: Catalogue Essay
February 23rd, 2013 - April 4th, 2013
Artists Explore the Fictional and Real-Life Absurd in an Attempt to Grapple with the Existential Questions of Life
The term “Absurdistan” was often used in reference to the former Eastern block countries — the breakaway Russian republics — in which chaos and absurdity were about the only constants. “Absurdistan” often refers to the illogical actions of the government entities, but this title need not be reserved for the former USSR. It can also apply to any realm, be it national, municipal, personal or virtual in which absurdity reigns.
China itself has been through a very tumultuous century — one in which values changed rapidly from a Confucian-based highly-stratified feudal society, to a socialist collectivist more egalitarian society, to a place which now finds itself facing the same moral conundrums of the market-based capitalist West. No more now is the question of “the meaning of life” so pertinent.
While pre-industrial societies relied heavily on religion and gods to explain the inexplicable in our world, today we seek these answers in science, logic and reason — yet we still come up empty handed.
Humans have a deep-seated desire for the world to make sense, for there to be a grand purpose, and herein lies much of our unhappiness. Artists, though they struggle with these questions as well, embrace the absurd and the meaningless for what it is — and use notions of the absurd in their art to help us deal emotionally with the inexplicable. In his search for meaning, Albert Camus explored Greek mythology, more particularly the story of King Sisyphus who by imprisoning Thanatos, the god of death, managed to give a stay of execution to all humans on earth. Once Zeus discovered this deceit, however, he sentenced Sisyphus to a life in the underworld. Sisyphus escaped once more by convincing Persephone that he needed to chastise his wife for not giving him a proper burial, but once back on earth he did not return. This is when Zeus awarded him with the mindless and frustrating task of rolling a boulder up a mountain for all of eternity.
In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus likens this physical drudgery to the numbing crawl of contemporary life, “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” 1
Camus has said “The struggle itself towards the height is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” 2 Which is a curious thing to say about such a punishment, but Camus felt that we needed to find creative ways to transcend our grim predicament.
Christina Shmigel embodies this Sisyphean struggle in her mixed media-installation work, “Heavy Load.” The work
features a miniature wire bicycle which is dwarfed by a giant mountain of Styrofoam boxes at least ten times its size. Like Sisyphus the imaginary rider of this bicycle cart must pull a load of Styrofoam to the recycling depot everyday and for many of these workers there is no end in sight. The sheer physicality of the situation is indeed absurd, but also is the fact that a pile of Styrofoam loosely attached with strings and propelled by human strength is still a viable form of waste collection.
Linda Duvall and Peter Kingstone also examine the basic human struggle for survival in their video piece “Living in 10 Easy Lessons,” in which they interview ten streetwise ladies about different skills they use to survive. These unorthodox abilities include: “looking exotic,” drawing on eyebrows, hiding one’s money, selling drugs, scamming drinks and pan-handling — not typically the sort of thing we would find in the “For Dummies” book series, but they are none-the-less vital to the women that use them. Often they were taught the skills by others in the profession and observed the successes and failures of others in order to fine-tune their craft. What emerges is a portrait of humanity scraping by at the most basic of levels, something which puts the issue of “existence and existentialism,” into stark relief. There is a certain awkwardness produced between the viewer, interviewee and interviewer. The observer wonders how the interviewees feel about being interviewed by two people of different socioeconomic strata. Do they feel as if they’ve been put under glass? At the same time, the project gives the subjects a position of authority — as experts in their field willing to share their knowledge with anyone who is interested.
The issue of pedagogy also arises in Leung Chi Wo’s video work “Sign.” In “Part One” a deaf teacher (Laisarn Leong) works with a young tartan clad Australian girl (Belle Reilly) teaching parents how to sign with their children be they deaf or just merely at a non-verbal stage of communication. While they learn the basic staples of baby vocabulary, (Mummy. Where is Daddy? Gone work. Want change? Want eat? ), the second part of the video takes on a more sinister edge. In it we see a suburban mother bursting with joy as she teaches her infant daughter some unconventional words such as: child abuse, social isolation, discrimination and extra-marital affair. The darkness of the contents of the lesson is heightened by the new-agey lullaby music and the interspersed images of blue skies, flowers and shrubbery.
