Quantum Foam is a touring exhibition of work by UK artist Mel Brimfield, her first showing in the Republic of Ireland.
Presented by Kinsale Arts Festival, Wexford Arts Centre, Luan Gallery, Galway Arts Centre and The LAB, Quantum Foam is a retrospective of the artist’s work, with each gallery presenting a different series of existing works.
Operating at the intersection of live art, theatre and film, Brimfield’s practice takes a skewed and tangled romp through the already vexed historiography of performance art, simultaneously revealing and inventing a rich history of collaboration between artists, dancers, theatre makers, political activists and comedians. This tour sees an extension of that collaboration with the gallery space itself. Each series is selected in response to the galleries own multifaceted or evolving milieu as an introduction to the artist’s work. Focusing on film and the monologue format in particular,
Many of the works selected for Quantum Foam share as their starting point historical figures from art and performance, from Pollack and Krasner, to Kenneth Williams and Max Miller, the public record of their work and personal lives read like a kind of score for interpretation, and all selected film works adopt the monologue format.
The tour opens at Kinsale Arts Festival in September with a series of film works positing the gallery as stage, and the international premiere of title work, Quantum Foam.
Curated by Marie McPartlin
Artwork Ryan Gillard
Technician Alan Raggett
Tour Assistance Nicola Carragher
Claire Doyle, Catherine Bowe, Maeve Mulrennan, Aedín McGinn, Sheena Barrett, Ceri Hand, Hannah Pierce, Francis Halsall, Stephen Brandes, Gareth Hunt, Tessa Fitzjohn, Gemma Tipton, Maggie Hogan, Ger Mehigan, Noelle Cooper, Colin Farmer, Andy Moss, Mareta Doyle, Maureen Tierney and Marsha Morison.
No don’t laugh. No don’t. No don’t laugh
There’s a stupid and old joke that the philosopher Slavoj Žižek has told many times that goes along the lines of this. A man goes to the doctor convinced that he is a piece of corn. He’s taken to a mental institution where the staff try to convince him that he’s not corn but a human being. Eventually his therapy seems to be working and he’s ready to leave. Just after leaving he rushes back, terrified. “There’s a chicken outside that wants to eat me” he splutters. “But” the doctor says, “You have nothing to worry about. You know perfectly well now that you are not piece of corn but a man.” “I know, I know” the man says, still scared witless, “I know that, but does the chicken.”(1)
A version of the chicken story appears in a published anthology of Žižek’s jokes. That there can be an entire collection of his gags tells us two things about the Slovenian thinker. First, that he’s famous enough at this point for there to be an audience for edited fragments from his vast oeuvre. And second, that nestled amongst all the political incorrectness, violence and obscenity in the book lies both a rigorous philosophy and an ethics. As both philosophers and comedians will tell you, comedy is a very serious matter.
In this case the chicken is not a mere punchline but takes on a metaphysical significance. It becomes a way of thinking about our conscious and subconscious relationship to the world. Ideology, Žižek argues, functions not on the level of our subconscious, or our set of beliefs which we can analyse and critique, but rather at the level of reality itself. Both our identity and the world we live in is shaped by latent symbolic structures outside of our control.
I picked up Žižek’s book again after seeing the work of Mel Brimfield as it occurred to me that they share some common ground. My first reaction on encountering her art was the same as when I first read Žižek: to laugh out loud. Brimfield seems to be gleeful sauntering up to art and pulling its trousers down to snigger at what she finds. The situations she presents are ribald, hectic, obscene. Quips, ideas, motifs are all little custard pies to be thrown in the faces of the audience. Some seem familiar, other less so. Alternative histories of art and performance are proposed in which drag, striptease, and end of the pier nudge-nudge, wink-wink one-liners are as important as statements by masters from the canon like Jackson Pollock or Henry Moore. Van Gogh is presented as a grotesque idiot Pierrot; there are fragments of Frankie Howerd and Beckett. Is that Kenneth Williams or Clement Greenberg? The lips in Death and Dumb (part 2) exhort us, insistently, with the phrase: “No don’t laugh, no don’t, no don’t laugh” but I’m not sure that’s possible. And yet, for all the larking around that seems to be going on there’s a deep seriousness at the heart of it all. Art, Philosophy, Comedy; all have the potential to take certainties and render them uncertain or queer. They are all, in the words of Wittgenstein (another jokester and philosopher) in the Philosophical Investigations “queer process[es].”
Jokes are queer because they unsettle binaries: tragic/ comic; true/ false; art/ life. Jokes are queer because they offer a provocation and a threat.
