22 Jun Young South Africa: Mitchell Gilbert Messina | The Art of Humour
Stuck II, Stevenson’s Cape Town RAMP (2015)
Mitchell Gilbert Messina is a young artist based in Cape Town whose work reflects the world around him in a playful way. Using his sharp sense of humour and keen eye for irony, he has honed the craft of using minimal effort to create art that’s as fun as it is clever. Whether through sculpture, video or performance, his work is always about making more with less – a valuable skill that should not be underestimated. His research methods are just as refreshing. Basically, he observes idiosyncrasies, jots them down and then waits for the right time to turn these into art.
Next up in our annual Young South Africa series we chat to Mitchell about making artful jokes, what he has been working on recently and what it’s like being a young artist in South Africa now.
Is becoming an artist something you’ve always thought about? What influenced your decision to become one.
Ah man, ok, this is a bit heavy:
I think the major influence was spending four years and a lot (and I mean a lot) of money studying art. It was something I was privileged enough to do, and is something I’m privileged enough to pursue, and I’m incredibly grateful about all of that. I’m not entirely sure art was something I’ve always wanted to do, I think I could draw kind of well in primary school, and because that ability showed some vague inkling of promise I was given opportunity after opportunity to develop it on a primary, secondary, and tertiary level. I think everyone likes allegorical tales and mono myths, but I think realistically. I just got given a bunch of chances on a silver platter and managed to not squander all of them.
What inspires, influences and informs your work at the moment?
Matthew King. If any of my work exists it is solely because Matthew King has willed it into existence. But sometimes Matthew King is busy, so I’ll just talk it over with someone else. I think a lot of my good friends are great at entertaining hypothetical ideas and fleshing out an idea for joke’s sake, and usually I just keep an ear out and make a note on my phone and then wait for them to forget, and then I make it. Sometimes I tell them, and they’re sort of proud that I was willing to immortalise something they’d said a week ago and had forgotten about. I mean I think a lot of the work I make has the rushed and stupid quality of a bad idea scribbled on a napkin, and that’s because they usually are.
But with regard to actual research, a few weeks back I was watching a bunch of Buster Keaton clips, and then I started watching a bunch of Jackass clips, and then Johnny Knoxville started talking about how before Jackass he was watching a lot of Buster Keaton clips - so I guess that’s a good story.
At the end of 2014 you had a solo show titled MITCHY which was quite humorous in nature. What were you trying to communicate through this body of work?
Ok, alright, so the thing is, no one’s ever actually asked me about MITCHY, which means this is going to be six months of waiting to talk about that show condensed into a single answer:
Basically, Jnr. approached me about putting a show together. It reached a point where it was actually going to happen, where the talking shifted from vague email correspondence to a table at Clarke’s with Rose Mudge and James King, and shit flying a little too close to the fan. After that meeting there was a crazy rush to put a show together in, like, two weeks. It was their first show, and my first solo show, so we were all throwing ourselves in the deep end together which was great. They were incredibly accommodating, I had studied with Rose, so I think she was aware of my process - a lot of shots in the dark, of lot of throwing things against the wall to see what sticks, a lot of winging it, a lot of terms that romanticise being unorganised and not sure what you’re doing.
I started with a lot of planned out sculptures made of clay or plaster or wood, but by the end of it I was just buying objects from the hardware store and breaking them and giving them funny titles. I think at that point I’d been dabbling with the idea of minimal effort, but I really honed the craft of minimal effort with MITCHY. At the time I was thinking a lot about making jokes with work. The problem with these well thought out joke sculptures was that sometimes I would spend ages making them and they just wouldn’t be funny, and in part they wouldn’t be funny because they reeked of all this effort and time put into this very stupid light throw-away joke. So I started trying to make these works as light as possible, just strong enough to carry a joke, so it read more like a witty quip made on the fly, and not like this laboured open letter.
So this rushed quality of the show, which I don’t think I would’ve got with a more established gallery, was perfect because it forced me to be quick on my feet. It extended beyond the work too, we needed a name for the show to get into Art Week’s calendar, and we had like an hour because Art Week was getting the calendar print ready or something, so I said let’s call it MITCHY because I couldn’t think of anything less serious. Then they needed a photo of the show and nothing was done yet so we sent through my graduation photo because I was like “this is a funny image to encapsulate a show, right?” A week later I took a screenshot of the show on the Art Week website and I thought it was hilarious, in a terrifying nerve-wracking kind of way. Also, I was cycling around like crazy, and running on steam, and at some point (at three points in quick succession), I fell off my bike, and just messed up my hands.
