by Sue Hubbard
Until 13th May 2012, Hayward Gallery, London
The term black humour was first coined by the Surrealist André Breton in his 1940 anthology of texts, which traces the literary history of the satire of death. In 1896 Alfred Jarry’s Absurdist play Ubu Roi ushered in Surrealism which created a platform for political and psychological disruption against the events of the early 20thcentury, particularly the atrocities of the First World War. Satire provided a way of facing death as well as subverting authoritarian thinking.
Absurdist humour forms the basis of David Shrigley’s art practice. His drawings with their dead-pan one line jokes, his videos and taxidermy have created a whole new category that sits somewhere between popular culture and fine art. It’s as if the jottings of a nerdy comic loving teenager had been plastered round the Hayward Gallery. Some of his drawings are very funny indeed: the pair of feet that says ‘clap your hands’, the wall painting of a man where his ankle has been labelled ‘tooth’, and his penis ‘chimney’. Or the sign high on the gallery wall that simply reads: Hanging Sign. Yet as I write this down something is stripped away. It just doesn’t sound so funny – but it is. Often it is simply the tension between the object, the context and the text, the stating of the obvious in a way that’s never quite obvious until Shrigley does it, that creates the humour. There is also something very English about it. His are the sort of jokes you might find in those old school boy comics the Dandy and the Beano or in Monty Python.
A course in Environmental Art at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s and early 1990s seems an unlikely springboard for such zany work. Yet it appears to have provided a sense of context for his absurdist interventions. Leisure Centre (1992) depicts a white flimsy cardboard box with a cut-out door on which he has written LEISURE CENTRE. Placed in the middle of a muddy building plot it implicitly comments on the paucity of local authority services. Another placard stuck in dry ground announces RIVER FOR SALE, whilst a sheet of paper pinned to a tree simply reads: LOST. GREY+WHITE PIDGEON WITH BLACK BITS. NORMAL SIZE. A BIT MANGY-LOOKING. DOES NOT HAVE A NAME. CALL 2571964. The bathos and pathos of this little narrative are almost worthy of Sam Beckett.