humor & tragedie [humour & tragedy]


How do artists play with humour, tragedy and irony, and how do they express this? You will see that humour, in particular, is used to poke criticism at the power structures of our modern (consumption-driven) society. Take a look!

We start our stroll with the work of German artist Kati Heck (b. 1979). Her paintings are marked by a baroque exuberance. Heck offers us a look at an estranging parallel world inhabited by porn stars, toothless Nazis and animated sausages that hang around in idyllic surroundings. And although the undertone is playful and ironic, the viewer often remains with an unsettling, unheimlich feeling. For this artist, humor is an important means to make visible something that is serious, to raise it for discussion. In 2012 the M HKA acquired Heck’s triptych Neue Freunde (Hot Hot Spatzi). Here, a pair of sinister characters – a soldier and a cowboy – have the leading roles. In Heck’s canvases, figures from her personal circle are also often found. Her models pose (usually appointed with bizarre props and costumes) self-assured for the camera. These images are then worked into her paintings, frequently in the company of rather enigmatic slogans: “My little dove, can you pass me the butter?”

The Belgian artist Ria Pacquée (b. 1954) presents us with her own personal take on everyday situations and objects. In the beginning of the 1980s she creates and develops her archetypical Madame, a character played by herself and whose life she examines over several years. The photographs are images from performances where the artist reveals fragments from out of ‘Madame’’s life. Her various comings and goings recorded on camera are then printed on painter’s canvas. The M HKA possesses a series of six of her photographs. In her early incarnation, ‘Madame’ comes across as a rather sorry woman, housebound, addicted to television, sherry and Valium. Over the years, she ages into a lonely ‘everyday woman’, hair now grayed, wearing thick-framed spectacles. It’s around this time that she takes her courage in both hands and decides to get out of the house, to take part in all manner of ‘social’ activities. The photographs of ‘Madame’ take us into the world of a woman of little means and few personal contacts. And though rather humorous, the photographs also speak of isolation and show the everyday tragedy of individuals who do their level best to make it through an often-bleak existence.

Even if the need is not especially urgent, our next stop is at the toilets on ground level. These amenities are an installation by French artist Robert Filliou (1926-1987). Originally, Filliou designed this project for a museum in Mönchengladbach. It never came to fruition there, and in 1979 the artist donated it to the Gordon-Matta Clark Foundation. This gift, along with contributions from many other artists, comprised the basis for the M HKA’s collection after the museum’s founding. Projet de Toilettes (1969) was one of the first works realized at the M HKA in 1987. It consists of three toilet-stalls, with doors marked Men, Women and Artists. Filliou believed that there was an artist in everyone, and so all were welcome to use this facility. With a touch of humor and irony, he undermines the elevated status of ‘the artist’. With something as ordinary and everyday as a project for public toilets, the artist lifts the barrier between life and art. Other works by this artist are on view in the museum’s entry hall. In his work on film, as well, Filliou offers a playful commentary on our worldview, on the position of the artist and on the social and economic value of art.

A little further on in the entrance hall is a video piece from Jimmie Durham (b. 1940). His work is many-sided and poetic, always with a humorous or ironic tinge. Grünewald starts as a documentary about a forest, adorned with trumpet-like sounds. Just as we start to ask ourselves what kind of animal might make this kind of sound, birdsong and the sound of workers start to percolate through to our ears. Then we get a visual clue: a procession of people comes into view. These folks act in a very weird way and we wonder what they’re up to. We only get a hint when the camera pulls back and we get a view of things not originally in our field-of-view. Durham shows how things are brought into focus, as it were, and the effect this has on the viewer. What we get to hear is not at first visible, and when we do get to see what we hear, the interpretation we make is different. The befuddlement lies in the fact that Durham knows how to reorganize matters so that a different order of things is created, one that seems just as logical as the actual one. In this way, the artist criticizes the established order – in his own inimitable poetic and ironic way – and puts forward his own alternatives.

We end our promenade on the second floor, in the round hall, with an installation by Belgian artist Guillaume Bijl (b. 1946). The M HKA purchased this installation in 1993. This work was originally shown in an old back-garden at the Zeno X gallery in Antwerp. It was assembled there as a sort of ‘country house’, a pre-fab chalet with typical interior furnishings and appointments. Its name: Mon Chalet. The piece is one of Bijl’s ‘situation-installations’. In these installations he adds something to the social- or public space, and so doing undermines its reality; he introduces non-reality into reality. Irony and humor are strongly present in his oeuvre. His work is tragicomic, “in fact, what’s meant is to laugh and cry at the same time,” as he himself puts it. As an artist he has a great knack of putting things into perspective, both for himself as artist as well as for our paradoxical society. He constructs a visually critical inventory of our Western civilization. “I am an artist who for a part of his time wants to visualize and I do that in different stages in different places and at different times, when afforded me… I remain an anarchist at-heart, and you have to have a bit of anarchist in you to understand my work.. and some humor,” says Guillaume Bijl.

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