The provocations are challenges to taste in the face of which we have to re-assert and thus re-assess our values. The comedian Stewart Lee paraphrases Cicero’s line that “an indecency decently put is the thing we laugh at hardest.”(2) Jokes, then, become a way of facing indecencies, grabbing them by the collars and slapping them in the face. The biggest indecency of them all is, of course, our own deaths. There’s a huge cosmic joke being told in which we will all die along with the eventual fizzing out of all life and energy as the sun finally packs up, explodes into a supernova and shrivels away to nothing. And it doesn’t matter.
The threat of comedy is the same as the threat of art: an ontological one. They challenge us for accepting the world the way that it normally appears to be. Perhaps, comedians and artists tell us, some things don’t exist in the way we think they do; perhaps some things are not as meaningful as we’d like them to be. Perhaps there are metaphysical chickens out there waiting to peck at us. And they don’t know we think they don’t exist.
To end, here’s another chicken joke I can imagine Žižek telling. It’s about the cliché that lots of different meat – rabbit, frogs legs, alligator – all tastes like chicken. The joke is: what if this is not because humans are too crude to tell the difference or too ignorant to discern the nuances in the rich textures of things. The joke is: what if the world is really like that, somehow unfinished or incomplete? What if the world hangs only loosely together as if it was thrown together by some blind idiot god who didn’t really know what they were doing or was too drunk to care? The true, ghastly obscenity is that there might not be a punchline after all.
(1) Slavoj Žižek, Žižek’s Jokes, ed. Mortensen, (London: The MIT Press, 2014), pg. 67
(2) Stewart Lee, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian, (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), Pg. 143
|Francis Halsall is Lecturer in Visual Culture, National College of Art and Design, Dublin, and Director (with Declan Long), MA Art in the Contemporary World (www.acw.ie)|
Quantum Foam is the new film commission for Kinsale Arts Festival at the centre of the tour. Can you talk a bit about where the ideas come from?
There were a few strands of thought feeding into the early stages of the scriptwriting. I’d been thinking for a while about the idea of a longstanding gallery space as a container for the projected thoughts, ideologies, fantasies and aesthetic preferences of an endless cavalcade of artists, not to mention their audiences, critics and curators. The objects come in and announce themselves, and they’re arranged, considered, discussed and documented before passing out again – and the cycle repeats and repeats. I wanted to write a script that magnified and sped up that peculiar conveyor belt-like procession, or that at least mirrored it functionally. In response, the idea of verbal ‘conjuring’ and dismantling, perhaps as a sort of sculptural practice, is key to the formal mechanics of the work. It’s composed of modes of oratory that seek linguistically to position the listener within a distinct situation; the piece begins with a Visualisation Guru leading a breathing exercise to frame the guided imaginative task the viewer is being asked to undertake. It’s a familiar trope, and the character operates as a sort of marker for the rest of the more unusual ‘visualisations’ proposed.
There’s a garbled analogy drawn somewhere between the empty gallery and playwright Harold Pinter’s frequent use of a solitary room as a dramatic setting too. There’s an attendant claustrophobia to the enclosed, seemingly banal domestic space as an arena for really quite violent nastiness, albeit veiled by ludicrous wordplay and general knockabout slapstick in his work that’s always strongly appealed to me. Often what’s at stake is occupancy of the room – a tenant is accosted whilst in the supposed sanctuary of domestic privacy, and usurped by bullying hordes of varying kinds. It’s usually the aggressor with the niftiest hold on language that gets to dictate terms – there are a whole string of bewildered victims clobbered by verbal facility into a state of complete numb submission. As a starting point for Quantum Foam, I had in mind that kind of aural bludgeoning for the viewer – the gallery ends up as a contested mutable territory cutting between the conjured realities at a hectic clip. The Estate Agent was the first character to emerge, and is in fact drawn directly from an incident that occurs about halfway through The Caretaker. The knackered old tramp Davies has by now been offered a bed by the monosyllabic, mentally fragile Aston in his room stuffed with accumulated junk, and is picking his way scornfully through it – suddenly Aston’s dishy brother Mick bursts in on him, pins him to the floor and proceeds to hammer him into a gibbering mush with a volley of increasingly bizarre observations and non sequiturs, allegations, quick fire questions and commands. He even pinches his trousers at one point…it ends with a comedically grandiose and wildly inappropriate job offer to ‘do up’ the house, and the shift to the unexpected accuracy and fluency of the projected interior design he outlines is just daftly delightful…afromosia teak veneer, teal-blue, copper and parchment linoleum squares…and Davies just greasily acquiesces to the whole scheme while understanding none of it, betraying Aston purely on the basis of Mick’s linguistic supremacy. I’ve drawn that incident out to absurd proportions for Quantum Foam as the basis for the Estate Agent’s voice – functioning along the lines of a sales pitch, an absurd fluctuating architecture of impossible and contradictory proportions is projected verbally into the blank gallery, lavished with accumulating ‘improvements’ and a saturating excess of interior design flourishes. It eventually collapses under its own weight into a hopeless tangle of strung together dissociated nuggets of lifestyle-based jargonese shrieked at the viewer like surreal edicts.
