The exhibition in the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg humorously places works by contemporary artists in the context of silent slapstick movies from the early days of the history of cinema, tracing in the process the characteristics of slapstick to the art of the present day. Objects, installations, photographs and films by such artists as John Bock, Rodney Graham, Wilfredo Prieto, Timm Ulrichs, Fischli/Weiss, Bruce Nauman and Francis Alÿs are combined in an informal exhibition parcours with selected key sequences from famed silent movie classics by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy.
The pitfalls of banana peels, pie fights, brawls and wild chases, but also the small vagaries of everyday life and the battle between mankind and the machine are famed slapstick stunts. Contemporary artists are hot on the heels of the great comic masters, regularly taking up slapstick’s cultural codes, quoting them, translating them into their own modes of expression and borrowing motifs and concepts.
Even now, a century after his first film, the sight of Charlie Chaplin scurrying down a street dressed as “The Little Tramp” in his world-famous oversized shoes, bowler hat and cane still brings a smile to the faces of all ages. Likewise unforgettable is the consistently stoic, deadpan expression of Buster Keaton, “The Human Mop,” Harold Lloyd hanging in daredevil fashion from the hands of a clock high above the street as well as the never-ending quarrels between Laurel & Hardy. With their art of humorous failure, these pioneers of slapstick from the days of silent movies and the early “talkies” created a kind of self-ironic comedy whose devices are just as current today as they were then.
The slapstick is a simple theatrical prop, a club-like object that makes a loud smacking sound, and the name for a whole genre developed from it. The exhibition not only reveals such characteristics of slapstick as physical comedy, the loss of balance and control, chain reactions and repetitive motifs but also exposes them as methods of contemporary artistic practice. The history of slapstick can thus be traced from sixteenth-century Commedia dell’arte to vaudeville and the early slapstick movies from the twentieth century, when American production companies attained the services of former vaudeville actors for their films. Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel themselves come from this theatrical tradition, already appearing on the stage as children. The physical comedy and quick rhythms already typical of Commedia dell’arte and vaudeville were thus linked up with the technical possibilities inherent in the editing and projection of the new medium of film. The heightened comic effect was widely disseminated through this new medium, fulfilling one of slapstick’s most important prerequisites: a wide range of signs and actions familiar to a broad audience due to constant repetition. Slapstick comedy makes use of these visual empirical values and plays with the construction of expectation, deliberate disillusionment and delayed punch lines.
There is thus a method to the supposed chaos. A banana peel lays on a bar of soap that is in turn embedded in fat: There is surely no more unambiguous symbol for one of slapstick comedy’s major themes than Wilfredo Prieto’s Grasa, Jabón y Plátano (2006), namely slipping and falling. When Alexej Koschkarow organizes a pie fight with 800 kilos of custard pies and 30 guests at the
Malkasten‘ in Düsseldorf (2003), one is automatically reminded of the great pie fights of the slapstick era, for example Laurel & Hardy’s Battle of the Century (1927). When Gordon Matta-Clark hangs from the hands of the clock of the Clocktower Building in Tribeca, New York, and brushes his teeth in his piece Clockshower (1973), he is unmistakably quoting the iconic scene from Harold Lloyd’s movie Safety Last (1923), and when Steve McQueen stands uninjured in the window opening of a collapsed house wall (1997), the scene has obviously been modeled after the same situation in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). Fischli/Weiss encounter the famous assembly line scene from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) with a seemingly unending chain reaction in their film The Way Things Go (1987). In the meantime Charlie Chaplin desperately but relishfully eats his shoe as if it were a steak and a plate of spaghettis in Gold Rush (1925) while John Bock for example very grotesquely empties a can of ravioli with a spoon attached to the leg of a wing chair (2006). The physical comedy of a Buster Keaton finds correspondences in the photographic and filmic experiments by such artists as Bruce McLean (1971–2011), John Wood and Paul Harrison (2001) and Bruce Nauman (1968/69). Almost simultaneously with Nauman, Charlie Chaplin wrote in his 1967 essay “The Roots of My Comedy”: “The basic element of all comedy is founded on somebody having to act in a ridiculous and embarrassing situation.” Entirely in this sense, Jeppe Hein’s Modified Social Benches (2006–2008) and Szymon Kobylarz’s Nose Punch Machine (2007) provides the visitor the opportunity of having his own slapstick-like experience. It is probably better not to try to use The First Sitting Chair by Timm Ulrichs (1970); tired from standing for such a long time, it is now itself sitting down to rest!
List of artists:
Peter Fischli/David Weiss
Fred C. Newmeyer
Bonus Slapstick Classic: Laurel And Hardy – Block-Heads (1938)
Image: John Wood and Paul Harrison, Twenty Six (Drawing and Falling Things), 2001. Single channel/multi channel Mini DV, 26:59 min. Courtesy of the artists and Carroll/Fletcher.