Curator: Enrique Martínez Goikoetxea
The exhibition is about the use of humour and its extensive semantic family in contemporary art as a way to gain further insight into the Artium Collection and, by extension, into our context: the place and time in which we live.
The Collection has been presented many times over recent years with a focus on various aspects of the complexity of our society. These approaches dealt with socially critical political readings, reflections on individual and collective identities, the analysis of formal aspects or interpretations of different artistic trends. All these artistic movements have included, in a more or less explicit manner, approaches using wit and humour that incongruously or unexpectedly question and discuss this reality and encounters with them have led to complicity and smiles. On this occasion, we have aimed to highlight all these nuances that comprise an intentionally comical, scandalous or ironic view of reality and to map the tools of the different strategies and practices within the Collection’s own context.
Based on this perspective, the most common terms that are used to analyse and describe the works in the Collection have been reviewed and only a very few include such words as “humour”, “laughter”, “funny”... Nonetheless, the term “irony” is one of the most common to be assigned to these assessments. Others from this same semantic family can be found with more difficulty: satire, cynicism, parody, radical, absurd, grotesque, sardonic, crude, witty...
Contemporary art undoubtedly shares with humour a distant and complex view of reality. Its increased use in art seems to respond to the essentially absurd outlook to which progress seems to be leading us. The end of utopias, of great speeches – whether ideological or religious – and the constant presence of uncertainty provide the perfect context, for lack of arguments, in order to develop ironic attitudes, the presence of incongruity and absurdity, through which to interpret reality.
In most cases, art is not interested in humour for humour’s sake, but in its ability to tackle problems, deal with the ridiculous or absurd aspects of life, while simultaneously empowering the viewer to demystify the preconceived conventions and ideas we have about reality. The Trick in the Smile invites us to appreciate the division produced by humour and irony, resources that multiply perspectives on usually complex issues to address and that, alongside wit and laughter, carry with them a certain amount of profundity.
It has not been easy to determine and suggest a shared story about what humour or laughter implies. Breton, like Freud, defined it as the negation of reality, a splendid affirmation of the pleasure principle. Other theories locate the origins of humour in incongruity (B. Pascal, Schopenhauer, Kant...), in a feeling of superiority over other people’s misfortune (H. Bergson) or in the release of repressed energy (Freud, Lacan...). From a sociological point of view, based on the experimentation of humour, it could be said that all humans share this homo ludens condition, although social behaviour, values and norms will decisively affect how it occurs and how humour is understood.
Shameless laughter. Between Eros and Thanatos
Laughter is, alongside crying, man’s only natural innate language. In the preface to his book Matemática demente, the poet Leopoldo María Panero states that the castration of the mouth occurred with the arrival of language, when that for which it was conceived was repressed: sucking, licking, screaming, laughing... He tackles Humour in his text, relating it to this prelinguistic stage as opposed to irony, a practice that would find itself regulated by language. Panero sees Laughter – laughter with a capital R, the laughter of humour, extra-moral – as the revenge of the repressed mouth, retaliation of the castration triggered by the norm, morality and language. He distinguishes it from ironic, intellectualised laughter through gritted teeth, which we have identified in our project with practices such as satire, parody and cynicism, among others.
In an attempt to continue on from this, the exhibition has been defined from a dual perspective. The first of these focuses on two major areas of comedy that cover the rest of humorous practices: HUMOUR and IRONY. The second transversely indicates the major discourses in which these resources play a leading role.
An exhibition that opens with the piece Femme dans la nuit and a play on words: “Yo no entiendo por qué estoy aquí. Por qué me he pasado de manicomio en manicomio, por España, como si trabajase en la guía Campsa” (I don’t understand why I’m here. Why I’ve gone from madhouse to madhouse, through Spain, as if I worked for the Campsa guide). This comment by Leopoldo María Panero unites the poet with an essential critical piece in the Collection, upon which the designer of the isotype of the Campsa-Repsol brand seems undoubtedly to have been inspired.
Opening of the mouth. Mouths – smiling, kissing, drinking or smoking, mouths sealed by masks or gags – are the stars of this first series of works, which create tension about those agreements that are assumed by good taste. The laughter of the fool, the madman, involuntary and instinctive laughter, originating in the unconscious, “a malignant form of expression”, as it was defined in the late Middle Ages.
Absurd humour. Genius or fool, an artist indicates, distorts, magnifies or ridicules aspects of reality. Within this field we have included the practice of the absurd, in which rationality is suspended. Images, texts and ideas are superimposed in these pieces to make a whole that negates any kind of convention and that reveals what is truthful by revealing its contradictions.
The grotesque. Let us be provocative. In revenge against repression, the formalisation of laughter will appear in different forms, linked to issues such as sexuality, illness or death, which we consider to be taboo subjects. The works chosen seek to make us confront the complaisant relationship we have with our own sexuality, illness and death, demanding a basic emotional response.
Let us return now to the poet to define irony as laughter produced between gritted teeth, a laugh cornered by ideas. In some ways, it is like this. Irony is a moral movement. A division of language occurs within it as both the thing and its opposite is expressed in the same sentence. It is from the 1980s, with the crisis of major ideological and religious discourse, when IRONY is imposed as the communication tool of many creators to analyse the system in which their activity is located. A system that begins with the creator, with his or her political and social function, with his or her role as media figure, with the processes of art production and consumption, with the role of its agents, with the artistic object in relation to the market and public and with the effectiveness of the system and the structures that accommodate artistic activity.
Self-irony. This is perhaps one of the main aims of humour, to laugh at oneself. A hall of selfies, self-portraits in which the artist examines his or her role on the game board, placing themselves in crisis under their own scrutiny. An artist who feels easy prey to a dream, to his or her own strength, but also to his or her naiveté. Baudelaire described laughter as an awareness of our own limits.
The object from a distance. Ironic play creates a distance between what is said and what is suggested; in other words, it interrupts the direct interpretation of what we see. Through parody, with which a style, technique or message is imitated or quoted, a reflection is made on the art object and its inclusion in art history, its role in terms of the value system, its relationship with the public. Parody is not quarrelsome, given that it questions and pays tribute at the same time.
Scathing satire against the system. Satire, however, aims to expose the vices and stupidity of the system and of human beings, exaggerating aspects of life and their weaknesses in order to provoke change and to re-examine our morals, values and behaviour. Although it sets out to amuse, this is not its goal. One of its favourite tools, the caricature, aims to simplify the complexity of a situation by isolating the object of derision. Along with satire, cynicism scandalises by attempting to reveal the amount of social convention or fashion in the rules, norms and traditions that we assume to be fixed.
Welcome. Ordering chaos
Finally, the main hall invites us to rest. It recreates an intimate space in which visitors can ponder a while on what they have seen, browse various satirical magazines or watch some audiovisual pieces that connect the context of art with the popular practice of humour. We recognise the world that these artists deal with; it is our own, and so we will discover many common places, shared thoughts and complicity in the various strategies that use smiling to inject a thought, a reflection or suggestions to provide an image for our world.
Documents: List of works Invitation Poster