Essay for Sonia Shiel
‘Sonia Shiel’ published by R.H.A., Dublin
There are many ways in which comedy might play a role in making art. If, in popular culture, making art itself is often something to be laughed at, it should be borne in mind that comedy also has a critical potential to dislodge and displace. In taking a critical stance towards the dominant habits and ideas of art, or what she describes as ‘the persistence of the ego and devotions of art,’ Sonia Shiel uses comedy. When she built a home-made lie detector, by carefully following the instructions of a video on the internet, she ended up with something which looked exactly as it should. However, in practise, it did not detect any lies but affirmed any and every statement as the truth. There is something about this promiscuous lie detector which is endearing and critical in its very uselessness. It can be read as a metaphor in hardware for a certain excess, an excess which is of the essence of comedy, which removes us from the expected and the practical.
The great Irish comedian, Dave Allen, told a joke that went something like this:
A priest gets up very early one Sunday morning in order to play golf without being seen because, of course, he should not be playing golf on a Sunday. However, up in Heaven, Saint Peter spots him and rushes off to tell God. As the priest lines up his tee shot, Saint Peter urges God to strike him down with lightning. God lifts His finger and points it at the priest. The priest plays his shot: the ball sails through the air, lands on the green, rolls across it and drops in the hole. A hole in one. The priest is ecstatic; Saint Peter is furious: “Why did you do that?” he demands of God. God calmly turns to Saint Peter and says: “Who’s he going tell?”
The point is that, for the priest, the torment of not being able to discuss his success will be far greater than the pleasure of the experience itself. Why? We never simply experience something in itself. The fact that when we experience something out of the ordinary, we have an urgent need to tell someone about it, testifies to the fact that our experiences are always experienced in relation to a dimension outside of ourselves. We are not simply at home in our bodies. In lacanian psychoanalysis, this dimension is called the symbolic order. And the symbolic order conjures into existence what is called the Big Other: an external entity in relation to which our inner experience is made meaningful. It is the Big Other which grounds and guarantees what one does. The situation is complicated because the Big Other does not exist.1 For example, God is one obvious form the Big Other can take. And talking to God is a way to ground one’s experience. But talking to God is not simply submissive: it is also the attempt to force the Big Other into existence through the performance of talking to it.
For artists, Art is often the embodiment of the Big Other: an ultimate guarantee that rescues whatever we do from its messy particularity. Artist may not often talk to Art but they habitually make sacrifices to it, in one form or another. This is not only to prostrate oneself before Art but the attempt to force Art into existence.
Art & Language conclude their essay ‘Abstract Expression,’ in which they have been discussing causality in pictures, by saying: “But causality is vanity. The real project is to do without it: to make do with nothing.”2 However, there are two radically different ways in which we could take this “nothing.” The first way, which I’m tempted to call the postmodern way, would see ‘making do with nothing’ as opening the door for multiplicity, relativism and a certain freedom: if there are no reliable criteria for action, you can do whatever you like. In such circumstances, as long as your choice is sincere in its particularity it cannot be criticised: it’s hard to be wrong about what your particular interests are. This situation, it could be argued, is in many ways the situation of contemporary art. Today, there seems to be no compelling reason for being one kind of artist rather than another.
But there is a second way to take the slogan ‘making do with nothing.’ In this case, the “nothing” includes making do without particular interests and individual eccentricities. Above all, it is to making do without the idea of Art itself. Rather than making do without criteria within Art, this would be to make do without Art per se; without the distinction of Art as its own set of practices. It is to manage without the comfort of recognising what one does in the Big Other.
