The most common thing one says when they find out you were a professional comedienne is, “Say something funny.” No one ever says this to me anymore because I have learned not mention it very often. I do believe people find me “funny,” however, when the comedic element is introduced it adds a layer of expectation, akin to a monkey slapping symbols together at the whim of others. The work I am currently engaging in, I believe, weaves art and humor. Humor is a way to get people interested in what I am doing. The issue is how to make that integration between fine art and humor while avoiding attachments to kitsch. Ai Weiwei recently had a show at the Brooklyn Museum. His use of objects and performance, though serious, is at times quite humorous. His repetitious use of objects within his installations becomes an all-consuming experience. In two of his works, “Profile of Duchamp, Sunflower Seeds,” (Pellett) and “Sunflower Seeds,” (Weiwei, “Sunflower Seeds”) he utilizes seemingly similar material which creates a connection between his earlier and later work. The difference is in the seeds. The seeds used in “Profile of Duchamp, Sunflower Seeds,” were actual sunflower seeds. Whereas the seeds utilized in the work “Sunflower Seeds,” were in actuality porcelain, individually crafted and hand-painted.
The shape of Marcel Duchamp’s profile was bent into a coat hanger, and then the profile only was filled with sunflower seeds. Duchamp popularized the use of ready-made objects as sculptural medium. Weiwei offers him a nod with the use of a coat hanger and the likeness of his profile. Weiwei succeeds in placing himself within the context of Duchamp by inserting the sunflower seeds into the profile of Duchamp he created, literally and figuratively. The connection between the two works, “Profile of Duchamp, Sunflower Seeds,” and “Sunflower Seeds,” as well as the time between their creations, is interesting.
Being that I previously viewed “Never Sorry,” (Weiwei, Never Sorry), I was familiar with the work Weiwei created for the Tate in London; “Sunflower Seeds” consisted of one hundred million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds covering the floor of the exhibition hall. The reason he combined these two elements is relative to porcelain being associated with China, with sunflower seeds among the nation’s star exports. The seeds are presented as sunflower seeds when in fact they are not. The banality of the object assists in two things; the first, the manipulation of believing the object is in fact a seed, it is artifice; second, the utilization of the same object in a repetitious manner forces the viewer to ask the question, why is something so seemingly simple now complicated? Something as banal as an object “made in China” is an everyday occurrence. When seeds are presented this way, it offers one the ability to think about the “seeds” and about how we all participate in the consumption of these objects. The consumption of items made in China, that come from China, and what goes into the manufacturing, production and creation of the object. It alludes to the human industry being synonymous with the anonymous; the individual that makes the product is as banal as the product itself.
In order to fully integrate myself into the work, “Sunflower Seeds,” I bought a pack of sixty “Sunflower Seeds,” from eBay. To facilitate and further emphasize the continuity of social economical practice, I produced fiduciary support of object consumption within our society.
The above examples show when art and humor are fully integrated, they can have a profound effect on the individual. When a work is properly produced, it can generate from the spectrum a subtle giggle to intellectual fanfare. This is akin to a standing ovation when giving a performance versus the gentle nod of approval. Humor is not something present in all works of art, though one may subscribe humor to an artwork, it may not have been the intention of the artist, only to that particular viewer. On the other hand, the artist may have intended hilarity and the viewer could be completely offended. Each individual’s perception is responsible for their reaction.
For example, I have created a work utilizing objects and also seeking to pay homage to Marcel Duchamp as Ai Weiwei has: In honor of his work, “Bicycle Wheel,” (Duchamp) which combines two objects to create a sculpture. “Stool Sample,” (Washburn) is a work I generated while engaging in various gag studies. While in Provincetown, Massachusetts, I saw a relatively enormous peachy-flesh colored butt plug. Soon after, I decided to combine it with the inner workings of a lamp to create a utilitarian sculpture. I am interested in the way it will present as a lamp, when in actuality it is a sex toy with a lamp as its interior.
The creation of the lamp puts the butt plug itself through an experience that is similar to the penetration the participant would feel when engaged with it. However, the drill bit is not quite as wide. I tried not to be forceful, drilling the hole starting at the top of the shaft and pressing all the way through, so that the lamp shaft could be inserted and the cord snaked through. Once it is completed, I plug it in and it perfectly lights the room. The process of making the lamp is as ironic as is the pun within the title of the work. The creation of the piece is similar to the original purpose of the object.
“Safe Sex,” is another work made by Ai Weiwei that exhibits humor initially. It presents as a dark raincoat with a condom sewn into the front of it at crotch level. The primary message is quite serious, regarding the AIDS epidemic. The piece is comprised of ready-made objects. This connection, though elusive, signals Duchamp’s, “Bicycle Wheel,” (Duchamp) through use of ready-mades as a medium and reconnects Weiwei’s work, “Profile of Duchamp, Sunflower seeds.” (Pellett).
Revolving doors of hilarity and humanity are what make the work of Ai Weiwei successful. Trudging through various gag studies I realize how difficult the task of integrating fine art and humor can be. Artists such as Ai Weiwei have the ability to draw the viewer in and keep them around for contemplation. He has fully integrated fine art and humor without attaching himself to any kitsch references.
Duchamp, Marcel. “Bicycle Wheel”. Museum of Modern Art. MoMa The Collection. New York, 1951 (3rd version: lost original 1913). Metal wheel mounted on wood stool.
“Never Sorry”. Dir. Alison Klayman. Perf. Ai Weiwei. 2012. DVD.
Pellett, Gail. “Profile of Marcel Duchamp, Sunflower Seeds.” TAP: Trans Asia Photography Review (2011). Article.
Warhol, Andy. “Marilyn Diptych”. Tate Modern. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, NY and DACS, London 2014. London, 1962. Acrylic Paint on Canvas.
Washburn. “Stool Sample”. Lesley University College of Art and Design. Say Something Funny. Plymouth, 2014. XL Butt Plug and Lamp Kit.
Weiwei, Ai. “Profile of Duchamp, Sunflower Seeds”. New York City. Wire Clothes Hanger, sunflower seeds.
Weiwei, Ai. “Sunflower Seeds”. Tate. The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds. London, 2010-2011. Porcelain.