Kinsale is known for empty post-boom properties, so that portion of the script resonates with the exhibition context rather neatly! The trajectory of the Estate Agent’s ‘verbal conjuring’ reads like a satire of consumerism and greed – it ends up as a kind of notional landfill.
Yes, the image of an individual consuming until they are both figuratively and literally buried is key to the piece. The Estate Agent’s patter expands from property particulars to include an increasingly frantic and incomprehensible set of instructions for better living – for achieving optimum hair, beauty and fashion excellence, for achieving successful travel – where you must go, what you must see, do, eat and feel… The Politician’s florid empty rhetoric insists on perpetual progressive advance, but without any identifiable goal. The Minister’s interwoven sermon describes the temporary condition of the soul being housed in a body that will ultimately rot, and the pointlessness of heeding to any distraction from your spiritual destiny; it’s a process of looping self-erasing assemblage! The metaphorical intent of cramming all of these yammering contradictory voices into a space competing for attention is evident, and formally, it’s a nod to the underpinning horror of Pinter – everything can be yanked out viciously from underneath at a moment’s notice.
Also, the wholesale commodification of ‘lifestyle’ lends itself to humorous critique quite readily. It’s an abiding subject for artists and writers since Pop, of course, partly because we have such an unshakeable collective weakness for the irresistible guilty pleasures of product, glamour and trash. The idea of forging a desirable identity through the accumulation of objects and experiences has a tight grip on the cultural psyche…It’s a common impulse. We’re subject to a completely unavoidable deluge of fantasy on a daily basis via any media source we encounter, and there’s one flavour or another of aspirational consumerism that burrows under the skin for most of us, even though we know we should know better. Leisure’s become an uncomfortably competitive arena too – it’s not enough to relax, there’s pressure to perform in day-to-day life. Dylan Moran does a bit about limping in from work to watch TV cookery programmes in your coat whilst eating bread from the bag, dipping it in anything runnier than bread. I myself spent the majority of summer with the curtains drawn watching boxed sets of ancient chronic TV sitcoms, convincing myself that as an artist engaged in an ongoing interrogation of the techniques of dramatic narrative, it’s a valid method of deep research for script-writing. It isn’t, and ‘Hi-de- Hi’ hasn’t aged well.
There’s a peculiarly retro sci-fi feel to Quantum Foam as a title for the work and tour, and a definite flavour of that reflected in the publication design you’ve produced with your regular collaborator Ryan Gillard. What is it? And how does it relate to the work?
I was thinking about the 80s/90s sci-fi TV series ‘Quantum Leap’ when I came up with it. It’s about a quantum physicist from the near future who gets lost in time following a wonky time-travel experiment. At the end of every episode, he’d dematerialize and reappear in a new situation in the body of a soldier in the trenches, or a gyrating stripper, or a neurosurgeon in theatre or whatever and say ‘Oh boy’ as he got to grips with the parameters of the new role. Something about the fast-paced cuts between the multiple situations that the viewer is asked to complete imaginatively in Quantum Foam seemed to line up with my memory of it. The gist of the actual term in the field of quantum mechanics seems to be that space-time is a physical thing, and that it can get bent and stretched with mass and energy. These huge fluctuations over tiny distances must churn it up. Over short enough distances in space there would be tiny black holes and tiny planets, each stretching space-time the same way that regular black holes and planets do. So zooming in on space-time wouldn’t reveal a smooth stretch of fabric deformed gently by large planets; it would be churned up, and in constant motion, because of these tiny, but massive, fluctuations. So instead of fabric, there is foam. With only the creakiest mis-grasp of complex scientific concepts to draw on, it seemed to me that this description was analogous to the imaginative shift of the ‘contents’ of the gallery throughout the duration of piece; I wanted to focus attention tightly on this performative aspect of the writing.
It makes sense as the title for the tour too, as it could perhaps also refer to way the way that the majority of your practice seems fixed on expanding and re-scripting the slippery documents of cultural history. The monologues you have written for art historical figures such as Jackson Pollock or Lee Krasner make their fictional status clear, yet you’ve embedded recogniseable nuggets of ‘factual’ information. What is the relationship of your practice to the notion of historical truth?
