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“There are times when in which reality is so tough, disconcerting, unreasonable and unjust, that it seems as if it is only through parodied representations that one can agitate perceptions and consciences”, wrote Montse Badia in January 2013 and it seems that time has corroborate this assertion. What can do creators to address this untenable situation? One possible strategy is satire. From the photomontages of John Heartfield to the magazine Mongolia, this article that we recuperate today from our archives traces a journey through the distorting mirror of reality,that sometimes goes so far that seems a self-parody.
In the field of branding, “baseline” is the advertising phrase that accompanies the brand in all the media supports used to promote it. Nike’s “Just do it”, Nokia’s “Connecting people”, the “Move your mind” of Saab or Apple’s “Think Different”. In colloquial terms, branding professionals refer to the “baseline” as “vaseline”, that is to say, the lubricant that helps the message “enter”.
In the context of culture, humour, parody and satire can have this “vaseline” effect, enabling authors to criticise facts, situations or questionable systems relentlessly. There are times when in which reality is so tough, disconcerting, unreasonable and unjust, that it seems as if it is only through parodied representations that one can agitate perceptions and consciences. One of these moments was in the convulsive thirties, that gave rise to the political photo-montages of John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld): Adolf Der Übermensch: Schluckt Gold und redet Blech (Adolf, Superman: swallows gold and spouts junk), in which with the help of X rays one sees Hitler’s innards, a pile of golden coins; Goering: Der Henker des Dritten Reichs (Goering, Executioner of the Third Reich) appears caricatured as a butcher or Hurrah, die Butter is alle! (Hurray! The butter is all gone), in which a family sitting around a table have nothing more to eat than bits of metal, in reference to the unfortunate phrase pronounced by Göring during a period of food scarcity, in which he affirmed that iron had always made the nation strong, while butter and lard only made people fat. It wasn´t by chance, that Hurrah, die Butter is Alle! was paid homage to, at an equally critical time, by punk, appearing on the cover of “Mittageisen” by Siouxsie and the Banshees.
The heirs to the photomontages of Heartfield or Jacob Kjeldgaard (who with the pseudonym Marinus realised critical photo-collages for the French newspaper Marianne) are now to be found in the written press, in satirical magazines like El Jueves, Karma Dice, Chralie Hebdo, or, the recently appeared, Mongòlia“a satirical magazine without any message” that is defined itself in a manifesto//declaration, that makes its message quite clear and which includes in each issue the section “Reality News”, with investigative articles (of the serious kind) in which reality exceeds any kind of parody.
In February 2006, Polònia was born on TV3, the regional Catalan television, a programme of political satire, the very name of which used ironically the denomination “polacos”, a derogatory and colloquial term used to refer to Catalans. The current political scene has become such a parody of itself that the programme’s scriptwriters each week find it harder to surpass it. The portrait that Polònia makes of Catalan, Spanish and International society is as precise as it is relentless: Mas style, Obama and Bin Laden at the prow of a boat emulating the mythical scene from the film Titanic, before, oops, Bin Laden falls overboard or the Spanish Minister of Education, Culture and Sport, or Jose Ignacio Wert caricatured as a decrepit and perverse science fiction character, amongst others, configure a universe of caricatures of real people and situations, that function as a distorting mirror on a reality that is already fairly deformed.
But, what about art? Satire, irony or cutting mockery, are some of art’s recourses to criticise or denounce a certain reality. Honoré Daumier made cartoons about the things that he didn´t like, about the society that had to live in. William Hogarth elaborated “modern moral subjects” that were parodies of what he wanted to place in evidence. More recent examples are Dan Perjovschi, who makes drawings that take history as a continuum of events, or David Shrigley, whose drawings allude to allude to the darker aspects of everyday existence. To make his works more accessible, Shrigley has no problem in using any type of channel or format. He is capable of making installations, photographs, sculptures, drawings, books, record covers, posters, tattoos, objects such as salt and pepper pots, interventions in shop windows and public spaces or even bookmarks.
But if we had to look for the equivalent of the Polònia style in contemporary art it could be Maurizio Cattelan, capable of combining sculpture and performance and ridiculing whoever necessary, often transgressive, in relation to the spectator. His little Hitler reduced to kneeling or Pope Juan Pablo II struck by a meteorite are good examples of this and have become recurring images used to illustrate articles in the general press that periodically lances an “original” question, “Is this art?”. So what is the difference? How effective is the strategy? Polònia is television and Cattelan an artist who, though he can work in the public space, is always framed within the art system. Polònia doesn´t have to justify what it does as humour, television or political criticism, while Cattelan often has to justify what he does as art. The critical aspects are discussed afterwards and the humour, the “Vaseline” of humour, can end up being complicated for the complexity and sophistication that, ultimately, form part of the DNA of the art world.