performance art, the foundational suggestion is that embracing failure subverts capitalistic motivations and traditional aesthetic conventions. However, the rhetoric of awkwardness, or failure, as a subject of creative exploration has long preoccupied mainstream comedy, and often that of white men: the films of Woody Allen, or programs like Seinfeld (1989-1998), Peep Show (2003-2015), or Arrested Development (2003-2013). Moreover, creative interest in failure is (of course) a discourse occupied by the successful—those for whom, as Australian writer Shannon Burns writes, ‘injury has a use-value’.2 Bad Timing is partly a testament to the persistent deference for ’70s feminism, the feminism of white middle-class women, uncomplicated by intersectionality.

A similar nostalgia is identifiable in Glenn Ligon’s Live (2014), a synchronised seven-channel video installation dissecting iconic footage from stand-up comedian Richard Pryor’s Live on Sunset Strip (1981). Considered perhaps the most significant comedian of all time, Pryor brought the realities of living as a poor, black man in America to mainstream attention. His stand-up bluntly addressed his troubled upbringing, drug-problems, and suicidal behaviour in an energetic performance that helped forge a narrative of black American identity. Throughout his career, Ligon has lifted quotes from Pryor, incorporating them into his word-paintings such as his No Room series (2007). In Live, the comedian’s body is fragmented across six synchronised screens, each focusing on a different part of his body, including his hands, his face, even his shadow. The final screen, much smaller than the others and set on the floor, shows his whole body, miniscule when juxtaposed with the larger-than-life images of his fragmented body. With the sound of the iconic set removed, attention is drawn to Pryor’s animated facial expressions and body language. However, the fragmentation and silencing of this influential footage simultaneously raises an acute awareness of the objectification of black male bodies in mainstream culture. Like the rhythmic dancing in noted video works like Mark Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999), a video-essay compiling footage of rave dancers in clubs, or Dan Graham’s iconic video-essay on rock music Rock My Religion (1984), Live attests the romanticism of the footage of Pryor, and the cultural memory of his celebrity. Like a rock star, the comedian embodies a particular cultural moment and political impetus that younger generations long for, a longing inevitably intertwined with the aesthetic quality of VHS.

Another video-work in the exhibition that directly deals with the figure of the stand-up is Gabriel Abrantes Os Humores Artificiais (The Artificial Humours) (2016). The protagonist, a robot trained to understand sentiment, named Andy Coughman, falls in love with his young friend Jo before being reprogramed as a stand-up comedian. Once reprogramed, he forgets his former life and love; his personality now wired to an antagonistic, obnoxious parody of a stand-up comedian. Intriguingly, the model of stand-up that Coughman embodies is one partially informed by Pryor. In this model—which is now standard—identity is the anchor, and heavy-handed, sometimes contradictory or nonsensical references to difference constitute their act, fulfilling the middle-class desire to consume otherness in a palatable format. Coughman’s routine rotates around the difficulties of being a robot and hack sex jokes. What sparks his memory of Jo is a viral-video (a real YouTube video from 2015 called ‘Three year old kid explains why he doesn’t want to eat meat’) that they viewed together. Regardless of Coughman’s inability to completely understand the humour within it, the collective experience of watching the video helped build their rapport—a reflection of the social potent of viral videos and memes across cultural and social divides.

Rather than dissecting humour or the stand-up comedian, Mika Rottenberg’s video-installation Squeeze (2010) uses humour to explore issues of female representation and artistic processes. The work is comprised of a small, purpose built viewing room with a pot plant resting on an air conditioner on its outer wall (similar to the set of the video), and a large photographic portrait depicting New York gallery owner Mary Boone holding a cube of compacted makeup, latex and cabbage—the object created through absurdist processes documented in the video. Rottenberg’s work often depicts women with extreme bodies that commodify their peculiarities. In Squeeze, fetish worker Bunny Glamazon manages a strange factory production. While Trixxter Bombshell, a large woman who specialises in squashing (sitting on people) sits in a Buddha-like pose on a rotating platform, controlling the movements of the production through telekinesis, geographic distance dissipates—women from a Californian lettuce farm and an Indian latex plantation push their arms through holes in the ground and receive massages from Chinese women operating under the watch of Glamazon. The products created: cabbage, latex and blush (scraped from the cheeks of fantasy wrestler Rock Rose then packaged) are minced together by the Chinese workers, and then compacted to create a cube. Though the processes Rottenberg depicts are focused on the mass production of homogenous commodities, the object created is unique, and absent in the installation. This serves as a reflection on the obsession with process begun in modernism (iconically exemplified by Jackson Pollock’s action painting) where documentation of the artwork’s creation is celebrated as an intrinsic part of the work. Moreover, though the object contains soft, organic matter, the factory process involved invokes the tradition of outsourcing production by minimalist artists like Donald Judd or Tony Smith.

Rottenberg’s interest in process and the female labour behind production not only posits a pertinent critique of the modernist object, but of the commodification of female figures within cultural spaces. This overtly reflects Barbara Cleveland, a perfectly commodifiable figure and ideological framework justified by the heroic narrative of political critique. Though curator Hannah Mathews notes that the exhibition was partly inspired by Donald Trump’s election and the role of comedians in providing political commentary, if the Trump era signals any change in the culture of comedy, it could equally be argued to be the alt-right’s weaponisation of humour.3 Accordingly, amid works that cleverly use humour to explore artificial intelligence and art history, a defining undercurrent in The Humours is a sense of nostalgia for an era where humour and silliness were discursive devices employed by the left, opposed to the stanch seriousness of right-wing sensibility.

Barbara Cleveland, Bad timing, 2017. Details, installation views, Monash University Museum of Art, October 2017. Photographs Andrew Curtis. Courtesy Monash University Museum of Art.

Barbara Cleveland, Notes for bad timing, 2017. Details, installation views, Monash University Museum of Art, October 2017. Photographs Andrew Curtis. Courtesy Monash University Museum of Art.

Mika Rottenberg, Squeeze, 2010. Video still. © Mika Rottenberg. Courtesy of the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.

Glenn Ligon, Live 2014, installation view Monash University Museum of Art, October 2017. Photo courtesy of Andrew Curtis. Courtesy Monash University Museum of Art

notes: 

1. Frances Barrett, ‘The Humours’, public talk, 22 October 2017. Monash University Museum of Art, Caulfield.
2. Shannon Burns, ‘In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class’, Meanjin Quarterly, Winter 2017. Available at: https://meanjin.com.au/essays/in-defence-of-the-bad-white-working-class/
3. Hannah Mathews, ‘Introduction’, The Humours, ex. cat., ed. Elise Routledge, Monash University Museum of Art, Caulfield, 2017, p.8.