However, the artist’s belief in Art is not simply manifest in dramatic moments. Indeed, the artist can actively and consciously deny any belief in Art and yet this belief can be manifest in the everyday habits, customs and practices of the artist. Belief is manifest not in theory but in practise: in the pull of the studio and the comfort of technique. In writing about political revolution, Slavoj Žižek has said that the revolution must strike twice.3 It is not enough to overthrow the explicit structures and institutions of power. The old society resides, precisely, in its everyday habits, customs and practices: it is here that its values and assumptions are embedded in material practice. Without overturning everyday life, the old society will simply resurface in a new form. And, mutatis mutandis, does the same not hold for art? Any transformation of art must change not simply our explicit conception of art but the daily practice within which the ideology of art is embedded. This is where the true difficulty and violence of revolution lies: not in seizing power but in breaking personal attachments to familiar and comfortable habits. Truly changing things must include changing oneself: making oneself out of place. For the artist, this is the true radicality of making do with nothing: it is not simply making do without external or additional support but rather requires the active destruction of everything one takes for granted.
The attempt to make do with nothing is the attempt to break out of the restraints of habitual practice: of ideology embedded in everyday intuition. In general, we might say that this is how ideology works: not by giving the wrong answer but by giving the wrong question. Ideology does not seek to persuade but rather gives the wrong co-ordinates for thought and action. For example, debates about what makes a baby turn into the person it becomes are habitually framed in terms of the choice between ‘nature’ and ‘nurture.’ The rhetorical power of the similarity in the sounds of the two words are part of the ideological slight of hand here. Nevertheless, we should pay attention to the assumptions shared by posing the choice in terms of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture.’ ‘Nature’ supposes that the subject is determined by factors that precede the individual, whether they be genes, God or something else; ‘nurture’ supposes that the subject is determined by factors that operate on the individual as he or she develops, whether they be familial, social or so on. Thus, they share both the assumption that the subject coincides with the individual and the assumption that the subject is passively determined in a non-reflexive way. Against this false choice, psychoanalysis would argue that the crucial process is trauma. The child actively chooses what to make of itself in impossible circumstances: where the available language is not its own and where its fundamental desires are prohibited.
In England, in the 1970s, there was a genre of jokes known as ‘Irish Jokes,’ which relied upon the understanding that there would be a stupid Irishman as the butt of every joke. One such joke (which also takes other forms) has an Englishman stopping to ask an Irishman for directions. The Irishman pauses for thought. Then he replies: “I wouldn’t start from here.” However, is this really such a stupid answer? Of course this answer can be read as a failure to understand the basic logic of giving directions. However, it might be more interesting to read the answer as a refusal to accept the terms of the question or as a withdrawal from its logic. It’s not hard to imagine an Irish worker winding up an English landowner with such an answer, for example. Indeed, the humour of the joke might come not from the apparent stupidity of the answer but precisely from our identification with the fictitious Irishman: from our recognition of the way all questions attempt to impose a logic upon us.
Withdrawal form the habitual choices of art means not being at home. Familiarity is not simply a matter of knowing the explicit rules but of knowing when the rules apply and when they don’t. In other words, the Law depends upon unspoken supplements and common knowledge. At a trivial, everyday level, when I bump into my neighbour and he ritually asks ‘How are you?’ he expects the answer ‘Fine.’ A detailed description of my various ailments would be taken as a troubling deviation from the protocols of such situations.
The displacement of being not-at-home entails two related possibilities for misunderstanding. The first is incomprehension: a failure to understand the everyday cultural habits and rituals which are taken for granted by those who are at home. In the film in which the fictional ambassador of Kazakhstan, Borat, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, tours the United States, he is, at one point, invited to a Republican dinner party. During the meal, he manages to convey to his host his needs to go to the toilet and is shown to the Bathroom. He returns carrying a small plastic bag. As he enquires of his host how he should dispose of this bag it becomes obvious, to her dismay, that this bag contains the result of his trip to the Bathroom. Here, we are not simply laughing at the discomfort of the xenophobic Republicans; more than this, we identify with Borat being out of place. Indeed, Borat is a vehicle for making the familiar strange, for making the invisible appear.