So I was in the studio with my hands all bandaged up, nagging Marianne Law who was helping me (by making a large majority of the work) to tell me what to do. I think by the last day everyone was a bit worried about whether the show would come together in time, so I had a bunch of friends who sort of came through early just to help finish setting up. It was great and it all worked out. So yeah, I guess I was just trying to be funny and smart with the whole body of work. My favourite work was putting a strobe light in the apartment across the road (I live across the road), that you could see from the show, and calling it “I’d rather be in my room listening to techno, but instead I have to be at my stupid solo show” (2014). But then I locked myself out of my apartment after setting it up, and I think a lot of people thought it was one of the works, but I was just bummed out trying to get a locksmith’s number off everyone at the show.
O RLY?, ‘MITCHY’ at JNR Gallery (2014)
Your recent work is largely performance based. What about this medium appeals to you?
Without being too disparaging, I think what I’m doing now and what I did at Stevenson for their RAMP project just barely constitutes performance. I mean, I think performance is an incredible medium, but I was just aping its language and structures to proliferate a bunch of works on a small budget. But the medium’s appeal was basically its ability to highlight the gesture. I think figuring out how to convey that in sculpture was a giant leap and then I started thinking about how it would work in other mediums. Stevenson offered me the RAMP and I had this idea of placing a treadmill on the ramp and running on it for the six weeks I had the space. I thought it was kind of funny because no matter how much effort I exerted I’d never quite enter the gallery, I’d be perpetually stuck just outside the gallery trying to get in.
The logistics of doing the performance bogged me down a bit; what do I wear, how much do I run, how often do I do it, can I enter the space to use the bathroom, will I be very sweaty all the time, etc. So I realised it would be easier, neater and cleaner if this whole thing was an image, if I just had a photograph of me running and a title that conveyed the work. Me talking about the idea was almost enough, and that me ‘faking it’ and having documentation was almost more than enough. So basically I got my good friend Phillipus Johan to follow me around with a camera, and we’d just photograph these weird actions, give them a lofty title, and then present them as documentation of a performance. I didn’t ever do the treadmill work because I spent the budget they gave me on a new bicycle, but they gave me a lot of space and support so I could flesh this idea out a bit.
You have an upcoming solo presentation at Whatiftheworld, titled Nobody Will Suspect A Thing. Please share with us what inspired this piece.
I’d been watching these videos of a young Chevy Chase falling on SNL, and it was some very good falling. Like, Bas Jan Ader falls with this kind of prolonged and pained sincerity, but Chase falls with this hammed up physical gag humour I aspired to emulate. I guess, I was also thinking about a way of conveying things going wrong. There’s that scene in Mr.Bean where he just smudges Whistler’s Mother beyond recognition in an attempt to fix his initial blunder. It’s actually a really good scene, a very desperate and dire one.
So continuing the line of thought I had with the Stevenson RAMP, I thought it’d be funny to have a video where I accidentally destroyed a show after setting it up. The show would then be put back together really badly, and have the video in the space providing context to the viewer. I’d made this sculpture for MITCHY called Vague Sculptural Object which was formally based on these squiggles I’d draw as placeholders for sculptures when I was coming up with works. So, if I had an idea for a work where, let’s say, a plinth was being shot into the air, the sculpture on the plinth was largely unimportant, so I’d make a squiggle signifying that there’d be a sculpture there later. It wasn’t essentially a joke.
Whatiftheworld liked these sculptures, and it sort of made sense to have a show filled with them because they wouldn’t be too distracting in the video. So I made the sculptures, these beautiful elegant vague sculptural objects, and then manoeuvred a ladder through the space and broke all of them, and then put them together the day before the show with some really messy glue and got them repainted. So they were these sort of shoddy objects that made sense after you watched the video. They looked nothing like the originals, they kept breaking when I tried to put them back together and wouldn’t stay up, so the final versions were these squat sculptures kept together with a lot of glue. A friend said he thought it was a nice touch that the room smelled like paint and glue on the opening night, and I tried to play it off as a deliberate decision, but we both knew I was lying.
Vague Sculptural Object, ‘MITCHY’ at JNR Gallery (2014)
Nobody Will Suspect A Thing, ‘New Voices 01’ at Whatiftheworld (2015)
Your work has changed quite a lot in the past few years. How does the work you make reflect what you’re feeling or experiencing at the time?
