Friday 24 April 2015

Randy and Friends at NAC

Four artists, Christine Cosby, Rob Elliott, Ernest Harris Jr. and Melanie MacDonald, have collected together items that might just possibly have been found in any Canadian home and set out to play games with them.  These consist of two egg cups from East Germany in the shape of hens, a set of fishing lures, an empty plastic squeeze honey bottle in the shape of a bear, an otter statuette stamped with the name Randy, and a rabbit puppet head.

The artists say they feel affectionate towards these objects, so it seems that the games they play with them, on which Rob Nunn commented to me, are such as imaginative children might play with their favourite toys.  The artists’ handout says that “Melanie MacDonald made breakfast, served soft-boiled eggs in the egg cups, then photographed and painted the scene as a monumental landscape  Ernest Harris Jr. has painted formal watercolour studies of each of the objects.  Christine Cosby and Rob Elliott have invented a 40-year history of the rabbit puppet head and have designed a parody of big museum retrospectives, complete with costumes and timeline.  A pair of over-sized textile fishing lures will also hang in the gallery.”
This statement tells us the facts, and we also learn that the artists "set out to surprise and challenge each other," but I think I can add something in my blog about the whole spirit of the thing.  I remarked to Natasha when I went in to see the show that it reminded me of the Theatre of the Absurd, which was a big thing in my youth, and she agreed.

In my late twenties I was in graduate school at Northwestern University surrounded by a very lively group of young French people.  One of the things we got together to do was to record a reading of Eugene Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano."  TO give you an idea of this play, there are two English couples, the Smiths and the Martins, who converse entirely in clich├ęs and platitudes.  These destroy any attempt the audience might make to make sense of their conversation.  They are the incarnation of the absurd, to the point where it would be impossible to treat the play as anything as serious as a parody.  Absurdity is engaged in for its own sake and follows its own laws, as in the case of the Smiths' clock, which strikes any hour it is not (I took the part of the clock).  We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and made no attempt to interpret the play in any serious way.

Critics were of course lurking in the wings, determined to say something that would sound profound.  I have read some critical essays that were written at the time linking Ionesco's absurdity to the existential anguish of Sartre and Camus, who talked about absurdity in a tragic kind of way.  Two other plays by Ionesco can be used to bear this out.  One is "The Lesson," in which an elderly professor is in the habit of raping and murdering his students.  The other is "Rhinoceros," which is a parody of the rise of the Nazi movement.  But it would be quite impossible to interpret "Randy and Friends" in such a serious way.

There is a kind of fake seriousness about it, like a group of girls acting men in a psychodrama and drawing mustaches on themselves with eyebrow pencil.  This fake seriousness is apparent in Melanie MacDonald's breakfast scene, which is presented as monumentally as a Chardin still life, and in the straight-faced series of watercolours depicting the various objects.  This kind of seriousness is of course an integral part of any children's game.  As Michel de Monteigne put it, way back in the sixteenth century, games are children's most serious occupation.  For a moment, when I looked at the account of Rabbit Head's progress as a celebrity, I thought the artists really were making a serious political statement about the former East Germany -- as serious as anything in "Rhinoceros."  But I quickly realised that since East Germany no longer exists as a political entity, this was not to be taken as anything but a lighthearted spoof on the whole notion of political importance and celebrity.

The only serious message these four artists have for us is "Enjoy!"  And it is a serious message because it is something we all too often forget to do, caught up as we are in the things we imagine are serious.

On the outskirts of this show is a window decoration, lit up at night with lights, representing the Columbian rain forest.  We should all of course get serious about the rain forest, and yet the way it is presented does not contradict the show's integral atmosphere of play indulged in for its own sake in a spirit of creative freedom.  It was set up by Gustavo, an artist acting independently of the four.

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