You Cannot Be Serious?

Gavin Butt

A comic recounting of Last Tango in Paris; a magic act; a tongue-in-cheek lecture in a museum; a nightclub light show; an exchange about love in a hotel room; a political drama with swings and knitting; a performance of ‘authentic’ happiness; a waltz: together these things comprise Wild Gift. By turns glamorous, bizarre, overblown, and entertaining, the work in this short live art season explores the relationships between contemporary art practice and genres of performance often dismissed in the name of ‘light entertainment’ such as variety, circus, vaudeville and (perhaps to a lesser degree) burlesque. Invoking the ghosts of performances past, Wild Gift conjures both fantasies of the lowly theatrical smorgasbord of Victorian music hall – of comedy turns, song and dance numbers, the illusionist’s art, etc. – and memories of Jimmy Tarbuck presenting ITV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium in the 1960s and 1970s: “Tonight, live on stage … ”, voices and figures from another time not silenced or stilled by death, nor by the passage of time and custom, but animate and active in the present, living bodies of Wild Gift’s performers. London of another time, ghost city, alive and well in the present. In many ways the work appears of another moment, out of time, an anachronism left over from another era, of a London mythically imbued with a civic, communal spirit now easily romanticised as we commune with others through the remote access of the flat screen interface. Dotted around the city, appearing in a gallery, a museum, a town hall, a cinema, and a hotel, Wild Gift’s artists re-evoke a time of a performance of the people: a diverse, fondly appreciated popular art that enlivened its audiences by making them smile, laugh, cry.

In mining the histories of such delegitimated performance traditions, Wild Gift deliberately embraces the features often deemed responsible for the marginalisation of such forms: over-the-top theatricality; light-hearted jokey styles; the entertaining spectacular; odd-ball and freakish presentations, and the seductiveness of illusion. Indeed, the curators of Wild Gift take a certain kind of traditional theatrical style to be the hallmark of the work in the show, one which is so overblown and excessive to leave it open to charges of triviality, of being simply ‘too much’ to take seriously. Of course there is a long tradition of antitheatrical prejudice in the West, dating back to Plato’s remarks in his Republic, which might underpin such dismissive attitudes to this work, and to theatricality more generally and pejoratively conceived. 1 More recently, however, in the 1960s and 1970s, it is avant–garde artists themselves who have looked unkindly upon the illusionism of traditional theatre, and the make-believe personas of professional acting, in favour of an art which instead turned its attentions to the blurring of the boundaries between performance and the real. From the postmodern dance of the Judson School, to masochistic body art, this work has enjoyed something of a critical and museological celebration in the last decade or so. From the work of established performance scholars to e.g. the Tate Gallery’s recent interest in performance, this work has been taken seriously by dint of the evident time and attention lavished upon it in numerous publications and exhibitions (such critical and institutional canonisation means that it would be very difficult now for anybody to suggest, or suggest in the same way as they did back in the early 1990s, that such performance work be deemed the “the runt of litter of contemporary art” by dint of its resistance to capitalist reproduction). 2 ‘Serious attention’ was always what such work sought out in its audiences anyway – even if it didn’t always receive it. In flirting with the artist’s own mortality, body art of the 1970s often appeared sober if not sombre, almost literally grave in its presentation of near-deathly bodily tableau. Wild Gift, on the other hand, embodies a different mode of address to its spectators/participants, unashamedly exploiting the seductive power of humour and levity, of unreality, artifice and surface. As ‘art’ – since Wild Gift self-consciously presents itself as an art show – it deliberately runs the risk of not being taken seriously, and therefore it finds itself aligned instead with an alternative performance art tradition, one which – as the late Ian Breakwell has pointed out – has already entered into a dialogue with the purportedly trivial forms of popular art. 3 From the absurdist elements of Dada performance and the theatre of the absurd, to trashy performances in U.S. underground film, to the arty vaudeville of Rose English and London queer club Duckie, Wild Gift showcases how this tradition continues to be developed by a younger generation of artists in the contemporary moment.

