Funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha


VISUAL ART:The darker side of comedy is explored in a group show, but, rather than offering laughs, it uncovers the latent cruelty inherent in much humour, writes AIDAN DUNNE.

GRIN AND BEAR It: Cruel humour in art and lifeat the Glucksman Gallery is a show about humour and endurance, and about how humour is often something to be endured, particularly if the joke’s on you.

Curators Claire Feeley and Matt Packer have lined up a selection of contemporary art incorporating or about humour and cruelty, together with some biting satire in the form of William Hogarth’s engravings and Martyn Turner’s political cartoons.

They’ve also included documentation of some of the games or practical jokes once typical of Irish wakes, from the National Folklore Collection, and examples of the Skellig Lists, published sheets of scandalous rhymes about the antics of young people of marriageable age. The result is a hybrid exhibition, often didactic in tone and not, despite the subject matter, a barrel of laughs.

That’s not because, as countless academic conferences have demonstrated over the years, there’s nothing funny about humour out of context. It’s more to do with the show’s focus on the inherent cruelty of humour. Freud set the tone when he linked jokes to unconscious agendas, arguing that they mask various kinds of aggression and hostility, and often don’t much bother with the mask.

Hence the wake games, presumably facilitated by copious amounts of alcohol, which fostered group identity and cohesion by the time-honoured method of picking on a chosen victim – although the victim could be capable of turning the tables, as one example in the show suggests.

One of the first pieces you encounter in the gallery is Nevan Lahart’s ramshackle hearse, a hearse that looks as if its been involved in a Hollywood-style car chase entailing multiple collisions.

The gallows humour involved in the jarring disparity between funereal solemnity and knockabout farce is characteristic of a whole subsection of the exhibition. Death and humour go hand in hand. Take the dying words attributed to the actor Sir Donald Wolfit (among others). When asked by a concerned relative if it was hard to die, he replied: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

In When was the first time you realised that next time would be the last time, artist Friedrich Kunath, in fancy dress as the Grim Reaper, hid behind a cemetery wall and hit passers-by on the head with a giant foam hammer, recording their understandably perplexed reactions. He must have thought it was hilarious, and presumably no one died of shock. But still.

For serious endurance, there is Harold Offeh’s video documentation of himself trying to maintain a happy face as Nat King Cole sings Smile. Grin turns to grimace as time goes by. In her work, Catherine Harty resorts to an improvised device fashioned from wire coat hangers, to sustain her expression of crazed cheerfulness.

David Sherry devised a Sisyphean torture for himself. In his video, called Running for the Bus, he takes a common urban experience and guarantees that it’s an exercise in futility. At a bus stop, he waits until the bus has pulled away before vainly pursuing it while laden with shopping bags. Oddly enough, for it to be funny, he’d have to have a fighting chance of actually catching the bus. As it is, there’s no dramatic tension to be dissipated with a laugh.

Sherry’s doomed efforts are not far removed from the exploits of Danish artist Peter Land, who has spent a sizeable part of his career coming to grief in slapstick situations. Even the title, The Staircase, is enough to indicate what’s going to happen, and it does. Land falls comprehensively, and heavily, all the way down. It can’t have been fun, and it’s up to us to decide whether it’s funny.

The images of falling are juxtaposed with a Star Trek-like sequence of space travel on an opposite screen. Land has often combined pratfalls with transcendence in this way. He might be saying that we aim for the stars but are clowns nonetheless.

He often undercuts ideas of masculinity and, in Ed Young’s It’s Not Easy, clips from various Supermanfilms portray the superhero undergoing moments of profound doubt and disillusionment. It’s presumably intended as a comment on stereotypical ideas of masculinity. But aren’t the Superman stories partly that in the first place? Hence their continual emphasis on the contrast between strength and vulnerability.

An audio work by Sean Landers, on the other hand, is a kind of parody of the motivational industry. Above a rousing background soundtrack, a speaker holds forth about his own ineffable brilliance. It’s funny.

Other pieces drift over into darker territory. Henry Coombes’s video vignettes are a bit like Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, but having surrendered to psychosis and weirdness. Strip cartoons by WK Haselden dating back to the years between the wars are remarkable for their graphic skill and the homicidal rage framed within the rigid discipline of craft. Stephen Sutcliff’s Come to the Edgetakes its title from Christopher Logue’s poem, an encouragement of youthful risk-taking. What we see in the video is a group of boys in a school common room suddenly turning on one of their own.

The Skellig Lists, which circulated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, arose from the established practice whereby young people embarked on pilgrimages to Skellig Micheal not out of pious motives, to do penance but, rather, to court and socialise. This hedonistic subversion of religious custom, mild though it was by contemporary standards, generated a frenzy of slanderous speculation enlivened by wit in the Lists. James Beale’s painting, Skellig Night on South Mall, depicts something akin to the anarchic exuberance of the tradition of carnival in Europe.

Set this against Common Culture’s Binge, which consists of photographs of young people in various states of drunkenness after a night out. It would be cruel to laugh at them and it’s not entirely clear that most people would. As you may have gathered, you are unlikely to emerge much cheered from Grin and Bear It. You’ll probably be better informed than you were when you entered the gallery, but then, nobody said it was going to be fun.

Grin and Bear It: Cruel humour in art and life, in a group show curated by Claire Feeley and Matt Packer. Glucksman Gallery, UCC, Until July 5th