History is notoriously gaseous, and any supposedly fixed account of an event or set of circumstances is invariably skewed by the interests of the person relating it. Despite our understanding of liberalism’s need for subjectivity, it’s still difficult to swallow a negation of objective history. We cling to.the idea of the absolute truth of past events. I abandon any pretence of impartiality in my approach to documentary research, and alongside the standard academic texts on a subject, I aim to dig out sideways anecdotal gossip, trashy biographies, dramatisations for film and TV if there are any, (and the more lurid and hyperbolic, the better), scandalous interviews, hatchet job reviews…essentially, I’m interested as much in how moments of cultural note are digested and mirrored in their re-presentation to an audience as I am in the ‘facts’. I approach historical documents as a kind of score for interpretation, in the manner of a dramaturg or director looking for a convincing way of framing a narrative. Much of the work you’ve selected for the tour has this approach in common, and much of it adopts the monologue format.
What is it in particular that appeals to you about the monologue as a dramatic form?
It’s the fact that a monologue can only ever offer an entirely one-sided account of anything, and so, has a unique capacity to reveal character and bias as a result. It’s the perfect vehicle for supplying a patently inaccurate view of events, which is a useful tool in service of history fabulation – more than it is in most forms of writing, it’s possible to make the audience feel that they are in possession of information that the character speaking does not share. I make particular use of this in Four Characters in Search of a Performance (showing in Galway Arts Centre, originally commissioned by Jerwood Visual Arts). It’s essentially three interweaving monologues – there’s a Critic, a Photographer and a Collector all giving an account of a controversial performance they’ve all been involved in or observed. Its nature is never really disclosed (the absent subject routine), but each brings a succession of wildly contradictory details that build up a shadowy idea of it in the centre when taken as a composite description. The Collector focuses on a series of events that cause him and his wife to miss the first half – it’s an involved plot, but in order to pretend that they were there in the front row, they rush to the corner shop to buy a catering jar of mayonnaise to smear over their smart evening dress before appearing in the bar at intermission. In disgruntled wonderment, he also lists the residual ephemera and props that his wife insists on acquiring for their art collection at the end of the evening. The Critic focuses on script edits insisted upon by Lord Chamberlain’s Watch Committee, providing a window into scripted fragments of the performance, also on the contradictory reviews engendered by the pockets of simultaneous cacophonous activity that meant that no one audience member could see the thing as a whole. The Photographer is oblivious to any of the content of the work, and recounts only his difficulties capturing the action – he alludes to avoiding ‘…towering fluorescent cock inflatables’, and his disappointment at being unable to attach any filters ‘…before they’d stripped the vicar and thrown the last caber.’ It’s a narrative that was intended to mirror the fragmentary nature of performance art history as represented through its documents. I’m intrigued by the elusive nature of that history– there’s an idea that it’s onotology is defined partially by its disappearance, which is an appealing dramatic situation.
By contrast, the very well-trodden histories around Pollock and Van Gogh that are the subject of the Between Genius and Desire film series have a firmly entrenched position within culture.
They certainly do! They belong to a strand of persistent romantic mythology citing the heroic artist as a conduit of violent creative passion. The studio becomes a mysterious theatre of dramatic conflict and alchemy, the artist a figure on the fringes of society suffering on our behalf, pulling genius from personal tragedy. The work sets out to explore exactly why this continues to exert such a pull culturally. I‘ve been a collector of biopics about artists for years…there are some hilarious and unlikely castings – one of my favourites is Omid Djalili one of his plumper phases as Picasso in a film about Modigliani. It also has Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who/sweary Malcolm Tucker from ‘The Thick of It’ as Jean Cocteau, which visually makes some sort of sense at least! The title Between Genius and Desire comes from a suitably overblown camp trailer for ‘Lust For Life’, the classic 50smovie starring Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh, and Antony Quinn as Gauguin. It’s all seething emotion – painting for days without sleeping, bohemian red wine swilling and whoring interrupted by violent rages and punch-ups with a distinctly homoerotic undertone. For sheer lurid melodrama, it takes some beating. Similarly Ed Harris’s performance in the title role of ‘Pollock’ compresses the daftest and best repeated stories circulating about the artist. I’ve been an avid collector of Pollock biographies for years, and I recognised them all! I’ve transcribed the most emotive speeches of both characters and composed new scripts for each from the chopped up fragments – the emotional registers range from hysterical, needy and desperate to arrogant , ecstatic and violent. The text is performed as a voiceover by actor Tony Green, and then physically interpreted as lip-synch by Dickie Beau. He’s an extraordinary theatre practitioner emerging from the queer cabaret scene.
