Australian artist Tania Smith gave a talk on her body of largely performance-based work at the Ateneo Art Gallery last September 30. During her Funny and Feminist: Performing the Comic Anti-Hero talk at the art gallery, she brought to the fore her method of utilising humour to make statements on the experience of being a woman. She zones in on her Untitled (domestic gestures) series, which she used to give context to her work as well as to explain the thought processes that underpin them.
Smith is a Melbourne-based artist who has exhibited widely in Australia and has been a finalist for art and photography awards, such as the Sunshine Coast Art Prize and the Maggie Diaz Photography Prize for Women, among others.
Smith began by explaining that her work often traverses “humour, feminism, cinematic slapstick, failure, utility, [and recently] object-relations or the thingness of objects”. She also makes use of costumes to subvert her own appearance for her work. She named numerous questions that underlie her work, which all primarily ask how the feminist subject can be performed and perceived in public spaces.
She also presented the numerous performance-based artists that influence her art. On using her body as the subject of her work, she posits that performance fits in nicely with the “post-medium tradition due to its immateriality.” The post-medium tradition is one concerned with conceptual art and its capacity to go against the notion of art to be immortal. It is an awareness of the art piece or performance having the dimensions of being temporal and time-based.
Throughout the talk, Smith screened videos of her performance artworks and explained her decision to perform acts that are considered mundane—familiar experiences that govern everyone’s daily lives.
Through her work, she attempts to poke at and even change their meanings through acts of public repetition. According to Smith, in Untitled (domestic gestures), “Repetitious gestures are performed and exhibited in public space as a part of a larger narrative, investigating women’s relationship to household labour.” Repetition is also used in the works as an “expression of futility” and a “generative force.”
Smith defended her use of humour as a method of feminist inquiry. It acts as a means to address seemingly absurd situations, she said. She draws from Henri Bergson, specifically his essay Laughter: an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic and acknowledges his notion of laughter as a social activity in order to get a bonding experience with the viewer of the performance and as a method to deal with a breakdown of social order. To illustrate this, she showed Untitled #8 of her domestic gestures series in which she is depicted as initially seated at the top of a hill on a sunny day, but is then disrupted from her mundanity. The disruption of the familiar and sceninc in her works, she claimed, illustrate the Freudian dimension of her works as containing both sense and nonsense.
Smith also talked about where she drew the term “comic anti-hero” from. She said that according to philosopher Simon Critchley, philosophy has focused too much on the tragic and on finitude and that it was not always this way. This is what Smith reiterates as she takes Critchley’s coinage of the term “comic anti-heroic” as a character that laughs at the impossibility of death as a subject and direction for her art, exposing the viewer to one who “laughs at the ridiculousness of our own existence.”
Ultimately, she presents her works, in all their humour, as a way to present the elevation and liberation of women as well as the societal concept of what makes a woman, a woman. She believes that humor is undervalued and is a viable tool for social change, especially to emancipate people from the weight of human finitude.
On the state of performance art today, especially in light of photography and film technology that is able to capture the supposedly temporal experience, Smith believes that it needs to evolve. She claims not to have any qualms with re-performance. “I’m a performance artist and I’m working a lot with performances for camera [and for the screen]. Marina Abramović [a renowned Serbian performance artist] very wisely set up an institute looking at re-performance, because otherwise it’s lost. It’s funny how [performance art] moves.”
Report by Corinne Garcia
Photos by Kaela Malig