The humours

Mary Reid Kelley, The Thong of Dionysus, 2015Exploring how comedy and absurdity can be used to reveal more serious concerns about race, work, gender and politics, The humours brings together six international and Australian artists in a challenging and comical exhibition at the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) from 7 October as part of the 2017 Melbourne Festival.

Curated by MUMA Senior Curator Hannah Mathews, this exhibition of new commissions and recent works pays particular attention to the roles physicality and language play in unsettling preconceptions through comedy. The humours includes moving image, photographic, installation and performance works. It features new commissions from Australian artists Matthew Griffin and Barbara Cleveland.

Rather than offering a compendium of funny art, the show looks at some of the underlying strategies – physical movement, dialogue, exaggerations of scale and absurdity – that artists work with when using humour as a tool for provoking thought.

“The humours ties in with a long history of comedy and absurdity in art. It delves into the ability of these languages to be subversively transgressive in their ways of dealing with difficult things,” says Mathews.

The curator says the rise of Donald Trump lends a timeliness to the show. “Every day in the newspaper and on social media we see how late-night TV hosts and comedians are dealing with the reality of American politics. They provide much-needed political critique and commentary but through wit and humour. We might also remember the late John Clarke in our own Australian context.”

The humours extends Mathews long-standing curatorial interests in the body and performance. In 2014, she curated Framed Movements at the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art (ACCA); also created for the Melbourne Festival, the exhibition explored the intersection between visual art and dance.

“The title of the show, The humours, harks back to the ancient philosophical and medical conception of the relationship between humour, the body and behaviours. Conceived by Hippocrates, it was a diagnostic formula later embraced by Shakespeare and others seeking to portray contemporary life” explains Mathews. “I’m interested in the ability of art – especially art combining physicality and language with humour – to confront social problems through these quite complex emotional, physical, behavioural experiences.”

The exhibition features a large, seven-channel video installation by acclaimed US artist Glenn Ligon. His work Live is based on a video recording of the famously outspoken African-American comedian Richard Pryor performing live on the Sunset Strip. Ligon mutes Pryor’s voice, and his explicit criticisms of racism, and asks us to pay attention to the comedian’s body language as specific parts of his body become the focal points of the different channels in the installation.

“This emphasis on the body in Ligon’s work invariably raises questions regarding social constructs of race and masculinity. It also asks us to look beyond Pryor’s famed commentary to consider the craft involved in the physical delivery of comedy itself,” says Mathews. “There is a strong feminist tradition of using satire and absurdity to highlight inequality and that’s something we can see in works in the exhibition by Mary Reid Kelley and Mika Rottenberg.”

Mary Reid Kelley combines painting, performance and distinctive wordplay-rich poetry in graphically stylised black-and-white videos. Synthesising art-historical styles such as Cubism and German Expressionism, these present her take on the clash between ideology and the realities of women’s lives throughout history. For The humours, Reid Kelley’s video The Thong of Dionysus (made with her partner Patrick Kelley) takes us on an odyssey back to Ancient Greece.

Mika Rottenberg’s video installation Squeeze mixes grinding industrial machinery and claustrophobic architectural constructions in a depiction of factory work that probes the feminisation of globalised labour. Squeeze splices together documentary footage from a rubber plant in India and a lettuce farm in Arizona with Rottenberg’s own narrative of women in an absurdist makeup factory.

Mathews describes filmmaker Gabriel Abrantes’ 30-minute film The Artificial Humours as possibly “the most human” work in the show and one that reflects her interest in the craft of comedy as a highly skilled abstraction of human behaviour. The film follows a small, artificially intelligent hovering robot as it tries to grasp the concept of humour. Through his narrative, Abrantes manages to combine philosophy, anthropology and human emotion in humorous and insightful ways.

In a new work commissioned by MUMA, Australian collective Barbara Cleveland take their enduring fascination with performance comedy in a new direction by writing and enacting a manifesto written by their namesake in the 1970s that proposes the notion of bad timing as a feminist strategy.

Australian artist Matthew Griffin has recently returned from New York City, and in a work co-commissioned by MUMA and Melbourne Festival, uses drone camera technology to document a performance within the MUMA gallery space. “Griffin’s new body of work is characterised by his typical irreverence, presenting a tongue-in-cheek approach to contemporary art’s need to be engaged with the latest technology and innovation.” said Mathews.

The humours is a diverse exhibition, which aims to be more than a collection of different types of humorous art. What the show does is to look at humour, at what comedians do, the skill and the craft of that and what that allows us as the audience to see and engage with: those bigger ideas around identity, history and politics.”

The humours
Monash University Museum of Art, Caulfield Campus, 900 Dandenong Road, Caulfield East
Exhibition: 7 October – 16 December 2017
Free admission

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Image: Mary Reid Kelley, The Thong of Dionysus, 2015 (video still). HD video, sound, made with Patrick Kelley, 9 minutes and 27 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London.