Concocting this absurd situation, the video hi-lights the fact that from the moment we are born into this world, we are faced with much unpleasantness — from the paradise of a backyard garden, we are very quickly thrown into a darkly dystopic world.
Qian Rong’s view of society is no less cynical, and it’s one which reflects the tumultuousness of world history through almost-naïve like watercolor paintings. “History Book,” for instance, depicts a soldier standing in a miniature ship holding up a burning book. The metaphor not only refers to the excesses of the Red Guards, but also the constant re-adjustment and re-writing of history according to the whims of the victors. “Dialogue of the Empire” depicts a man who appears to be wearing two different masks on the back of his head: one is black, the other depicts ancient sage, meanwhile a third face appears on the butt of the ship — a sensitive literati countenance. Here, Qian Rong literalizes the concept of “volte-face” or “about face” whereby the literati of the 20s and 30s had to adopt new stances after liberation. “Dragon’s Roar,” which depicts a winged naked man with a dragon floating beneath him, expresses the vulnerability of these once powerful minds and their desire to express their thoughts and soar freely. Meanwhile “China Ship Building” uses the heft of a giant pachyderm sitting within a boat to hint at the more sinister forces of the military industrial complex.
Like Orwell, Qian Rong understands the power of allegory, that animals can make good vectors for complex ideas. Italian artist Ailadi Cortelletti engages in similar techniques in her illustration of “Cronopios and Famas” — an absurd novel by Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar. In the novel, Cortázar outlines the characteristics of various imaginary creatures, the Cronopios are seen as naive and idealistic, disorganized and sensitive creatures meanwhile the Famas (whose name literally means “fame”) are more orderly and organized, some might say a bit OCD. What we see played out what seems to be a Spanish small town are a number of ethnic prejudices, i.e. the Famas own the garden hose factory, but the Cronopios who compose the work force are always taken to dancing, so the stern-faced Famas need to enforce the work regulations. The Famas have orderly households where they bundle and package their memories; the Cronopios have loud and noisy spaces. Such stereotypes might seem to exemplify the stereotypical Anglo/Latin cultural divide but we find similar dichotomies in every country, where one cultural group considers themselves more civilized, serious or advanced, while the other values culture, music, food and living life. Often such rivalries exist even within extremely close geographic zones — just think about the Yangtze River Delta where people believe that certain regions produce “hard workers,” while others produce swindlers, big talkers etc. Cortelletti’s caricatured animal figures with elongated legs and bulging trunks give these literary caricatures an extra mantle of absurdity.
Chen Xi’s illustrations also work on a visual level to express not a narrative story but more an overall feeling of futility. “Run Swine Run,” employs soft gray watercolors to depict a pig with long human-like legs, which looks like a centipede, sporting a mask on its pig face. It’s long sausage-like form implies that the enemy the swine is running from is most likely a butcher.
The concept of flight is also implied in the work “Jet Turtle,” a drawing featuring an astronaut sitting slump-shouldered on the back of a turtle as it leaves a number of contrails or perhaps earthen furrows behind him. The weight of the astronaut and the turtle’s slow trudge through space look like a sci-fi re-creation of the Sisyphus myth.
Futility is personified again in “Black Winged Angel,” a figure with wings so long that they negate the possibility of flight. All of these creatures are blessed with a certain kind of super power but sadly as if there was some genetic mutation, their powers are nullified, leaving them impotent in fighting what dangers lie in store.
