No Laughing Matter
by Caitlin Chaisson
It is day six of my 14-day quarantine and the couch cushions have finally yielded to the demands of conformity, marks furrowed into the foam like a defeated countenance. The loneliness of solitary isolation is almost tempered by the casual acquaintance I’ve made with this shadowy impression of a permanently reclining figure. The surrounding apartment is undergoing a metallurgical transformation all its own, with aluminum building up in every corner; three times a day the accretions mount in a clanging jumble of cylinders and serrated disks. Stripped of soggy papers that picture radiant climes, the canned peaches, tuna and beans become indistinguishable—but so do many of the things I once considered important, as life comes to a frightening standstill.
Twenty-eight years ago, the United States was weathering a different kind of tempest. After ravaging the Bahamas, Hurricane Andrew barrelled into the mainland at 265 km per hour, devastating Florida and Louisiana and spawning tornadoes and heavy rainfall in many other states. The Category 5 storm claimed lives and inflicted widespread structural damage, requiring the biggest national disaster aid package of its time. During the next several years of reconstruction, the aftermath of the hurricane would occasionally surface in news and media.
Four years later, in 1996, curator Renée Riccardo offered Rachel Harrison her first solo exhibition at Arena Gallery, a small parlour room in a Brooklyn brownstone. The installation, Should home windows or shutters be required to withstand a direct hit from an eight-foot-long two-by-four shot from a cannon at 34 miles an hour, without creating a hole big enough to let through a three-inch sphere?, takes its title from the lede of a 1995 New York Times article regarding the structural preparedness of buildings to withstand severe weather.1 This installation was recently restaged in the artist’s survey exhibition, Rachel Harrison: Life Hack, at the Whitney Museum. A stand-alone room built for the artwork replicated the size and floor plan of the original. In the Whitney’s version, Harrison embedded documentation of the first installation as a mise en abyme among the restaged components.
Should home windows or shutters… looks as though some errant technician already pressed the detonation button, and the two-by-four didn’t just punch a tidy three-inch hole through some window—but blasted the entire space to smithereens. The walls of the room are covered in a patchwork of wooden veneer panels—birch, cherry, oak, brick—hammered upon one another with the same kind of hasty craftsmanship one would expect of someone shuttering a grocery against gale-force winds. Made with materials straight from shelves of a local hardware store, some barely framed free-standing walls jut into the centre of the space, held together in the tightened jaws of screw clamps.
In spite of the structural turmoil, the room is decorated. A number of framed photographs adorn the walls, many of them depicting a still-life study of trash bags on the side of a curb. The lumpen forms are visually echoed by cans of peas littered throughout the space. The non-perishables are suspended from wires, slotted into architectural cavities or mounted to the wall by globular pedestals painted in acid colours. The provisions are provisionally scattered, a pun I use with a playful nod toward Harrison’s penchant for gag-like humour. Her practice frequently makes use of dime store props and fetid innuendos, nestled within highly ambiguous material arrangements.
Although most contemporary artists deal with humour from a safe ironic distance, Harrison’s has been described as biting, brainy, barbed or dark. In any case, I’ve never interpreted her humour as making light of otherwise difficult—or quite frankly, traumatic—situations, be it hurricanes or systemic misogyny. So, what does the humour do? Her comic effects are striking in their explicit obviousness, bright flashes in the pan that contrast starkly to the difficulties in decoding the rest of the artwork. In one of the first reviews of the original installation at Arena Gallery, critic Roberta Smith imparts to readers that Harrison’s aim seemed to be “to create a commentary on obsolescence, garbage, and shoddy workmanship, as well as formalist abstraction. Or something like that.”2 Though Smith’s tone might sound flippant, I read it as smartly emblematic of Harrison’s practice: funny and defiant. In David Joselit’s more recent catalog essay, “Rachel Harrison: Untranslatable,”3 he conveys how her work vexes those who attempt overarching descriptions. The assemblages are as resistant to summation as a flame-retardant fibre is to fire, and the sculptural installations are incommensurable—diverse materials held together tentatively, in such a way that the meaning of no one thing is subordinate to any other.
In Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation”(1966), she laments the oppressive trendiness of content-based interpretations of an artwork, how they marginalize more sensory and affective experiences. “Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable,”4 Sontag acknowledges, but can easily become formulaic—or worse, run the risk of being “crammed with lame messages about the modern spirit.”5 Sontag pegs interpretation as the vengeful attack of the intellect on art itself, comparing the resultant platitudes to the noxious fumes of automobiles. While conceding that certainly, there is a time and a place for interpretation, she disparagingly describes it as a “thick encrustation”6 that forms around works of art and their makers. Explaining an artwork kills it. Entombs it.
Explaining a joke also kills it. This might be one of the most vital shared concerns between artists and comedians. The polite question “What does it mean?” is verboten in both contexts—confined to being whispered in hushed voices because, however well-intentioned, the explanation is the tolling of the death knell. Written many years before Sontag’s essays, French philosopher Henri Bergson’s treatise Laughter (1911) likewise entertains a concept of crustiness, but in reference to the subject of humour. For Bergson, the comical emerges when “something mechanical is encrusted upon the living.”7 Life, in Bergson’s terms, is supple. It is constantly changing, always unique and imbued with a graceful vitalism. Laughter erupts in moments of “a certain mechanical inelasticity, just where one would expect to find the wide-awake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being.”8 The man who trips and falls is funny because he marched forward robotically, despite the gaping hole before him. As Bergson identifies, the “circumstances of the case called for something else,”9 and knowing that, we laugh.
Harrison’s work is really crusty. The fist-sized wads of hardened spray foam and papier mâché scattered throughout the installation have a mealy texture of some unidentifiable thing you might scrape from the underside of a table. Forms you probably would never notice unless the table were to be violently upturned. The crusty sculptures are funny if only because of how futile it is to try and understand what they mean. In this way, Harrison is plopped between Sontag and Bergson. For Sontag, interpretation hardens around the art object and encases it, and for Bergson, rigid inflexibility is humorous because it is so inhuman. In an almost perverse revelry, Harrison’s assemblages are most comical in the efforts to decipher them.
The installation Should home windows or shutters… is not about the humanitarian crisis of the hurricane, but it literally makes a room in which to think, “What matters in dire circumstances?” As exceptional events, disasters always require a shift in course. Everything becomes subject to change. To put it in Bergson’s words, the circumstances call for something else. As we bumble to adapt and feel our way through the uncertainty, disasters might present the richest and most unusual watersheds of laughter. Rarely do we try to explain or make sense of tragedy, but sometimes we can laugh in its face.