The second possibility for misunderstanding entailed by not being at home is taking things too literally or seriously. It is, for example, not knowing when a question has a ‘polite’ or ritual answer, as in the example of my neighbour’s question, above. This can be a question of not knowing when to stop; of excess; of giving more than was bargained for. But it can also be a question of not providing an excess that is expected, as when workers disrupt production by ‘working to rule.’ This type of misunderstanding is related to the active and deliberate strategy of ‘overidentification,’ theorised by Žižek.4 Overidentification is, precisely, to take things literally, without the expected ironic distance. This is proposed as a response to the fact that ideology is cynical: in asking wrong questions and giving false choices, ideology does not care what you think; its only concern is that you accept the unspoken assumptions and hidden supplements which underpin its explicit content. Overidentification challenges ideology by taking its explicit content more seriously than it takes it itself. In communist Poland, there was an official Day of the Police and Security Service. In Wroclaw a group calling themselves Orange Alternative organised a march to show their support for these civil servants. They showered police officers and patrol cars with flowers and attempted to embrace and thank them. These attempts were met with reasonable force and some arrests.5
Being out of place (as opposed to being lost or fallen) is comedic: it is to invite misunderstanding. But here we should bare in mind the tentative distinction Alenka Zupančič proposes between bad and good comedy.6 In bad or conservative comedy, things are thrown out of place only for everything to be restored to its proper place in the end. In good comedy, in contrast, not only do things remain out of place but the displacement spreads, becoming a movement which continues to disrupt and displace. Here we might think of different types of sit-com. In ‘Friends,’ the role played by characters outside the group of friends was to disrupt the unity of the group – but only so that the group could expel the intruder and reassert its hermeticism. In ‘Fawlty Towers,’ in contrast, an external element disrupts the normal functioning of the hotel and every attempt to dispel it leads to yet more disruption – until all is chaos; at this point the program ends without resolution and without order restored.
It is difficult to imagine what an art of refusal might be like in these times of artistic multiplicity and relativism. It is hard to withdraw from the dominant expectations of art precisely because today, in art, anything goes. It is in this situation that comedy has critical potential for art: it is precisely in relation to this situation of multiplicity and relativism that the artist needs to feel not-at-home. But it should be added that this displacement is a process or a movement rather than a static dislocation: it is to be in a continual process of making do with nothing.
To attempt to make do without art is to be out of place within art. What connects the idea of ‘making do with nothing’ to the idea of ‘good comedy’ is the aversion to particularity. As I described above, the radical sense of ‘making do with nothing’ does not mean doing anything and then getting the particularity of what one has done accepted as art: it is to make do without particularity. Following Zupančič, it is bad comedy which is about the Particular finding its proper place; good comedy by-passes the Particular, in that particular things become props in a process that destabilises the very idea of things having proper places. One example Zupančič uses is an archetypal comedic situation where a Baron slips over and lands in a muddy puddle. For Zupančič, the true comedy here lies not in the high being brought low. If we stop here we have stopped too soon. Rather, the true comedy lies in the fact that the Baron subsequently gets up and carries on despite his fall. The muddy puddle has only brought him down to earth physically, not psychologically; rather than shaking his belief it has demonstrated that his belief in his own Baron-hood is unshakeable. It is thus that the muddy puddle is a prop that sets this demonstration in motion.
A props department, in a theatre or film studio, is full of things that can be put to use in different ways in different circumstances. A prop does not have an intrinsic identity, even if it was made for particular circumstances. Props are not meant to stand out: they are useful inasmuch as they can combine with other props and scenery to form different backgrounds or sets, which are, in turn, part of a narrative or process. Props are never the real thing; even when an art director uses a real mug to stand in for a mug on a film set, for example, this mug has ceased to be used as a mug and instead is used as a prop: it has entered a world of artifice, where its identity is formed in relation to the movement of other elements of the artifice rather than its erstwhile history.
