Miriam Elia is a comedian and visual artist whose work has ranged from radio sketches to art installations, books to Channel 4 shorts. She talks to Rob Fred Parker about merging high and low art and why she’s moving away from stand up…
The idea that art and comedy are completely exclusive is limiting. Dadaism is complete comedy, after all. I began stand-up when I graduated from Royal College of Art, and my material was mainly about the humourlessness and lack of meaning in conceptual art. I found a lot of it was designed to baffle people; if an artist finds meaning in their work, it doesn't matter that no one else does. Whereas I think comedy is about communication, and actively seeking to engage with others.
I wanted to challenge the supposed division between “high” and “low” art with my first installation. That’s why I presented I Fell in Love... as a mocked-up entry in a trash mag. It was inspired by all these feelings about conceptual art, as well as a relationship I’d just had [with Turner Prize-winner, Martin Creed]. These ideas carried into the Peter and Jane prints that featured in I Did it by My Own, where a young boy and girl try to make sense of the contemporary art they find in a gallery.
Venues definitely feed into the context of an exhibition. It felt fitting to place I Fell in Love... in a church, since it was about a search for meaning. For the launch of I Did it By My Own at the Cob Gallery, we had stand-up Tom Allen perform. We had no beer, no special lighting, just him performing in the corner of the exhibition, but that didn’t detract from the performance at all. It reasserted how bizarre it is to think that art and comedy can’t overlap or interact.
I’ve gradually moved away from performance. With stand-up, you’re looking for laugh after laugh, and I realised that I’m not obsessed with getting an instant reaction, and that I like making things which have a life of their own. Humour will always be in my work, but not necessarily the sole function of a piece.
I collaborate a lot, but usually on my original idea. I’ve only ever come up with something from scratch with my brother, Ezra. He’s gifted with words, and I provide the visuals, which is how we made ...Edward the Hamster. I’ve contributed to comedy shows before, with comedians like Arthur Smith, but I get more satisfaction from my own projects. Maybe I’m selfish or even a control freak, but I value authorship.
An idea will generally arrive as an image in my head, often just before sleep. I usually know instantly what medium I want to realise it in, but sometimes I work on something for ages, get stuck, then try it in a different medium and it all clicks into place. Something I say to young artists is that you can’t just sit and wait for inspiration to strike. It takes a lot of hard work and searching to find the right idea, but you have to be patient.
Survival began when I scripted a short with my brother, bought a rabbit costume, and made it off my own back. I then made a second about a caterpillar with producer Bob Pipe. I showed these to lots of comedy people, but I think they were deemed a bit strange. Eventually Channel 4 discovered them and commissioned a series of five as part of Random Acts, a platform for artists to make films. Channel 4 have asked me to write some long-form films off the back of them. They’re the first films I’ve directed, but I feel I’ve grown as an artist because of that challenge. Although I’m not sure I’ve grown into a butterfly just yet...
I spend half my time on my own projects, and the rest on commercial design and illustrations. The commercial work doesn’t require me to be spontaneous, so I can get on with it between projects. I inherited an interest in design from my Dad, an abstract artist and designer, and the commercial work has certainly benefited my own art – for instance, I designed ...Edward The Hamster myself. The book has been sold to five countries, and I'm developing a series of five short works for the publishers, Macmillan, which is keeping me busy right now.
Watch Random Acts on the Channel 4 website.
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