A figure entirely swathed in coloured balloons like an anarchic, pop art Michelin Man slowly waddles across a field. Is it a clown who has failed to track down the childrens’ party she has been booked into? After a while, as so often on countryside walks, a vicious barbed wire fence blocks the way. The sense of vulnerability ramps up exponentially as the figure makes a futile attempt at squeezing through a narrow gap between two wires. Our emotions ricochet between comic excitement of the popping of the air-filled carapace and fear for the lacerations that may now be inflicted on the exposed skin; a rich, multi-layered metaphor for a whole range of life’s absurd struggles. The film’s final frame rests on the shredded rubber remains caught in the wire blowing forlornly in the wind.
Rebecca Moss is the brave artist who put herself through this ordeal in her performance work Thick-skinned, 2016, now showing at Somerset House in the Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules exhibition along with another four of her hilarious and memorable videos, all under three minutes long and in a similarly succinct vein. As so often in moving image art the simplest idea can convey the most meaning, a possible premise for this cleverly and carefully conceived show, curated by Andy Holden with great love for the Beano and a profound appreciation of its cultural influences. Holden’s work in animation has been lauded elsewhere on mialondonblog since I encountered his epic cartoon documentaries. The Maximum Irony! Maximum Sincerity (MI!MS) slogan for his art movement manifesto, a collaborative product of his teenage friendship group, neatly sums up the contortions required by artists who aim to be serious without being po-faced and funny without being flippant.
Holden’s inclusion of Moss is a no-brainer as her scenarios might have come straight from the pages of the Beano but through exposing herself to vulnerable situations she imbues them with a heartfelt empathy for life’s precarity. In Animal Cruelty, she sits like Damocles beneath a balloon water bomb at the mercy of a sleeping cat whose movement will release the string that suspends it. In Frog she relives many adult’s childhood humiliations on failing to master the art of the pogostick. Hopping around in a large puddle in a frog costume she repeatedly collapses into the water. Her determination to persist in the face of the inevitable dousing has something of Albert Camus’s Sysiphus about it. As a looped video the relentless cycle of failure would be a consoling image that Camus would have appreciated. The implication that a cosplay frog will be better at hopping is cruelly, but accurately, debunked.
Politicians have jumped on the cosplay bandwagon encouraged by their media fixers to believe it enhances their connection with the electorate. Boris Johnson in full drugbusting cop uniform and Liz Truss in tank commander mode are surely kidding themselves that this casts them as authorities in tackling crime or foreign conflict. Their cartoonish antics come straight from the Beano playbook. Moss’s stunts ensure we all remain sensitised to the blurring of politics and performance art given such a boost by Trump and Bannon.
Although the current PM is frequently compared to the fictional upper class clowns Billy Bunter and Bertie Wooster, his scattergun enthusiasm and unruly mop places him closer to Dennis the Menace which perhaps better accounts for the electorate’s indulgence of him. The Daily Mail portrayal of Ed Miliband as the gormless claymation Wallace character, an Aardman studio creation, had the opposite effect in the U.K 2015 General Election campaign. Tim Parks went on record to decry the misuse of his much loved creation for political propaganda. His storyboard for a mind-bogglingly complex and exhilarating Wallace and Gromit chase sequence is another fascinating exhibit in this show.
Moss can trace a lineage through Dadaist performances, silent movie slapstick, deadpan female comedians like Joyce Grenfell and the duo, Wood and Harrison, whose work also features in the exhibition and in a previous blogpost tagged below. The Beano and artists with a similar worldview to Moss revel in the absurd with the same resigned gusto as Samuel Beckett. Her indefatigable spirit in the face of the landscape’s blank stare of indifference is comparable to the iconic Winnie in Beckett ‘s Happy Days, baking in the sun as she sits buried in sand. Finding peace with the ultimate absurdity of the universe gives us the strength to persist. In 2015 Moss had plenty of time to ponder this as an artist-in-residence trapped on a container ship in the Pacific Ocean held offshore with no prospect of landing due to the shipping company’s bankruptcy.
The essentially capricious nature of events we are embroiled in is an important lesson children absorb from The Beano which Holden highlights in the Cause and Effect section of the exhibition. Included here is the remarkable Cory Arcangel video, Arnold Schoenberg, op. 11 – I – Cute Kittens from 2009 . The truth that, given an infinite amount of time, random strikes on a keyboard will eventually produce the Complete Works of Shakespeare underlies his modus operandi. Inspired by Youtube clips where cats produce random bursts of notes as they pace across across a piano keyboard, he uses AI software to select the correct notes from thousands of cat videos to reconstruct an early Schoenberg serialist classic, Drei Klavierstücke. Eric Morecambe’s “playing the right notes but not necessarily in the right order” comes to mind. Arcangel is making flippant points about the apparent incoherence of modern classical music and the social media obsession with cute animals but in linking the two using AI he is also demonstrating the powerful tentacles of corporate algorithms that can infiltrate our freedoms. MI!MS strikes again.
Overall, this is a tremendous exhibition, both as a tribute to the imaginations of the Beano illustrators and as a selection of contemporary art that provides much to savour.
Featured image, copyright Rebecca Moss. Still from performance video, Frog (2016). Courtesy of the artist.