Not too much, I think I just kind of revisit this stockpile of bad ideas and hope some of them have gotten good. I think I sat on Pizza, Pizza, Pizza for like a year and a half before I even tested it. I think sometimes, because these jokes are so easy, I’m just kind of waiting for a good time to tell them.
What are some of the the challenges faced by young artists like yourself in South Africa now?
Finding studio spaces, finding project spaces, finding parking spaces, carrying something with a large surface area in the wind, paying rent, installing an adsl line, maintaining friendships with people who move, getting specks of paint out of clothes, getting things to dry on a schedule, getting bubble wrap to not stick to something that isn’t dry but has to be transported, applying for residencies, getting a tax number, seeing a message without notifying the other person that you’ve seen it, eating a nutritious meal, dust, letting the work talk for itself, then telling the work when it should shut up, missing the last bus, asking for favours, calling it a day, memorising wifi passwords, hanging in there, remembering which day they take the garbage away, trying to transport a fridge, not ripping the paper when you remove the masking tape, parallel parking, getting rid of the smell, cleaning rollers after use, trying to put up a shelf so it doesn’t tip forward, recovering files off the hard drive, turning off the lights when you’re done, keeping regular hours, assuring everyone it’s all going according to plan, assuring yourself it’s all going according to plan.
Who are the other young creatives to keep an eye on?
(In alphabetical order)
Aaron, Aaron, Adam, Alex, Alex, Alex, Alexia, Alexis, Ali, Amber, Amie, Amy, Andile, Andrew, Andrew, Andy, Andy, Anees, Angelo, Angus, Anke,Anton, Anton, Antonia, Bella, Ben, Bonolo, Caitie, Ceil, Chloe, Chris, Chris, Claire, Claire, Clem, Dada, Daniel, Daniel, Daniella, Dylan, Dylan, Dylan, Ed, Emmelie, Erin, Eugienie, Fabienne, Fani, Fanie, Gareth, Geoff, Gitte, Haroon, Heinrich, Helen, Herman, Hugh, Ian, Inga, Jabu, Jake, James, James, James, Jared, Jared, Jess, Jess, Joana, Jody, Jody, John, Jon, Jonathan, Joost, Josh, Josh, Joshua, Julia, Justin, Kabelo, Kalo, Kat, Kat, Kate, Katlego, Khanya, Kim, Kirsten, Kyla, Kyle, Kyle, Laura, Lauren, Lawrence, Lebo, Leila, Linda, Louis, Louwrens, Lucienne, Luke, Marc, Marianne, Marion, Martin, Marvin, Matt, Matthew, Matthew, Matthew, Mawande, Megan, Mia, Mia, Mia, Michaela, Miranda,Mohato, Molly, Morgan, Morne, Nico, Nicola, Nicolaas, Nicoletta, Patrick, Philippus, Raees, Rafi, Rob, Rob, Roberto, Robyn, Robyn, Rory, Rosie, Rowan, Roxy, Ru, Rudi, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Sebastian, Simphiwe, Siya, Skye, Tess, Thomas, Thomas, Tiago, Trish, Unathi, Wayde, Xhanti.
If you could pass on a single piece of advice to your generation, what would it be?
Ah man, I’m not sure that’s even necessary. A while back when #RhodesMustFall was gaining momentum, I guess I was struck by this sudden burst of voices coming from truly remarkable people, all peers, about intersectional politics and transformation, and I just sort of felt like as long as these people are part of my generation, it’s all in good hands because they’re all really really smart and self-aware and fresh. I think they’ve all got it under control, I don’t think anyone needs blanket advice from me.
What would you like to be known for?
Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Follow Mitchell’s work on his Tumblr.
Foot in the Door, Stevenson’s Cape Town RAMP (2015)
Stuck, Stevenson’s Cape Town RAMP (2015)
Stuck III, Stevenson’s Cape Town RAMP (2015)
Getting Down, Stevenson’s Cape Town RAMP (2015)
Production Budget, Stevenson’s Cape Town RAMP (2015)
I had to be very careful during the revolution because I was wearing flip flops, ‘MITCHY’ at JNR Gallery (2014)
My parents said I was less likely to kill a stock photo, ‘MITCHY’ at JNR Gallery (2014)
It just lost its spirit and now it gets up at noon everyday, ‘MITCHY’ at JNR Gallery (2014)
I was told it would wear itself out, ‘MITCHY’ at JNR Gallery (2014)
And it seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the 34-40% Mono Ammonium Phosphate Base, ‘MITCHY’ at JNR Gallery (2014)