It’s like looking down the wrong end of a telescope at the lives of the artists – already compromised and condensed into written biographies that trace a neat chronological pattern to the making of a genius, the events are dramatized into a necessarily overblown plot-line for the purposes of making a suitably gripping Hollywood film. The editing and condensing of the narrative into a never-ending roller-coaster of emotion and climactic events is a caricature of that process – Dickie Beau’s further clown-like parody of these constructed stereotypes of artists underlines the fact, and encodes the re-performance with another layer of distance from the ‘real’ artist. The link to drag/performed gender is interesting too – in a way, the ultra-masculinity and vulnerability of Pollock’s myth lends itself ideally to this interpretation.
You’re an artist who works at the intersection of a number of disciplines – live art, film and theatre, and present work in really quite varied contexts. Do you find that the audience response to your practice is consistent? In particular, you crack a lot of fairly direct jokes in your scripts, which isn’t always a comfortable fit for art audiences.
There is definitely an itchiness about direct comedy for that audience, though it is perhaps shifting a bit – there seems to be something about being too efficiently entertained that prompts alarm bells. There continues to be a lazy habitual association of gravity and importance with seriousness. To my mind, there’s absolutely nothing standing in the way of an artwork being hilarious and packed to the brim with dazzling conceptual content simultaneously. There’s an obvious similarity to the way that the meaning of some art clunks into place so that you ‘get it’, and the way that a joke operates on a mechanical level that makes it plausible. An art audience doesn’t want empty laughs, though, so if you’re too focused on the laughter as an artist, it’s likely that the work you make will be fairly meaningless. There has to be some sort of tension between the form and content. There’s a tradition of failure linked to abjection that’s a fallback for a lot of art performance that co-opts comedic/theatrical forms, but it feels a bit played out to me. It’s much more exciting to see virtuoso technical skill put to weird and inappropriate uses, (Ian Saville the Socialist Magician springs to mind – his ‘Vanish of the Military Industrial Complex’ has to be seen to be believed). I find it’s more disjunctive and potentially innovative to make something that appropriates comedic and theatrical devices wholeheartedly to deliver what you might call ‘art content’. It’s the position I’ve always worked from – humour for me is definitely an essential part of hanging a lot of complicated ideas and references together with economy. Using mainstream entertainment formats and recogniseable types of generic writing is a handy marker for audiences attempting to make sense of the massive pile of references I generally try to squeeze into my work. So I suppose it’s a bonus if people laugh, but it’s not the main impetus. Lately, I’ve found myself moving away a bit from writing obvious joke points in my scripts – my researches have switched across to a lot of theatre sources, and I think that’s reflected – moments of hilarious comedy crop up, but it doesn’t function in the same prescribed way, and I’m exploring that. It’s generally a more palatable form of comedy to art audiences, I think.
Do you have a favourite joke?
It’s always good to end on a gag, eh? For brevity and haiku-like existential poignancy, you can’t beat ‘A seal walked into a club’. And a few weeks ago, a Tim Vine one-liner made me snort on the Tube: ‘Crime in multi-storey car parks. That is wrong on so many different levels’. I do like a re-worked generic format.
Mel Brimfield is an artist working in film and live performance. The roots of her practice lie in her long-term commitment to devising support structures for the development and coherent presentation of interdisciplinary performance work.
Brimfield enlists the services of a diverse range of performers to realise her own complex productions in galleries, theatres and at academic conferences, recently including 30-piece Dinnington Colliery Band with dance theatre company New Art Club, cabaret artist/theatre maker DIckie Beau, Italian Olympic gymnast Alice Capitani and songwriter Gwyneth Herbert.
Documentary-style films and live works playfully associate performance art with most significant cultural developments of the last 100 years. Low-end showbiz memoirs, sensationalist biographical documentaries and cheap-to-make TV clip programmes compiling lists of ‘The 100 Top/Best/Greatest…’ are referenced in the work alongside formal museological displays of performance ephemera and documentation. The second hand anecdotes and mythologies surrounding performers and their performances are expanded, distorted and completely supplanted by new fictions, with archival photographs and footage, and authentic ephemera being appropriated and re-contextualised, or entirely invented at will.
Born in 1976, Mel Brimfield lives and works in London. Recent solo exhibitions include Void Gallery, Derry (2014), John Hansard Gallery, Southampton (2013), Ceri Hand Gallery, London (2012); Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield and Mead Gallery, Warwick (2011) and Camden Art Centre, London (2010).
Venues for recent and forthcoming exhibitions, residencies and performances include National Theatre Studio, Whitechapel Gallery, Henry Moore Institute and Liverpool Tate and Void Gallery (Derry).