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Comedians and Stoics: Humour in New Canadian Art

I’m outside Double Double Land, the charismatic alternative venue in Toronto’s Kensington Market, with a gathering crowd that has braved polar-vortex temperatures to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Doored. The monthly stage show is organized and hosted by Life of a Craphead, the relentless art-and-comedy duo of Amy Lam and Jon McCurley. Tonight’s visitors are greeted by a musical tableau on steroids by Man Made Hill that sets the stage for an ingeniously scattershot program incorporating everything from curated groceries to a living sculpture at intermission. Following this high-powered overture, compères Amy and Jon warm up the crowd with razor-sharp anecdotes about a recent residency in Newcastle before introducing a lineup of regular guests, including Laura McCoy, Bridget Moser and Neil LaPierre as well as newcomers like Vlad Bobeika. The reigning carnival atmosphere speaks to the tight social bonds between onstage ensemble and sold-out audience.

The topsy-turvy universe of Doored is not an isolated phenomenon. Toronto’s Jon Sasaki and Vancouver’s Myfanwy MacLeod are equally representative of a comic turn that harnesses humour to cope with art-world constraints. Together, these artists embody a contemporary generation of “stoic comedians”—Hugh Kenner’s term for the protagonists of a subgenre of Modernist literature that satirizes the absurdity of the literary enterprise itself: literature about literature as a ludicrously closed system. For Kenner, a former student of Marshall McLuhan, the characters concocted by Flaubert and Beckett are antiheroes in the mould of ancient Stoics, whose ironic fate was to fulfill the will of the gods by defying it. But modern, fictional stoics like Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet or Beckett’s Watt meet their fates with a slapstick urgency that sets them apart from their ancient prototypes. (Think Godard’s Contempt, but reinterpreted by Disney on Ice.)

What is this destiny that contemporary artists are combatting with such comic futility? A market-driven art world, an economy of diminishing returns, a discipline as Procrustean as any academic system of the past—you name it. It seems there are many gods eager to exercise their will these days.

But isn’t Kenner’s theme a Modernism inescapably past? Familiarity with comic timing has, it seems, bred new contempt for Postmodernism’s foreclosed horizon of expectation. The contemporary comic turn has little in common with the referential “irony” of an earlier generation, or its disdain for innovation. In place of parody and pastiche, the work of Lam and McCurley, Sasaki and MacLeod reveals a tentative return to the generative timescales of Modernism, albeit one tempered by a mock-stoic fatalism.

This elusive potentiality of time is rooted in the very format of Doored, whose seven-minute segments are modelled on the conventions of stand-up comedy. For Lam and McCurley, this constraint is generative: providing a readymade framework for their curated lineup of collaborators to test out madcap concepts and gags. But like the stylistic innovations of the avant-gardists analyzed by Kenner, Doored’s duelling performances are spurred on by a spirit of one-upmanship that sometimes spills over into an untimely grandiosity or mania.

Lam attributes Life of a Craphead’s interest in the twin themes of innovation and cliché to its fascination with the business world. “Concepts we’re coming up with, like our New Thing Travelling Store, satirize ways of selling things, how people innovate, how businesses sell things so that people want to buy them. Businesses innovate, so we want to innovate,” says Lam. McCurley suggests that it also grows out of the group’s comedy roots. “It comes out of the same way you’d try out a joke,” he says. Picking up on Lam’s business analogy, McCurley compares Doored to a production studio, and muses on some of the group’s more audacious, but invariably unmonumental, innovations: “like our audience camera system [actually recycled cameras from a police CCTV system and TVO].”

Some of the group’s more ambitious innovations are, appropriately, suspended in a perpetually deferred future. For instance, McCurley describes Life of a Craphead’s in-progress movie Bugs—a preposterously ambitious yet uncompromisingly do-it-yourself mutation of Disney’s A Bug’s Life—as “existing in the future and talking about the future as another universe.” He adds, “It’s kind of dumb, and it’s definitely referencing invention and the ‘new.’” Started in 2011, the film has developed organically during nonconsecutive artist residencies, a stop-start schedule that has necessitated that the project grows through similarly non-sequential cycles of shooting and editing. “Because the film is being produced by artists,” says Lam, “it’s directed in a non-conventional way.” “Our movie is this beautiful thing that’s going to be so funny,” McCurley adds with a characteristic nod to the potentiality of a future that is always just out of reach.

