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MAW Collective Forget the Punchline

CK2, Montreal, March 19 to April 9, 2015

These days, countless artists and collectives deliver works structured like jokes. In Canada we have the Quebec City–based collective BGL, who will represent us in Venice this summer, but you can also think of the Yes Men from the US and Gelitin from Austria. It’s amusing when, and if, you get the punchline. The problem arises on the second viewing, when you experience what is essentially a one-liner letdown. In their recent show at CK2, Montreal-based MAW Collective chose to forego the punchline entirely, with sculptures that feel like a long, convoluted build up that meanders until viewers get lost, or simply forget what they’ve already been given. They make the audience wait, convincing us that the punchline is coming, but it never seems to arrive. Or maybe it did, but, because you forgot the beginning of the story, you don’t recognize it. MAW Collective’s strategy is to make good art out of bad comedy.

The sculptures in this show act like the drawn-out build-up of a shaggy-dog story, tugging viewers from one moment of engagement to another, and teasing them into believing they’ll be rewarded with a satisfactorily funny ending. Works teeter on the brink of potential—cartoonish figures are just about to jump from a diving board or fall off a ladder—thus bypassing the specificity of a conclusion that could land viewers in a fixed place of knowing. The room looks like a modern-day version of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, with its grotesque cast of characters wandering through a landscape made up of items from Dollarama, found objects, YouTube and B-movie clips and comics. The variety of materials and objects holds viewers’ attentions by functioning as a wrestling match of what appear to be visual metaphors. But you’re not sure how to read the rat guy, or the fuzzy tiger head on the column with a nipple ring or the figure covered with green slime. Because the punchlines never seem to come, the attention of the viewer doesn’t wear out. The work is so ingratiatingly stupid that it’s actually smart.

I Don’t Want to do the Same Things I Done Before presents a male figure on a virtually unrideable bicycle with twisted forks. The figure is drooped over, as if weighed down by the burden of living, yet he hangs on to hope in the form of a hot dog clutched in one hand. Words of Encouragement, installed high on a gallery wall, features a small boyish figure on a diving board that sags from his weight. The child is alone in a moment of indecision, choosing whether to leap into the chaos of the rest of the exhibition.

These works are like cliffhangers, paused before their conclusions. If you attend exhibitions looking for the warm embrace of a conclusion, you probably left “Nobody Will Believe You Didn’t Want What I Have Done” dissatisfied. The show was all titillation and foreplay, never reaching the finality of a climax. But we all know that satisfaction is fleeting, while desire lingers. MAW Collective offered an unwinding tease and convinced me it was worth the journey, leaving me waiting for the next encounter. Like my favourite vignette in Bosch’s painting, where one figure is bent over with flowers protruding from its backside while another spanks it with yet more flowers, I felt on leaving this exhibition that I, too, had received a vigorous, yet revitalizing, spanking.

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