You don’t often hear laughter in a gallery; to an extent, it is taboo. Possibly we, the art sceners (people invested either financially or socially) fear that a hearty chuckle could bring the whole thing down, unveiling the emperors nudity.
Or worse, maybe we’ve actually failed to see the humour.
Whilst studying at Chelsea College of Art, Elizabeth Langton was caught laughing. One day during a seminar, her class was shown a series of Bruce Nauman performance films. Every student, except Langton, kept a straight face, either failing to recognise the humour inherent in Nauman’s movements, the sarcasm softly hinted at in his conceptualism, or holding it in, out of polite reverence for the established name. It didn’t help that Langton had recently been looking at test shots of John Cleese on the set of Fawlty Towers (1975-1979). Nauman and Cleese both share a versatile flexibility.
From this haphazard cross-pollination, an artwork was born. Walking in a Silly Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (2017) takes a cup of Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner (1968) and mixes in a splash of Monty Python’s The Ministry of Silly Walks (season 2, episode 1, 1970). Combined, you have a really, really exaggerated version of Nauman’s performance, or a stripped back conceptually framed version of Cleese’s. However, there is also a third element in the mix: gender. If it wasn’t yet apparent, Elizabeth Langton is a woman.
Undeniably comedy and art have predominantly been boys’ clubs. In America, abstract expressionists were branded manly men, conceptualism was too ‘brainy’ for women, and the land artists were off in the wild shooting guns and playing with diggers. Across the pond the Cambridge Footlights and Oxford Review were primarily for the lads, plus we had that whole tradition of men playing women in the theatre.
Unintentionally, by the virtue of her gender, Langton’s work serves as “an uncomfortable wedge” between art and comedy. She’s a double edged sword, that cuts both ways, leaving her unscathed. Borrowing from touchstone moments in each profession she mischievously pushes forward an essential Feminist re-examination, and reminds us that through a Feminist lens both disciples are problematically linked, and both require a kick in the balls.
For example, in Are There Any Women Here Today? (2017), Langton rifts on the classic Life of Brian (1979) scene in which a crowd of women, played by men, disguised as women attend a stoning.
In the scene, a judicial priest, played by Cleese, delivers the death sentence to a man who uttered the name of the Lord: “all I said to my wife was that piece of Halibut was good enough for Jehovah.” The women, prohibited from attending executions, try to conceal their gender by wearing fake beards and speaking in exaggerated manly tones. Langton adopts the prop-beard as a disguise allowing her to enter the manly world of art. Presented in photographic and as an art object it exemplifies adaptation as a requirement to enter masculine professions, whilst simultaneously calling for women to announce their presence.
In her vinyl wall piece, Lawrence Weiner Sits Down to Pee (2017), Langton uses a small anecdote to lampoon masculine associations with 1970s conceptual art. Coded in the aesthetic vocabulary of Weiner’s textual practice, the work, and the reaction to it – laughter, demonstrate the trappings of gender identity. So what if Weiner does sit down to pee, is this really the standard by which we are defining a ‘real man’?
Most recently Langton’s degree show centred on an infamous Friday Night, Saturday Morning (season 1, episode 7, 1979) debate, in which John Cleese and Michael Palin defend Life of Brain against claims of blasphemy from the Bishop of Southwark and Malcolm Muggeridge. Seeing the comedic potential Langton physically manifests the event as a joke: John Cleese, Malcom Muggeridge and a Bishop walk into a Bar (2017). In the piece a portrait video, framed in reference to Nauman’s Self Portrait as a Fountain (1966-67), shows Langton holding in a mouthful of water whilst watching the interview. Playing in slow-motion it captures three moments in which she cannot contain a laugh and shoots forth a spurt of water, a spit-take reaction.
Accompanying the video are three tailored suits, failed attempts by Langton to recreate a suit Cleese once wore in a promo-shoot for Fawlty Towers. Posed opposite the video these suits subsequently serve as stand-ins for the three titular characters, whilst simultaneously harkening back to Joseph Beuys’ Felt Suit (1970). Woven together here are numerous references, pleasing art historical ones and more populist memories of the British comedy tradition.
Langton’s is a practice which deftly negotiates issues of gender and traverses the tensions between art and comedy. However, in spite of these academic and cultural credentials, what is possibly most vital is how it speaks sincerely of an inherently British experience, being bought up by parents who need to share their comedy heroes with their children. On top of everything it takes you back to weekends on the sofa watching BBC classics and irreverent films. She applies the academic dissection of the art school to the sketch show, and comedic ingenuity to the gallery. The result is an art heavily nuanced, yet immediately approachable, recognisable and warm, with references that make you laugh. And for once no one can tell you that laughing is not allowed.
Elizabeth Langton is currently exhibiting with Off Site Project.
Elliott Burns is an independent curator, exhibition production-er, writer, ex-artist, sometimes photographer, occasional teacher, approximate art technician, able bartender, decent cook, events co-ordinator, budget organiser, spreadsheet handler, competent admin-er, and happy copy-editor.
Since graduating from MA Culture, Criticism and Curation at Central Saint Martins he has worked with the University of the Arts London as an exhibition curator and teacher. He is the co-founded Off Site Project , an online exhibition space, and lives between Mexico City and London.