Tom Sutcliffe: The luxurious nature of whimsy

The week in culture

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I found myself thinking about the low status of whimsy the other day. The place was the Hayward Gallery, which is currently hosting the funniest art exhibition I've been to for some time, David Shrigley: Brain Activity. The precise time was when I found myself standing next to the artist/cartoonist/provocateur as he gave an interview to a journalist at the press view. He was describing (I think) the libretto for an opera he staged recently called Pass the Spoon, which features a manic-depressive egg and a character called Mr Granules. Those details I turned up later, but what he sketched out at the time was a work that included articulate vegetables and a surreally comical version of a television cookery show. And I was immediately reminded of the first episode of Noel Fielding's new television series Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy, which featured, among many other things, an animated chocolate finger who seemed to have the character of an aggrieved PE teacher ("You see I can be a character like Mr Clasby too. I can shine!") and an American detective called Sergeant Raymond Boombox who engages in bantering conversation with a wise-cracking knife wound on his arm. It struck me that there is something quite Fielding-esque about Shrigley's imagination or, possibly, something Shrigley-esque in Fielding's comedy. Their world is skewed in similar ways and, as it happens, they both share a similarly cack-handed drawing style.

It wasn't a securely flattering comparison, even though Noel Fielding can make me laugh a lot. For one thing Shrigley's presence at the Hayward isn't just meant to be some kind of elaborate joke. It's meant to associate him with artists like Martin Creed (directly alluded to in one of Shrigley's pieces) and Damien Hirst – with the creation of conceptual art, not comedy. With a few brave exceptions, contemporary art has an uneasy relationship with the humorous, one of the problems being that a giggle can so easily get out of hand. At one moment you're laughing with the artist; at the next, horror of horrors, you might be laughing at him (or her) and you might never recover the requisite solemnity again. But the real problem here, I think, was whimsy – a kind of humour that has public image problems of its own.

Noel Fielding's new comedy is inescapably whimsical – if you mean by that, capricious in its inventions and logic. Part of the point of it is its zany fecundity – the fact that you simply can't predict at any moment what will crop up next. But that's also one of its weaknesses, since pretty much nothing is inadmissable. I've even heard fellow comedians get testy about the style, parodying the burbling chain of nonsense that emerges when its practitioners are on song. And it isn't that it doesn't make you laugh, more that you can't quite work out why you did once you've stopped.

Some of Shrigley's work is vulnerable to a charge of mere whimsy. Indeed there is work here that would specifically fit the definition of "whimsies" (in the Oxford Englsh Dictionary as "a small object made by a glass-maker or potter for his own amusement"), notably a large gathering of insect-like little biomorphs made out of welded steel. Some of them are just a whisker away from the kind of fantastical creature you might find in a Cornish gift shop, destined to ornament (pointlessly) a blamelessly uncluttered space.

Even Shrigley's working practice, an eight-hour day in which he just draws whatever comes into his head, seems designed to generate the whimsical – a frisky, goat-capering of the mind which has no sooner finished one drawing before it is on to the next unrelated one. But the difference here is that there is a residue. One of Shrigley's whimsies is a monumental one – a granite gravestone inscribed, in gilded letters, with the contents of a shopping list.

It's a good joke, that unexpected meeting of the temporary and the notionally permanent, but it is something else besides. There's something about it that captures the banality of everyday life, but also a terrifying suggestion that this is what we might eventually amount to; a list of the ingredients that went into us.

Noel Fielding doesn't need defending against whimsy. He only means to make us laugh. I don't think Shrigley really needs it either, because in the end he does make us think.

Do ebooks die when you face the final page?

Jonathan Franzen doesn't much care for ebooks, going so far as to suggest this week that they might be incompatible with democratic values. The general consensus, even among more conservative readers, seemed to be that he'd got himself into a bit of a tizzy. But his attack on digital texts did remind me of a question I had about my own growing Kindle library. Will I be able to pass it on to my heirs, in the way that libraries have always been passed on to heirs or friends throughout history? After all, when I buy a print copy of a book I don't expect that my children will be prevented from reading it after I die – or from taking an interest in the passages I've underlined (or electronically annotated).

I sent an email to Amazon to ask them to clarify and so far they've sent me four emails back, the first expressing understanding of my concern and promising to get back to me and the next three (all identical) assuring me that the query is "still being investigated". I'm beginning to suspect they don't really want to answer this question at all because when I looked at the Terms and Conditions myself it seemed absolutely straightforward. "Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider", it reads, and then adds that you "may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign" any rights to a third party. This would suggest that if you want freehold on a book you have to buy it in hard-cover. If I'm wrong, perhaps "Earth's Most Consumer-Centric Company" could send me a fifth email.

A wee warning for theatre-goers

I seem to remember once going to see a production of Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore in Stratford at which audience members sitting on the front row were offered pakamacs, so bloody was the action. Only if you were a couple of rows back could you be absolutely sure that you were beyond splatter range. More conventionally, the front row always exposes you to the danger of a light sprinkling of "actoplasm" – Nigel Planer's brilliant coinage for the salivary excess that sometimes accompanies more vigorous performances. But until the other night I hadn't yet seen front-row theatre-goers flinching away from an oncoming rivulet of urine. It happened in Lucy Bailey's new production of The Taming of the Shrew, after Katherine has demonstrated the extent of her rage by deliberately wetting herself in front of Petruchio. I take it that the "urine" is fake and entirely innocuous, but it didn't stop the disgust reflex kicking in for some as it set off down the rake towards them. The moment itself, incidentally, is brilliant – a shocking measure of Katherine's extremity and a curious kind of challenge to Petruchio. When it happens you see a kind of admiration dawn on his face at just how far his opponent is prepared to go. But if you're in A33 or A34 you might just want to take a pair of galoshes.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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