Artists make use of the often unhappy roots of humour

by Gregory Beatty

Photo by Darrol Hofmeister

art-2Tragedy Plus Time
Dunlop Gallery
Until Aug. 27

“Comedy is tragedy plus time” is the full quote that inspired the title of this exhibition on display at the Dunlop’s Central and Sherwood Village locations until Aug. 27. It’s been attributed variously to Mark Twain, Steve Allen, Carol Burnett, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen.

All are humorists, as it happens. And as a group, they’re reasonably diverse — four men, one woman, two Jews, one charged and convicted of obscenity in the 1960s, four born in the early 20th century, the other in 1810. But that’s no surprise, really, because the sentiment they express is pretty much universal.

I mean, it has to be. Because individually and collectively we all face challenging circumstances from time to time, circumstances that sometimes overwhelm us. But we push through, and one of the tools we use to cope is humour — much of it black, admittedly, but also heartfelt and self-deprecating, joyous and proud.

Tragedy Plus Time is curated by Blair Fornwald, Jennifer Matotek and Wendy Peart. It features work by 19 local, national and international artists on the theme of humour as a balm for tragedy. In addition to the gallery shows, there’s three performances: I Could Kill Myself With My Panties by Thirza Cuthand (July 30), Camping Royale by CORPUS (Aug. 20-21) and Alison S.M. Kobayashi and Christopher Allen’s Thinking As She Thinks (Aug. 27).

Even though the word “comedy” is omitted from the exhibition title, there’s still plenty of humour in the show. But because it’s typically predicated on a “tragedy” of some sort, there’s plenty of discomfort to be had too. Triggers for viewers will be as diverse as their own life experience, and whatever traumas they’ve dealt with in their past.

Ever been self-conscious about your teeth or afraid of trips to the dentist? There’s an art work for you. Ever worried about going bald? That’s covered too. Same with growing up queer in a conservative community with rigid notions of gender. Or being dumped by a lover. Or nonplussed at the rituals of death on display at a funeral.

Or even just embarrassed at your failure to keep up with the latest in consumer technology.

The last is a topic that the Quebec collective BGL addresses in Sans titre (telephones) (1998-2006). Situated under glass like in a museum, the piece consists of five crudely rendered cellphones made of wood. At first glance they reminded me of toys, and spoke to the idea of how we use the tropes of consumerism to help educate children in the ways of the adult world.

A second reading tied to consumer goods as status symbols occurred to me later. I personally own, and continue to use, an iBook with a 10G hard drive that I purchased in 2001. It’s not made of wood like BGL’s phones, but if I were to take it to a coffee shop or library, the looks I’d get would be no less incredulous.

Another piece that stood out for me was Erica Eyres’ video The Situation Comedy (2012). It’s a pretty dead-on dissection of the banal conventions that sit-coms typically rely on to generate ratings and advertising revenue. That’s not to say there aren’t many fine shows that have been produced over the decades, but networks have foisted a lot of crap on us too.

The video opens with a shot of Bob Saget entering the set of America’s Funniest Home Videos, where he’s greeted with rapturous applause. AFHV debuted on ABC in 1989, and before that Saget starred in another ABC hit Full House about a guy who enlists the help of two friends to help raise three daughters after his wife is killed by a drunk driver.

That information is relevant, because as a backdrop to a series of AFHV clips of people (and some animals) suffering painful mishaps intercut with shots of the “studio” audience sitting stone cold silent, Eyres recounts the 10-year broadcast history of a show with a plot similar to Saget’s.

Some of the stuff she recalls such as what the set looked like, the characters’ back stories, and key plot points, sound plausible — and perhaps are even drawn from Full House. As Eyres continues, though, things veer alarmingly off course: the father struggles with depression; the daughter becomes rebellious; pets are introduced to heighten the cuteness factor, ultimately leading to 20 cats living (and urinating) in the house, which inspired one episode involving wet clothes and a microwave where the writers (likely drunk, says Eyres) dreamed up the catchphrase “The clothes smell like cat piss and pizza pops!” Yeah, cue the laugh track.

Laughs come a little easier in four hooked rugs on burlap by Craig Francis Power. They’re wall-mounted, and in one (Puking Cat) a stream of green wool bile extends down the wall from a cat’s mouth and runs across the floor. FUN is similarly designed, except the wool is yellow, and it streams from a man pissing after drinking seven beers (the empties are arrayed like a halo above his head). Funny stuff.

But that’s more the exception than the rule. And again, the work (or works) that really touch a nerve will depend on the viewer’s history.

Did I mention the allusion to anthropophobia in one work? No. Well, it’s there too.