Untitled (It’s almost a one-liner)
Sarah Beck and Shlomi Greenspan
November 21 to December 20, 2014
Untitled (It’s almost a one-liner) is a multi-media installation that explores the ambiguity of a performance about to begin via an empty stage. Bearing the signifiers of a comedy club, the viewer is left to work out whether a show is about to begin. Here, comedic material becomes the material of the artwork. The installation cultivates expectations and then subverts them; waiting for a punchline is, in fact, the punchline of the work.
Essay: The Question We Ask When We Joke
An old adage says brevity contains the soul of wit, but forgets the palimpsest that steadies it, and provides its punchline. A long-strung joke regarding modern and contemporary art confirms this (“my kid could do that”), but the biggest laugh’s still had by those who know art’s history. Art is a succession of attempts and redresses. It’s a medium that only becomes something once it’s complete, and upon its recognition, goes negated: the Renaissance painters finally mastered realism only to be undone by Mannerism; Romanticism loosened the picture plane that Neoclassicism roped-in; history painting found a thread that Modernism unspooled; and so it’s gone. Until recently. The joke, now, is harder to locate. It’s woven in and threaded out in such succession that we don’t trust what’s made sincere, or laugh at something stupid. “What does it mean?” has become the best joke of all.
Sarah Beck and Shlomi Greenspan are having fun with our confusion. Untitled (It’s almost a one-liner) recalls the risk-taking and self-effacing stand-up of Andy Kaufman, and marries it with our renewed investment in performance and installation art (think The Artist Is Present, Marina Abramović’s self-serious MoMA “event”; or the omnipresent darling, Tino Seghal, whose vapid action is all there is to hold). Punching their weight on a well-lit stage, Beck and Greenspan perform a joke that’s made better for its build-up, and a delivery formed by absence.
A recording device and mic sit on a stool, the word “ONE” reflected on its surface. A merrymaking comedian issues the first of many recordings, inviting his agent (the ever-absent “Bernstein”) to see his show. It beeps and another message goes issued (“just following up about those tables and those drinks”), and seven voicemails succeed. Again and again, the absent comic tries to seat his singular audience, but never lands him. In an unmoving frame, Beck and Greenspan deliver their joke: what would it add if the artist was present? When does absence become fame?
As with Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, and the chimeric Sophie Calle, Untitled (It’s almost a one-liner) performs a joke-as-commentary on the increasingly ephemeral matter of an artist’s presence and aura. With nothing active but the narrative of missing action, we’re made to query what it is we’re hoping to see. What would art look like, now, were it to present itself? How would it manifest, nevermind the thing it resists? Maybe that joke about Salvador Dali walking into a fish and ordering a pint of stamps (and the barman saying, “Why the bicycle wheel?”) utters something true. What is missing, and, moreover, would we know it to see it? I think of an Ad Reinhart cartoon: “An abstract painting will react to you if you react to it. You get from it what you bring to it. It will meet you half way but no further. It is alive if you are. It represents something and so do you. YOU, SIR, ARE A SPACE, TOO.” The text lies over a dead man, his eyes marked with an X. As with so much contemporary art, the punchline lands with a chill. We’re looking for meaning in a body that’s missing.
Sarah Beck uses her art practice to address contemporary issues, engaging the audience with humour and common signifiers. Her studio practice favors accessibility and moves between mediums. Beck is a Saskatchewan artist currently based in Toronto. She has won various awards, including the Canada Council for the Art’s Joseph S. Stauffer Prize. She was featured at Toronto City Hall’s Museum for the End of the World during Nuit Blanche 2012, and at the 2010 Winter Olympic Cultural Olympiad. Beck completed her Interdisciplinary Master’s of Art, Media & Design at the Ontario College of Art and Design University’s (OCADU) in 2010. In 2014 Beck was the first Artist in Residence at the International Space University.
Shlomi Greenspan is an Israeli artist, currently living and working in Toronto. He studied at the Avni Institute of Art and Design in Tel Aviv and at OCAD University where he received his BFA. Greenspanʼs practice is multidisciplinary, with an emphasis on painting, animation and video installation. His work interfaces elements of time, narrative and storytelling to explore the various ways information technologies and mechanical devices mediate and distort the perception of time and space. By calling attention to certain patterns, cycles and unfolding moments inherent in every day life, Greenspan examines the ambivalence and mutability of lived experience in the 21st century. Greenspan’s work is currently featured in Urban Fabric, an exhibition curated by Deborah Wang at the Textile Museum of Canada.
Sky Goodden is the founding editor of a new online art publication titled MOMUS, which promotes international art writing and journalism, and stresses a return to art criticism. She was the executive editor of BLOUIN ARTINFO Canada from 2011 to 2014, and regularly writes for Modern Painters, Art + Auction, Canadian Art, and C Magazine, among others. She was the 2010 Editorial Resident at Canadian Art, and holds an MFA in Criticism and Curatorial Practice from OCAD University.