Laughing in an art gallery: good or bad? I ask the question because, in my experience, humour is a contentious quality in art. Personally, I love it and believe it to be an important arrow for artists to have in their quiver, the sign not just of a nimble brain, but of a rounded humanity. I remember going up on the scaffold when the Sistine Chapel was being cleaned and finding myself staring at Michelangelo’s hilarious characterisation of Boaz, one of the biblical bit-part players crammed under the eaves of the great ceiling. Painted quickly as some sort of Mr Punch staring crazily at his own reflection in a fool’s mirror, Boaz was being mercilessly ribbed, Renaissance-style.
The art industry, however, has often had difficulty accepting humour. You cannot imagine Joshua Reynolds enjoying a covert giggle during his momentously pious stretch as the first president of the Royal Academy. According to Reynolds, art’s task was to strengthen our moral fibre and turn us into better human beings.
It is a view that persists. The Tate empire, under the bone-dry Nicholas Serota, has found the joie de vivre of the best Brit Art to be problematic. Which is why the Chapman brothers and Grayson Perry have never been happily accepted, while the ponderous Tacita Dean seems always to be the first name on the establishment’s list. This inability to differentiate between seriousness and meaningfulness is even more pronounced in the extra-doomy world of the international curator. The enormous Documenta exhibition coming to Kassel in Germany this summer, a show that is often characterised as the Olympics of modern art, has not even opened, yet already its press releases are oozing the dour, sanctimonious, unbending piety that marks modern biennale thinking. The almost complete absence of British artists in the show is the result of a curatorial dictate that insists art must tackle the Palestinian question or the Holocaust, not the subject of zits.
All of which is a very, very long-winded way of getting to David Shrigley. If seriousness could be visualised on a graph, Shrigley’s name would be down in Australia. Not in a million years can you see his work being selected for the Kassel Documenta. Make that two million years. I cannot imagine a contemporary German curator looking at Shrigley’s Stick Figures Having Sex on Car Hood — two tiny LS Lowry-style figurettes on a large red car bonnet, going at it like wagtails — and finding it a suitable subject for art. Let alone realising that this is actually the point. Or, at least, one of them.
It’s not just the fact that 99.9% of Shrigley’s art is deliberately humorous that disqualifies him. There is the added difficulty that humour is like drinks made of aniseed: it doesn’t travel. Right now, the art of the Middle East is fashionable at international biennales. French curators, in particular, have bullied the art world into privileging texty expositions of jihadic issues. Few such curators would appreciate the Shrigley drawing that instructs you, in big letters, to READ ALL ABOUT, then adds, in tiny letters, NOTHING. Or the hanging sign swaying high up on the wall of Shrigley’s Hayward show that says “Hanging Sign”. If ever an artist were fated never to receive an MBE for services to British art, that artist is surely David Shrigley.
All of which, in my book, qualifies him for our best attention. If I were a French art critic, I might even be tempted here to drop the name of Alfred Jarry into the discussion, and to cite Père Ubu and the theatre of the absurd as historical examples of the potency of anarchistic humour. But I am not a French art critic, and, besides, Shrigley’s textures are never properly Ubu-esque. They are not properly anarchic or even properly absurdist. They’re too poignant, too lower-case, too British.
A stuffed dog holds up a sign saying “I’m Dead”. A handwritten note pinned to a tree in a park asks for information about an animal that has been lost: it’s a pigeon described as grey and white. A biscuit is nailed to a gallery wall: and that’s it. If there is a pattern to these unexpected imaginings, I could not discern it. Basically, your visit here consists of passing from one poignant and puzzling gag to the next. Shrigley is not a consistent user of materials, either. Paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs, drawings, animations, tiny art, huge art — it’s all on offer. A very large cup of tea on a saucer the size of a shot-put circle teases your sense of proportion in one direction, while a tiny stick man waving at you from the floor of the large outdoor terrace teases it in another. Both sights share a sense of failure: the big cup of tea because there is something intrinsically pathetic about an unwanted cuppa; the little man because he’s out there in the cold, and he’s only a diddy little munchkin.
Most of this show is too sad to be surreal. Much of it is spent in Terry and June land, where nothing constitutes a win. I particularly enjoyed the simple black-and- white animations Shrigley produces, such as the film featuring a row of tiny cubes marching, Space Invaders-style, to the front of the screen. One of them falls into a hole and drops into another world inhabited by small spheres. The small spheres cut the tiny cube into a sphere as well. Now he can march with them.
Not all the gags work, of course. Forlorn British humour is surely among the least reliable arrows in the artistic quiver. The full-sized stuffed ostrich without a head didn’t persuade me, not because the gag was too obvious, but because the image was too foreign. Shrigley is at his best when his subject is a particularly British type of hopelessness, a hopelessness that reads the tabloids and goes down the corner shop in its slippers. You’ll find plenty of it here. “Ignore This Building” says a sign in front of an enormous new building that cannot be ignored. A bucket dumped in a depressing industrial space has been labelled “Anti-Depressants”. In a nervy piece of animation called Ones, a hand keeps rolling dice and the dice keep landing on one. The hand tries everything. It juggles the dice for longer. One. It hesitates, then lurches. One. Every manoeuvre it attempts. One.
These modest interventions might be tiny, but they appreciate something big: the ultimate and illogical pointlessness of life. What we have here is an atom’s view of the world. And where some national sensibilities would respond to such insights with huge quantities of artistic pessimism, and others would cue the uproarious anarchic laughter, it is very British of Shrigley’s art to prefer a nihilistic giggle and a brittle smile.