The baroque culmination of these themes of satirical futurity and redundant innovation was Life of a Craphead’s 50-year retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2013, which telescoped an as-yet-to-be-realized oeuvre into an impossible future anterior. Lam describes the project as the group’s “most institution-critical.” “We designed it to look like, by using the AGO’s fonts and vinyl signage, we were writing with their voice,” she says. Recalling the absurd struggles of Flaubert and Beckett, Life of a Craphead’s retrospective was an attempt to subvert the closed system of the gallery that paradoxically necessitated an unparalleled complicity. The designers placed at the group’s disposal were initially nonplussed by Lam and McCurley’s refusal to give in to the gallery’s default ethic of “creativity.” “You don’t have to do this, you don’t have to paint in straight lines” they pleaded, according to Lam. “Why would you want it to look normal?” The blandly recursive look of Life of a Craphead Retrospective epitomized what McCurley calls the group’s “cynicism.” Citing the long-running series The Simpsons as an influence, McCurley qualifies Life of a Craphead’s outlook as “cynical,” albeit in an older, more playful sense of the term.

As it happens, the ancient Cynics were unlikely role models for Kenner’s Stoics. In stark contrast to the connotations of cynicism today, the Cynics were not motivated by self-interest. Their leader, Diogenes of Sinope, was renowned for his philosophical pranks: whether strolling through the market with a lamp in daylight searching for “an honest man,” or reputedly living in an oversized jug, Diogenes was the Encino Man of ancient times. When he died, Diogenes’s fellow citizens even erected a pillar topped with a marble dog to honour the philosopher’s animalistic modus operandi. These antics, like the latter-day shenanigans of Life of a Craphead, had a serious purpose: to subvert sham idealism and social pretention.

Although he prefers the tag “romantic conceptualist,” the artist that comes closest to fulfilling Kenner’s stoic archetype is Jon Sasaki. His poignant performances and videos conjure the slapstick comedy of silent film stars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whose stoic resolve in the face of unintended consequences have been a persistent influence on the artist. But the absurdist texts of Modernists like Beckett and Kafka have been equally influential. Given the artist’s eclectic interests, it is fitting that Beckett’s stoic comedians stand poised at the juncture of literature and film. The Irish author even penned the screenplay for a 1965 experimental film, with the aptly tautological title Film, starring none other than the ever stone-faced Keaton.

Like Beckett’s writings, Sasaki’s art stars an Everyman alter ego who confronts formidable but invariably mundane obstacles. True to Kenner’s premise, the protagonists of Beckett and Sasaki alike fulfill their destiny by struggling against it. Momentarily inhabiting the role of puppet-master, Sasaki reflects that his “hero punches above his weight.” “But,” he adds, “I’m sort of laughing at him at the same time.” The stoic’s dilemma at the heart of Sasaki’s circular narratives mirrors that of the artist: “I often make predictions about what might happen with a certain scenario, and I’m usually wrong. Part of what I’m interested in is setting up a framework and then walking away and watching the piece unfold in time.”

A shining example of Sasaki’s delicate ballet of perseverance and fate is Please Don’t Take This 1000 Yen (2013), an intervention staged during a recent residency in Japan. Having installed signs throughout the Osaka neighbourhood he was staying in with 1,000-yen notes attached, but requesting that residents not remove the bills, Sasaki was curious to test Japan’s prevailing honour system. Despite the odds, and with the exception of one bill (whose disappearance Sasaki attributes to the fact that it was posted to a public notice board without due authorization), all the notes made their way back to the artist. Call it cosmic comedy.

In common with the central place of time in Life of a Craphead’s irreverent practice, Sasaki’s videos foreground the structural properties of comic timing through their compulsive use of loops: the artist’s abbreviated storylines looping at the very instant when optimism and resilience are fated to be foiled. A typical example of this logic is Ladder Stack (2009). Inspired by a real-life accident waiting to happen spied by the artist in his Toronto neighbourhood, Ladder Stack documents Sasaki’s quixotic Everyman as he precariously balances multiple ladders in a foolhardy gambit to surmount a potentially insurmountable wall. Audience anxieties are characteristically left in suspense as the video loops. “There’s something in the loop that opens up the work to redemption,” says Sasaki. The winnowing spectre of hope haunting Sasaki’s comic universe recalls the deliberate anti-monumentalism of Life of a Craphead’s jerry-rigged inventions.

A different kind of comic timing animates Sasaki’s gleefully entropic contribution to the Koffler Gallery’s inaugural exhibition at its new Artscape Youngplace location, “We’re in the Library.” After a Mural I Painted in Grade Four (2013) reworks the utopian scenario of a 1971 Coca-Cola commercial in which dozens of young people gather in an idyllic landscape harmonizing, “I’d like to teach the world to sing.” For Sasaki’s restaging, 20 school children were given these deceptively simple instructions: “hold hands in a circle, smile and think happy thoughts.” Sasaki’s video documentation of the ensuing performance is a convivial exercise in entropy, as viewers watch the happy circle descend into pandemonium within a matter of minutes. “There’s a certain efficiency to chaos with kids,” the artist remarks.

