It is apt that a brass statue of the comedian Ken Dodd saluting visitors with a feather duster resides at Liverpool Lime Street Station, a city well known for its welcoming attitude, cultural legacy and home of ‘Double Act: Art and Comedy’, a group show curated by David Campbell and Mark Durden (founding members of Common Culture) and currently on show at the Bluecoat, an 18th century cloistered gallery set back from the pedestrian bustle of Church Street.
I’ll admit that comedy is not a subject matter I feel most at ease reviewing. Its vast overarching abilities to envelope the entire spectrum of human emotions is somewhat intimidating, which is why Peter Land’s video ‘Pink Space’, greeting viewers on entry, felt like a warm, welcoming gesture to the show. Through Land’s video we witness repeated drunken falls, which establishes an ideological framework keen to experiment with notions of failure present within the task of trying to navigate comedy and generate comedic effect. It is important to note that whilst this is an illustrious journey through seasoned approaches to comedy, it is just as much a story of how artists have experimented with the genre and that they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.
Throughout my time reviewing and viewing art my most treasured moments happen when I come across an artist I’ve never heard of, who has been practising long enough for it to seem awkward that they remain a mystery to me. Discovering Alex Bag and her canonical DIY VHS work ‘Untitled Fall ’95’ was one of those moments. Widely written about, this work traces the career arc of an art student at NYU. Introspection and frustrations - comedic effect comes about through the painful poignancy of her words, the ability to stingingly reflect on the currency of the path to artist emancipation, whilst picking apart contemporary traits of female and male representation and relationships within the learning and production of art practice, as a mirror to tropes in its existence further afield.
Where Bag subverts a critique of the lived experience through her art student alter ego, Jo Spence’s ‘Remodelling Photohistory (Colonization)’ in the same space does this through the documentation of the working class stereotype. An artist well loved for her charismatic approach to self-documentation, perching on a terraced house doorstep with broom in hand and milk bottles at her feet, she toys with the societal prerequisite to locate cultures by catching the viewer off guard. Her bare breasts create a moment of awkward voyeuristic tension which enables the audience to feel physically foolish for trying to forge assumptions, not just on her but those who surround us.
The fault line of visiting a show regaling comedy is the prerequisite to try and locate ‘what comedy is’. An abstract expression of will and determination causes comedic effect just as much as re-telling an old joke or pointing out injustice in the world. The latter is present in ‘The Real Snow White’ by Pivli Takala. Here, Takala, dressed as Snow White, is turned away from the gates of what I can only presume to be Euro Disney. The irony that a person dressed in the merchandise which Disney actively pushes onto children from a young age highlights the maddening capitalism inherent within a conglomerate targeted at young people. The reality that adults still attend Disney parks remains present, the fact of upsetting the power structures which govern these spaces even more wonderfully relevant to witness and disrupt.
Thomas Geiger furthers this disruption with the audio work ‘I looked on my head from above’, a matter-of-fact retelling of an artist’s hysterical devices to subvert their practice whilst playing harmoniously into prefixed notions of contemporary art practice today. Spoken to us in a dead pan tone the voice recounts everything from masturbating in the gallery to whispering in visitor’s ears, hiring sex workers for a show and beyond. At times this obscene litany feels like a hellish art fair, at times it feels like a well meaning run down of acts generated by artists throughout time - the deadpan tone gives nothing away and leaves us languishing in suspense.
Comedy as a technique illustrates the need to feel awkward, vulnerable and suggestible if we’re to challenge norms in society. It also highlights that feeling entertained can also be just as emancipatory an experience when discussing something with potency. This show leads the viewer through the agency of comedy as an adaptable space which just as much equals passion, love, shock and a whole plethora of other techniques and emotions as it does encompass them.
Whilst my review really only serves as an introduction to ‘Double Act: Art and Comedy’ I feel the show does more to push the lucid qualities of the genre. It’s a work in progress portrait of an authorial commitment to comedy which underscores the abilities of those curated - as artists who take a risk with their output and triumph. We may not see it as comedy in its most well known of guises but this proves the ability that art practice has in blurring the boundaries of how we classify comedy and locate what makes us laugh.