Maaike Lauwaert about Jacob Dwyer and Mike Pratt
Maaike Lauwaert introduces Jacob Dwyer and Mike Pratt
I want to start by saying something about language. Spoken language to be precise. As a Flemish born person living in Holland for almost twenty years, my spoken English is mainly informed by how the Dutch speak English, American oriented you could say. When speaking to other people whose first language is not English, there is generally a way of saying and pronouncing things that we all understand. When talking to Mike Pratt and Jacob Dwyer for the first time in the spring of 2014, I was confronted once again by the fact that there are certain pronunciations in British born English language speakers that I simply don’t understand. Rather than daring to ask, can you repeat that? Or what does it mean? I tried to get the meaning of their words from the other words around it. There was one word in particular that Jacob kept repeating, that I didn’t get. I didn’t dare ask. In my notes on our conversation, the word is a kind of doodle, sometimes a question mark, a stand in for something I didn’t understand. I kept hoping to get it, and then everything would fall into place.
But until I got that one word, most of what he as saying was in a vacuum of possible meanings. If the word would turn out to have been apple, for example, the whole conversation would shift towards a more fruity, concrete corner. If the word would turn out to be grapple, just as an example, the conversation would become existential. Apple, grapple.
In the end I got the word, and my mind sighed with relief. The conversation that was, content-wise, in the air up till then, floated down and started making more sense. And thinking back on that conversation with Jacob, but this is certainly also the case in my conversations with Mike, it is not simply an issue of how words are pronounced, but also very much an issue of me not readily believing or being able to accept that what I think I hear, is actually what they are saying. That is because both of them often say things that are actually very funny, strange or not something I am used to hearing from artists. More on that later.
Obviously, language plays a very important role in the work of Jacob. Language in the form of anecdotes, language as a vessel for confusion, the power of the misunderstanding – all these things feature in the stories Jacob writes. In Jacob’s use of language, there is ample room for fantasy and imagination. Many of his video works have a strong narrative and most of them start with the linguistic structure of a joke akin to “man walks into a bar”. In his video work The Celtic Body, for example, one joke is repeated, explained, analyzed and dissected so many times that it stops making sense. In the current two works being shown here, the narratives starts with some casual singing about the location where the protagonist finds himself: “standing in the desert”, and “standing in the middle of a big expanse”.
As I said, linguistic confusion also took place in conversations with Mike. Sometimes I was simply guessing at what he was saying, thinking, this cannot be it but then on hearing it a second time, realizing that was exactly what Mike meant to say. He says things about his works that others would not readily say about their work. For example, that it is aimed at being a bad joke, or that the aesthetics is meant being slightly uncomfortable, etc. Mike also responded to one of my emails with “sounds like it could turn into a Cindy Sherman work..”. It’s a funny e-mail, a strange sentence but I don’t have a clue what he referred to. But that is okay.
There is a certain quality to these types of misunderstandings, whether they are intentional or unintentional, whether they are based on different conventions re the pronunciation of words or on not really believing what is being said. It keeps you as a listener on edge, attentive and it is also productive in the sense that possible meanings and connotations are kept open. And, needless to say, it is also funny.
In true Jacob fashion, let me tell you a little anecdote. When I was still working at the university, I traveled to a conference with a professor, Karin, who I found very intimidating. When returning home after a long day, we stood on the train platform waiting for a train and talking about the day, university politics etc. Karin all of a sudden turned to me, leaned towards me rather, to say something. She started with, “let me share this secret with you. But don’t tell anyone”. I was SUPER curious obviously. And at the very moment she started talking, this high-powered woman sharing a secret with me, a train came rushing through the station with such ear splitting noise, that I never heard what she said. And I didn’t dare ask her to repeat herself. So I have never found out.
This is not only a pity but it is productive too. There is more creativity involved in not-knowing. I have imagined different wild scenarios over the years but needless to say, the secret was in all likelihood boring and trivial. If I would have heard what she was saying, I would in most likelihood have forgotten that moment, that day. Now, because I never knew what she said, I remember it vividly. How much better is it not to know? To imagine and fantasize?
Misunderstandings, those moments were something escapes you and you don’t dare to ask “excuse me, I missed that”, linguistic “man walks into the bar” -structures all have something comical about them. Sometimes purposefully, sometimes by accident.
With Jacob, the humor in his work is mainly found in the language he uses: the spoken text (either by characters in his films or via voice-over). One of the first videos I saw of Jacob involved a squirrel that was hiding behind a tree while Jacob was slowly moving around that tree with a camera, trying to catch the animal on film. In all likelihood, there never was a squirrel in the first place but you kept hoping and anticipating that the camera would catch up with the animal. At De Ateliers he finished his two year residency with a film structured around a misplaced and out of context question someone asked a fireman. This anecdote became a joke, endlessly retold and retold until it lost all meaning.
With Mike, language is obviously less at play, and humor or comicality is evoked through the shapes of his works, their often slightly clumsy forms and references (like the yin yang sign on the table in this exhibition), the materials he uses (ranging from marble, styrofoam and wax to plastic grapes, party glitter and artificial birds). The sculpture “two cigarettes in the dark”, for example, roughly resemble two saxophones stacked on one another and is made of papier-mâché and doused in flour. Mike makes sculptures and paintings that are very sculptural. Onto these paintings, he sticks things he finds or buys or makes, such as a roughly formed bread, something that could be a stone or a string of sausages.
When thinking about comedy in the sculptures and paintings of Mike, the concept of concrete comedy is helpful. Artist and writer David Robbins coined this term in the ‘80s and ‘90s and further elaborated on it in the book Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy (2011). Concrete comedy is “the comedy of actions and objects, things and gestures – of doing rather than saying”. Concrete comedy is, importantly, a concept that points towards non-verbal comic moments, it is not about stand-up but about all these moments where comedy takes material form. With Mike’s works, this is very much at play – his works are a material form of comedy, a comedy of objects, things and gestures.
It is tempting to discard humor and comedy as trivial, only playful, not political at all. But nothing is farther from the truth. As most people know, jokes are often told to make a heavy burden a bit lighter, to mask in some cases even very dark thoughts and feelings. But not only on the personal level is humor a far more complex tool than often assumed, as Robbins writes in his book, “Comedy is always about a relation to power. There’s always a jester and always a king”.
Maaike Lauwaert – November 2015
Published on 23 December 2015