Laughing It Off
Humor and the Absurd
+July 26, 2019
Some days it feels like there is not a single good thing happening anywhere in the world. Between climate change looming like a black cloud on our collective futures, political unrest, cultural tensions and nobody having two cents to rub together it seems that doom and gloom ooze from around every corner. Therefore it is incredibly refreshing when an artist can tackle an exhausting, stressful and intimidating topic with a sense of humor. It is important to get to celebrate the absurdity of the things that haunt us so that we don’t tumble down the rabbit hole and get buried by our emotional exhaustion. Camus once wrote that the absurd is born out of a confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. In other words, we are in conflict between our own need to seek inherent value and meaning and our inability to find any in a chaotic, irrational world.
The absurd is a building block of humor, and humor is a profound tool in our human arsenal. It helps us cope, better understand the world around us, bond, relieve stress and build a sense of community. I would argue that humor is one of the most tedious things to pull off in the art world. To take something that is not, on the surface, classically funny, break it down, and then present it to the viewer in a way that retains its seriousness while revealing its absurdity is a daunting task.
There are currently some clever photographers flexing their funny bones with purpose. Haley Morris-Cafiero is one such talented artist who has focused her work around the social experience of being a larger woman in our quick-to-criticise culture. Her work discusses judgement from strangers in public and on the internet. Her most recent body of work The Bully Pulpit is an investigation of “the social phenomenon of cyberbullying through the public profiles of people who attempt to bully [her].”
I photograph myself costumed like the people who’ve attempted to bully me. Finding photos online, I recreated their images using wigs, clothing, and simple prosthetics, while small imperfections mirror the fallacy that the internet will shield their identities. Finally, I overlay the parodies with transcripts of the bullying comments, almost as if I were “subtweeting” them.
In the images, she utilizes over the top props, silly prosthetics and often aloof facial expressions when recreating the images of her cyberbullies. The images poke fun at them, at the very notion of going out of your way to abuse and criticize a stranger. While at the same time reminding the viewer, by being surrounded by the quoted text she was sent, that it is a hurtful and cruel act to engage in. Morris-Cafiero has found a cathartic and powerful way to address an increasingly problematic topic, and she has done it with a fantastic sense of humor.
Kate Enman has her eyes and lens glued to the absurd juxtapositions and oddities of the seemingly mundane. She is interested in the “humor, absurdity, and beauty of the human condition, as well as the creatures that surround us. We humans are curious creatures - much like beavers, we are destructive and constructive - and trying to document this dichotomy is the closest I feel to capturing something real."
I like to think there is a bit of whimsy in my work, and I am especially interested in moments of domesticity, and likewise the rebellion of nature & animals from it.
Her work screams spontaneity and appears to rely heavily on the decisive moment. Enman’s photographs explore our relationship to our environment, the happenstance of everyday life.
She has an acute awareness of how basically absurd life is, whether it is how ridiculous grooming habits are, the place setting at a restaurant, the slippery nature of cats or a stray racoon. Enman will remind you not to take yourself or your surroundings too seriously, and she’ll do it beautifully.
Pixy Liao is a Shanghai born New York based artist who has delved deeply into the complexities of her long term relationship with her boyfriend. Her project Experimental Relationship cleverly explores and challenges gender dynamics and cultural influences with a quiet and punctuating sense of humor.
My photos explore the alternative possibilities of heterosexual relationships. They question what is the norm of heterosexual relationships. What will happen if man & woman exchange their roles of sex & roles of power. Because my boyfriend is Japanese, and I am Chinese, this project also describes a love and hate relationship.
Liao uses her boyfriend, Moro, as a prop and directs the shoots. She is very aware that their relationship is in defiance of how she was raised to understand relationships, being that she is older and often takes the more dominant position.
I grew up in a society where people constantly tell you that girls aren’t good enough, they should take a secondary role and relax—find a man to protect you,” she said. “I always felt uncomfortable with it. It’s not until I moved and met Moro that I started to realize: There’s no family to give me kind suggestions anymore. I was able to do things the way I like it, for the first time.
The images are quiet, and masterfully crafted, which makes them easy to look at as the layers begin to unfold.
Liao, Enman and Morris-Cafiero each have a unique approach to using humor in their photography and each tackles a different area of our modern human experience. Together they remind us that if, when faced with conflict, hurt, and the monotony of everyday life, we can step back and find the absurdity in it all, sometimes it is easier to live in this crazy, complicated world.