But even if – in so many ways – Wild Gift harks back to multifarious performances past, it is also very much of its own time, “our” time, the time of the now. This, lest you need to be reminded, is a time of war. Few things are more serious than war and death. One might think that in the face of the momentous import of the war in Iraq, or genocide in Darfur, that such playful, light-hearted work as collected together under the auspices of Wild Gift might seem improper, and that a solemn, earnest art is called for. But, on the other hand, Wild Gift might give us pause to think about the value and currency that we attach to sincerity and serious attention in contemporary culture. In particular in the wake of the Iraq war, and with so many earnest pronouncements on the moral case for the war from George Bush and Tony Blair, we may be reaching a point at which the very register of the earnest and sincere comes to look increasingly dubious and unreliable. As the performance writer Ann Pelligrini has put it, within contemporary mainstream political discourse in the West “nudge-nudge wink-wink has become business as usual”. 4 Even as our political leaders insist that they are telling the truth, it is evident to most that such a profession of sincerity is cynical, that theirs is a performance of truth-telling, of sincere lying even, which we have come to associate as the modus operandi of contemporary politics. This might lead us to desire something other than the purportedly earnest or sincere, to turn away from such self-sanctified statements of moral seriousness and to find cultural engagement in those forms which address us differently, which take themselves less seriously, which may be more trivialising and playful.
Perhaps impersonating the purring of a cat and pretending to lick milk from an ageing actress’ hand, as well as prancing around in a skin-tight red leotard on a reality TV show, may present something of a less serious mode of contemporary political behaviour. Perhaps George Galloway’s surprising appearance on Big Brother recently (for it is he I am referring to here), when understood as a strategic attempt on behalf of his Respect party to appeal to a younger generation, bespeaks an urgent need to reformulate the speaking of the political outside of its customary sober and earnest frames of reference. The questions his televisual tomfoolery, and the negative media responses to it, pose are: What would an alternative political culture be like if it were to embrace – rather than decisively reject – the distinctly ‘non-serious’ antics of Galloway on Big Brother? How might the business of political exchange be transformed if the political class took itself less seriously and if we, the people, saw in our democratic representatives less stalwart and upstanding persons of exemplary citizenship, and instead identified with them, and valued them affectionately, as part jesters and buffoons?

These are the kinds of questions which Wild Gift asks at the level of contemporary art practice. The exhibition/season is clearly not without some clowning of its own, the artists variously undertaking similar comic and amusing antics which both overlap with, and depart from, those of Galloway. These antics form Wild Gift’s troublesome address to what we might call, after Michel Foucault, the ‘technologies’ of serious attention. Such technologies habitually identify the objects we take to be worthy of serious attention, as well as the appropriate attitudes and modes of address which comprise such attention. By attending to such objects with sombre or earnest regard then, for instance, or by expending effort and attention in evaluating and interpreting works of art, we reiterate power in, and as, a technology of serious attention. The work in Wild Gift variously troubles this reproduction of power. However, it does not do this in terms of any simple revalorisation i.e. it does not simply ask us to take seriously that which has been hitherto cast aside or relegated as the trivial or insubstantial, it does not suggest that those genres and styles marginalised by serious culture should now be latterly appreciated as ‘good’; nor does it suggest that light, entertaining art is, in actual fact, ‘deep’. Rather the work in Wild Gift jams the smooth functioning of serious technologies by dint of its unserious levity, by flirting with serious subjects and issues without ever appearing to be fully ‘committed’ to them. It flirts with the dangers of not being taken seriously by wallowing in the entertaining pleasures of the light-hearted and the artificial. If anything it is, paradoxically, more committed to flirtation than to being ‘serious’ in any received understanding of the term. And, as Adam Phillips has suggested, since “people tend to flirt only with serious things – madness, disaster, other people”, it may be in this that Wild Gift offers us a new relationship to the serious. 5 It plays with our commitments and convictions, realigns us in an odd relation to serious issues and forms of attention without getting us to finally turn our backs upon them, appearing in the process, and in some absurd way, as oddly serious or even queerly earnest in its approach to its subjects. To say this might not be very funny, but it nevertheless suggests something of Wild Gift’s peculiar brand of mischievous seriousness, and how its sends the question of what, and how, we take something to be of importance spinning on its axis.

1 See Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1981.
2 Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, London and New York, 1993, p. 148.
3 See Mike Sperlinger’s interview with Breakwell at
4 Ann Pelligrini and I will be chairing a session, ‘Camp Sincerity’, exploring some of these issues at the annual Performance Studies International conference at Queen Mary College, London, June 15–18 2006.
5 Adam Phillips, On Flirtation, Faber and Faber, London, 1994, p. xvii.

Dr Gavin Butt is the Senior Lecturer & Programme Leader for the MPhil / PhD Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Commissioned by Wild Gift