Alex Pearl trades on repetition, loss and the ‘destabilising language of humour’. Here he talks to Andrew Bryant about these and other forces at play as discussed in his Artists talking blog.
Andrew Bryant: Generally, your work is funny. It's sad as well, but the overall tone, I would say, is a humorous one. Would you agree?
Alex Pearl: Generally my work is sad, it's funny too, but the overall tone, I would say is a melancholic one. Actually I don't think the two ideas are separable for me. I once showed an animated piece to a group of students. It detailed all the ways I had considered killing myself while depressed. They laughed hysterically. I think it is this meeting of jest and anguish that interests me and is where I want my work to hang. Certainly, if it were just funny I wouldn't be happy with it, nor if it were merely sad. Also I have a desire to be slight and uncertain. It seems to me to be an interesting position to hold. Humour distracts and undermines, it takes away substance, but then again it doesn't. It is a destabilising language (tool?).
There is also a deep rootedness of humour in human interaction. We share a joke; it is a communication of like minds and I've never wanted to make work that was drily theoretical or abstruse. The gods like a joke too.
AB: Yes, I like that, the idea that humour is destabilising. But at the same time doesn't it reinforce the thing it appears to destabilise? Both positions, melancholia and the joke, actually hold one another in position don't they?
AP: Oh certainly, that's a common idea in comedy both in comedic characters and the biographies of comics – Hancock, Sellers etc. It's a bit like those Thaumatrope illusions. I've also been interested in the Pierrot character since I was a student and used aspects of it in my personae for some of my blogs. There, I suppose, there is a sense of good-humoured resignation to outside forces natural and otherwise.
AB: Do you think humour might operate as a kind of redemption, letting us off the hook as it were? I'm thinking about how humour usually is an 'end game', it breaks the tension, it's a relief and a release. But a release from what? Complexity? Responsibility? Resistance? Is there a danger of the work becoming spectacle, turning us into passive viewers rather than active agents?
AP: Argh so many questions! I think you are right in terms of humour as a sort of release, but I think I try to avoid that. In most of my work I think the humour and the distress (for want of a better word) run hand in hand. They are often very unsatisfactory works, impotent and disappointing. A critic once described one of my films as being ‘like an empty dream’, an idea I have always found attractive. I think these feelings of laughter, loss and powerlessness are tangled together.
On the other hand I like the idea as an artist of finding ways to avoid responsibility. I like to lease control to outside forces (or at least be able to say that I have) then that ‘oh it's only a joke’ saying comes into play although of course it isn't. Or maybe it is. Perhaps this leaves the viewer as a spectator but one on unstable ground unsure of what they are looking at. I don't think about any of this while I am making work. But I do like to adopt a tragic persona.
AB: That reminds me of an essay by Roland Barthes called The Poor and the Proletariat in which he talks about Charlie Chaplin. Barthes says Chaplin’s success is in “...show[ing] the public its blindness by presenting at the same time a man who is blind and what is in front of him." I am thinking particularly of your series Little Deaths in which comic characters suffer terrible demises at the hand of a greater force. What they cannot see (but we can) is that the ‘greater force’ is actually a simple construction, and one that could be easily dismantled. This seems to point to the idea that we generate, in a sense, our own suffering, and even that there is a perverse pleasure in that.
AP: That sounds a bit Sadeian: “It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.”
Quite often in my life I have experienced the opposite. I have also been accused of enjoying suffering and deriving pleasure from failure. I think the Little Deaths, at least for me, have another aspect to them again linked to Chaplin (and Laurel & Hardy and others), brought about through repetition. I'm particularly thinking of a common slapstick idea from early cinema where characters seem to get caught in a horrible loop of cause and effect, usually pain is involved. Similarly the Little Deaths are endlessly looping videos, the deaths go absurdly on and on and on. Their triviality perhaps as you say makes us aware of our own triviality.
I have been reading (too late for trendiness) Whitechapel Gallery’s Failure. In fact it is my toilet book so I have been slowly dipping in and out of it for some time now. I've also been thinking that (damn) I should have been in it and perhaps I may write an addendum detailing my failure to be included in the flyleaves. Anyway I've just started a chapter on repetition by Brian Dillon who is coincidentally the only writer included whom I have managed to upset in the last couple of years. He says:
"Repetition, as Gilles Deleuze wrote, has both its tragic and its comic aspects: nothing is more appalling, and at the same time ludicrous, than the individual condemned to the same action over and over again. But repetition, says Deleuze, is also a kind of freedom: without its regular framing and punctuating insistence we would never be able to experience difference, to relish the new, at all."
There's the pleasure.
AB: Yes, as you rightly point out, repetition is never quite what it seems; every time you repeat something you change it, you sort of wear it out. Psychoanalysis has something to say about this. For Freud the compulsion to repeat trauma is one of the ways the ego defends itself against disappointment, against the other, but the price of this mastery is life itself.
AP: Enough of this second hand philosophical ping pong. "I hate repetition, I really do. It's like asking a painter to paint the same picture every day of his life." That was Peter Cushing not me. I love the weekly ritual of the bins and tea time and shaving. (Not so much shaving). The truth is I find theory debilitating except as some sort of after-dinner game. I try to be as empty headed as possible while I am working. In fact, if anything, I think the quality of emptiness is about the only thing I strive for (and I am not even sure about that).
AB: Though I agree with your objections to theory as a macho competition, I actually enjoy joining things up and seeing where the gaps are, and the connections, between the theories. To paraphrase Brecht, a man needs a theory, as many as possible, because life is what happens in between them. Theory is useful if you wish to connect what you do to a wider discourse, but theory is a meta-language isn't it, and as such has for a long time been at odds with what artists are about, which is creating a unique language of their own.
But even to say you try to be "as empty headed as possible" – isn't that a theory of sorts, or at least a conceptual approach? I like what Andy Warhol said on repetition – and he was arguably the first artist to use it. He said, "The more I repeat things, the more I feel emptier and better." So there we have it, a connection between emptiness and repetition. Why is emptiness important to you Alex?
First published: a-n.co.uk May 2011
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