Why might an artist use props? To what problem might this be a solution? Of course props can be used unremarkably as part of a conventional product of display in one form or another. But what is of interest here is the idea of an artist engaging with the process of making props rather than the utility of props in relation to a conventional artistic product. In this case, what is important is that props are knowingly artificial and that they are things not to be looked at in their own right. Trompe L’oeil was the lowest of the genres because it destabilised the position of the spectator: there wasn’t a correct place from which to look at a trompe l’oeil painting precisely because you didn’t know what you were meant to be looking at or even that you were meant to be looking.7 A picture of a pin-board, for example, would be hung in a house, in a place where you might expect to find a pin-board, rather than in a place where you’d expect a picture to be. The idea was to trick the spectator; or, rather, the spectator, as opposed to the individual, only came into being as a result of being tricked. We might expect such a spectator to be a little paranoid: to move about; investigate; look with anticipation; touch or even pick up the painting. In other words, trompe l’oeil made looking itself uncertain. Given the specific situation at the time, what we might call the artistic conjuncture, trompe l’oeil displaced painting from the conventions of art: quite literally from its proper place. Trompe l’oeil was comedy. Within our own artistic conjuncture, props might have a similar potential. Props connect with trompe l’oeil in their irreverence for particularity and focus on activity and process rather than fixed results.
Props are unlikely candidates for artworks precisely in that they can only be props in relation to other things: a prop is intrinsically not itself. It is in this light that we might think of Sonia Shiel’s work in terms of props. It is not that she has any kind of attachment to props per se (which is a word I have applied to what she does and not a word she uses herself); rather, what is of interest is that props combine artifice with being part of a process. In the work Miles and Miles, for example, she combines what she calls innumerable sections of “painted-on” road, which neatly expresses how the ‘road’ is merely a fragile surface that emerges out of a combination of pieces. These are things to be used and reused as part of a process rather than to be arrested and fixed. And it is in the uncertainty of this movement that the comedic dimension arises. Thus, her work not only deals in places where the Law and stability are in doubt, which is to say places in the process of being transformed in one way or another; her work also enacts a kind of instability, where her props are always liable to reform or move on. Unlike trompe l’oeil, she does not create illusions; rather, the processes she uses open up a comedic dimension of uncertainty. This is to refuse the comfort of familiar choices. Uncertainty, not knowing what is going to happen next, is of the essence of good comedy and of an art which is not at home.
At the end of the film ‘Some Like It Hot,’ Daphne (Jack Lemmon in drag) is coming up with all sorts of reasons why Osgood Fielding, an old millionaire who has taken a fancy to Daphne, should not marry her. Finally Daphne gives up the pretence of being a woman, pulls off his wig and declares, in his normal voice, ‘I’m a man.’ To which Osgood replies “Well – Nobody’s perfect.” We should read this final refusal to submit to reason not as a sign of delusion but rather as a principled refusal to let things return to normal. This is to remain faithful to the transformatory potential of love, to the exceptional, in the face of all the reasons why one should be sensible and realistic. It is to resist the cynicism of the conventional. It is to persist. It is this connection between comedy, refusal and persistence that should interest us as artists. Good comedy is intricately tied up with being faithful to the belief that something else is possible.
1 There is no space here for a proper foray into the complexities of lacanian thought. For an entertaining introduction see Slavoj Zizek, How to Read Lacan, Granta, London, 2006
2 Art & Language, ‘Abstract Expression,’ reproduced in Modernism, Criticism, Realism, Charles Harrison and Fred Orton (Ed.s), Harper and Row, London, 1984
3 Slavoj Zizek, ‘Revolution Must Strike Twice,’ London Review of Books, Vol.24 No.14, July 2002, pp. 13-15
4 Overidentification crops up frequently in Zizek. See, for example, Slavoj Zizek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, Verso, London, 1994/2005, pp. 71-72
5 See Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse, ‘Subversive Affirmation. On Mimesis as Strategy of Resistance,’ available here: http://www.projects.v2.nl/~arns/Texts/Media/Arns-Sasse-EAM-final.pdf
6 Alenka Zupancic, ‘The ‘Concrete Universal,’ and What Comedy Can Tell Us About It,’ in Lacan: The Silent Partners, Slavoj Zizek (Ed.), Verso, London, 2006
7 For more on Trompe L’oeil, see my ‘Gotcha: Why Trompe L’oeil Painting Is Better Than Sliced Bread,’ in everything 3.3, 2000