It’s not often you meet someone willing to divulge their secrets to a stranger but Miriam Elia is different. She wears her heart on her sleeve and plasters her diary on to gallery walls, and – unlike others – she does not rely on abstraction to protect herself for a moment. Her best known work, “I fell in love with a conceptual artist and it was totally meaningless”, was as brazenly honest as Tracey Emin’s tent installation. An ode to her relationship with Martin Creed, it is a demonstration of her disaffection with – and amusement at – the world of modern art. In the mock Take
A Break magazine article she details the highs and lows of falling in love and having your heart broken by a conceptual artist. At the same time, she pokes fun at the gap between supposed high and low culture, and the squeamish art fans who demand a familiar balance of intimacy and distance with artists, something that is conspicuous by its absence in her work.
Trying to pigeonhole Miriam Elia as a comedian or an artist is to miss the point. Her work is about the place of humour in art, and the parallels between comedy and art as forms of expression, laced with glimpses of her own complicated relationship with the two. “I react against myself. I go down one route and then the minute I become accepted I completely reject it. I’m sure if I do well in the art world, I’ll fuck that up the wall and go back to stand-up comedy.” Sweet, open, and a little hyper, Miriam met with The Hunger to enlighten us on her tumultuous last few years, finding hilarity in art and working in the serious business of comedy.
The Hunger: What made you make the transition from the Royal College of Art into comedy?
Miriam Elia: I became quite disillusioned with empty rooms, wine and cheese, private views – the emptiness of a lot of contemporary art, where I just felt things didn’t really mean anything any more – it was waffle. I wanted to elicit some big reaction to something. I’d always wanted to get into comedy since I was a kid, and eliciting a reaction as big as laughter in a comedy club felt like an actual indication that you were communicating. I went to a comedy club in Chalk Farm and did a ten minute set. A lot of it was about me hating artists. People laughed. I don’t think anyone at the Royal College of Art understood what I was doing. As far as they were concerned, I’d run off and joined the circus.
What was your comedy like at that time?
In a strange way, a lot of comedy is about hate and anger because that is what makes people funny.
A lot of my anger and hate was aimed at art because I’d grown up in this artistic family. I spent four or five nights a week gigging, telling jokes about my frustrations with art – I honestly believed I hated artists and that comedy had saved me – but later on, when it wasn’t going as smoothly, I started to question my own angle. At the beginning, I made a big impact very quickly in the comedy world, going on the BBC. I thought, ‘This is what I am, I’m a comedian, no question about it.’ But sometimes you just do things, and don’t consider why you’re doing them, and then something hits you and you look back.
You mentioned that both your parents are painters. How much do they fuel your art or your comedy?
A lot of what was fuelling my anger was my parents’ own anger. They met at the Royal College of Art in the 70s – my dad was a designer and a painter and my mum was purely a painter – and then Carel Weight, who was head of painting and had discovered Hockney among others, left. A new head came in who was really anti-painting. My mother said that she went in one day and they were throwing out the easels and saying, ‘Drawing is dead, painting is dead, you don’t need to look at the world any more; it’s about creating conceptual masterpieces.’ That had a huge impact on my mother because suddenly her career was over, a whole generation of painters were just told that they were out of date. So, growing up, there were recollections of painters who were fucked off with conceptualism, saying, ‘This is just a shallow joke, this is hollow.’ There were no paintings in the galleries anymore, just a big empty space with a model on the floor. I think I took on a lot of my mother’s anger at conceptual art, because I’m her daughter and you often end up spouting what your parents say. Getting into comedy was a way of expressing these ideas without telling my mother, ‘I think I’m a conceptual artist.’
Read more of our exclusive interview in Issue Two of The Hunger, on sale now.