In a sense, they reflect our lives as humans, largely powerless to control our fate or to stop the march of death. This sense of futility is echoed again in Savinder Bual’s “Flight” where a plastic winged bird (the kind which can be wound up and released to fly on its own) is tethered to the blade of a ceiling fan which slowly spins around. The bird is painted with all kinds of fierce markings as if it’s an eagle or phoenix, yet all it can do is hang languidly like a tuft of dust stuck to the fan.
There is something truly funny about the impersonation of animals, especially when they make jerky mechanical movements which bear no resemblance to the kind of choreography we would find in nature. Bual’s video “Frog” employs this sort of humor, with a cardboard box bearing the image of an antique hopping-frog toy, stuttering across the table. These frog toys are on their own fairly absurd, but Bual heightens the sense of the ridiculous by putting the frog in the box, trapping it and making it’s journey across the wooden desk even more pointless. From an existential point of view, are we all any more advanced than the frog? Marching blindly through time with little ability to see what lies ahead?
Canadian artist Melissa Thompson employs a similar brand of animal absurdity in her work “The Impostors,” clay sheep figurines, disguised in ghost’s clothing, standing with arms hanging limply their sides, look disappointed as if they were hoping to cause a fright but no victims ever showed up. Their forlorn expressions are contrasted by some sprigs of bright hypericum berries, which add a certain ironic festiveness to this failed Halloween party. In creating these characters, Thompson references the animal figures of Scandinavian lore. They are actually constructed as finger puppets which adds another level of disguise i.e. a finger disguised as a sheep disguised as a ghost. In her artist statement Thomspon references psychoanalyst and author Darian Leader, who writes that animals who practiced forms of mimicry (disguising themselves as other plants or animals) fared no better in the game of survival. Perhaps herein lies the reason for the sheep’s forlorn expression.
Hybrid forms also play a role in the work of Swiss artist Orianne Zanone. Her fantastical, semi architectural sculptures look part space station-part, part design object and part urban construction site. Using craft materials such as pipe cleaners, found objects and post-consumer waste, her sculpture “Tripod” features a giant mushroom-shaped Styrofoam sphere split in two by errant bamboo poles topped with pearly turquoise orbs. The object teeters precariously like an exotic long-legged bird, at the same time it looks as if it could be a platform for new forms of life and new possibilities for human civilization. But despite it’s organic pretensions, there is something cold and mechanical about it — one thinks of the gleaming white forms of the Starship Enterprise, an inanimate form floating in space in what Camus might describe as an indifferent universe.
Embodying a similarly sci-fi aesthetic is Ang Sookon’s “Your Love is Like a Chunk of Gold,” the sculpture features a chunk of semolina bread soaked in monoammonium phosphate. Rather than spawn green patches of mould, the pieces of bread grew large outcroppings of crystals. Ang had to monitor the bread and cull the crystal growth to create the desired form. By doing this she takes an object that is symbolic of home, of the comfort of the every day, a midnight sandwich or a morning toast and adds a layer of danger, the geological forms creating spiky protrusions.
Ang fashions this as a metaphor for love, something which is so intimate yet so irrational and impenetrable. And her creations strike at a core notion of the absurd, taking the familiar and making it strange — altering, twisting and distorting it. And in purposely distorting our world, the artists can become masters for a day. Rather than being passengers on some grotesque carnival ride, they can be creators of their own worlds, crafting their own destinies. And perhaps their creations can help us accept the incongruities and irrationalities of our own world.
As Camus wrote in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “The absurd joy par excellence is creation . . . The artist commits himself and becomes himself in his work.” Or put another way by religious studies professor Robert Lane, “Works of art become, then, the one means for a person to support and sustain a lucid consciousness in the face of the absurdity of the universe.” 3
1. Camus, Albert, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Vintage International, New York: NY, 1991, page 121
2. Camus, Albert, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Vintage International, New York: NY, 1991, page 123.
3. Robert D. Lane, “The Absurd Hero,” http://www.levity.com/corduroy/camusabs.htm