Innovation and invention likewise make their reappearance in Sasaki’s tragicomic art, but, as he underlines, it is “invention as make-do, a DIY kind of invention that makes the best of what we have.” Sasaki contrasts this unassuming attitude with the aggressive Minimalism of Donald Judd. “I just don’t know how to engage with it,” he says. “But people can recognize themselves in a Popular Mechanics sensibility.” Sasaki makes a virtue of necessity in works like In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning—a forthcoming multiple for Nothing Else Press for which two potatoes function as inexpensive, but quickly depleted, organic batteries. As the artist shows me a working prototype in his Parkdale apartment, he circles back to recurrent themes of endurance and empathy. “I like that if anyone buys this multiple, they become complicit: they have to stab these two potatoes [with electrodes] and watch the system run itself down. It’s tragedy, but really only tragicomedy. If it were a sentient being it would be tragedy. It’s comedy because it’s just a potato. There’s something heartbreaking and funny about empathizing with an inanimate object.”

A similar topsy-turvy dynamic animates the satirical conceptualism of Myfanwy MacLeod. From its improbable perch at the BMO Project Room, The Last Drop (2013) deftly upends the entrenched hierarchies of Toronto’s financial district. Based on a 1906 postcard caricature of a drunken hobo, MacLeod’s larger-than-lifesize bronze is an unexpected and potentially unwelcome guest to the 68th floor of Canada’s tallest bank tower. (The BMO Project Room, and its adventurous program of commissioned artworks, is open to the public by appointment only.) Empty bottle in hand, MacLeod’s vagrant slumps on a glass fibre–reinforced concrete log, enclosed by pink walls that conjure a cartoony repertoire of drunken reverie and hallucination (cue Dumbo’s pink elephants on parade sequence).

The Last Drop is the latest in a group of mostly collage-based works exploring the improbable visibility of marginalized groups in the popular culture of Modernism. In the show’s gallery panel, MacLeod reflects on her first addition to a collection now numbering in excess of 150 postcards—a colour photograph of three Parisian tramps by Yvon—and its unlikely romanticization of real-world social issues: “Instead of a famous landmark it depicts real French social problems—homeless men drinking. It would be like making a picture postcard of Vancouver’s downtown Eastside with the caption ‘wish you were here.’” Like the comedy of Life of a Craphead and Sasaki, MacLeod’s installation gestures toward a reengagement with Modernism. But distinguishing her practice from the undercurrents of stoicism to be found in the work of the Toronto-based artists, MacLeod’s tactical appropriation of hierarchies speaks to her longstanding interest in the thought of Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin.

Studying under photoconceptual heavyweight Jeff Wall at the University of British Columbia in the early 1990s, MacLeod wrote an MFA thesis drawing on the ideas of Bakhtin and his celebrated study of Renaissance jokester François Rabelais. For Bakhtin, Rabelais’s comedy draws its force from traditions of folk humour that oppose official values through an inversion of categories. Rabelais’s representations of a “world inside out”—which recall the upside-down logic of Diogenes’s performative philosophy—equipped the emerging artist with a potent arsenal with which to challenge the reigning theoretical pretensions of art. “I’m interested in the idea that there’s as much low in the high as the reverse,” MacLeod tells me over coffee in the profane underbelly of Toronto’s imposing Thomson Building, on her way to the launch of The Last Drop. “It’s about not taking yourself so seriously.”

A Rabelaisian carnival spirit infuses MacLeod’s The Drunkard’s Walk, or How Randomness Rules Our Lives (2008), a collage of hobos appropriated from the same postcard archive as The Last Drop. The sudsy antiheroes of MacLeod’s recent works are just the latest in a genealogy of social outcasts that began with the absent hillbilly denizens of Wood for the People (2002), whose feuding antics were an oblique commentary on the territoriality and internal politics that spring up in small arts communities.

This inside-out logic carries forward in “Artist’s Choice: Cock and Bull,” a special exhibition coinciding with the Vancouver Art Gallery’s presentation of a travelling survey of MacLeod’s comic oeuvre, for which the artist made selections from the gallery’s permanent collection with fellow conspirator Grant Arnold. “It’s all about humour and satire,” says MacLeod. The pair’s unorthodox juxtapositions tease out unintended double-entendres that speak to the suppressed sexual politics of the art world.

Like the comedy of Life of a Craphead and Sasaki, the laughter provoked by MacLeod’s work is highly ambivalent. But there is a satirical edge to this laughter that recalls the “regenerating ambivalence” latent in the absurd spectacles of Rabelais. Much as a “carnival consciousness prepares the way” for social renewal in Rabelais’s texts, the work of contemporary stoic comedians explores the regenerative potential of comedy. But MacLeod characteristically warns against overthinking this point: “good humour,” she says, “is about throwing system away.”

This is a feature article from the Summer 2014 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents. To read the entire issue, pick up a copy on newsstands or the App Store until September 14.

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