Reinventing the Sitcom: TV Art and Meaning

The 2010 IKEA Seattle catalog offers many moments of advice on developing my identity by purchasing furniture:

“‘You’ is the secret ingredient that gives your home that little something extra.”

“Everyone can do their own thing…together.”

“Change in a wink.”

Here, we are offered an opportunity for self-improvement and affirmation. Separated from the catalog, these words appear more like estranged versions of personal advice.  If one were to follow IKEA’s life suggestions, the acquisition of some of the least unique objects in the world will somehow provide answers to the larger questions of self.

When reviewed critically, the words of IKEA’s sales pitch, like so many advertising campaigns, reflects a disconnected relationship between words and meaning: the store offers identity but only sells cheap, mass-produced furniture. A similar disjointedness is also at the forefront of Guy Ben-Ner‘s satirical Stealing Beauty, currently on view at Western Bridge. Filmed in various IKEA stores around the world, the work’s “situations” include brief moments in which the artist’s family plays a re-envisioned form of the sitcom family; the Ben-Ners disperse an unconventional set of morals focused on the role of the family in terms of property and productivity. At times, the phrases they speak evoke the IKEA catalog’s own mantras of identity and consumption.

Guy Ben-Ner. Stealing Beauty (excerpt). 2007.

When watching an actual sitcom, there is a tendency to passively absorb the characters, situations and dialogue because television most often prioritizes entertainment value over content.  Ben-Ner’s “characters” do not behave and speak as one would expect in a conventional comedy; instead of going through the situation/conflict/final moral cycle, the artist, his wife and his children exchange Marxist questions, often without any form of resolution.  When all of them speak, there is a feeling of overt scripting and over-acting that creates a rift between the people speaking and what is said.  This effect inspires active viewing of the work.  Because we are so accustomed to the look and feel of television, particularly the highly formulaic sitcom genre, a deviation from expectations is an immediate reason to pay attention and reconsider the images on the screen. This separation is ultimately one between signifier and signified meaning, as the artist employs typically benign vehicles (television and IKEA) to question issues related to capitalist society.

When I came upon Keys to Our Heart by Kalup Linzy at Prospect.1 (who just launched their new website counting down to Prospect.2), I recall experiencing a similar, albeit more dramatic, effect to that of viewing Stealing Beauty.   Although Keys to Our Heart includes more visual cues derived from Hollywood films (black and white medium, a period feel, elaborate costuming and sets), elements from the artist’s earlier body of work with the soap opera television genre (over-acting, archetypal character figures) also appear.

Kalup Linzy. Keys to Our Heart (excerpt) 2008.

Like Ben-Ner’s sitcom, Linzy’s work also utilizes a divide between dialogue and meaning; however, the latter’s rift is most apparent from the artist’s inclusion and manipulation of his own voice, ultimately using it for all characters.  Keys to Our Heart was installed in a crowded gallery of multiple high-impact works at the New Orleans Museum of Art during Prospect.1; yet, many, including myself, were drawn to the cacophony of the spoken dialogue and the way the words being spoken were out of sync with the actors “speaking” them.  In contrast to Ben-Ner’s piece, Linzy’s video is a societal critique more focused on identity politics and stereotyping. However, it is the unspoken dialogue beneath both scripts and sets of characters that reveal the most interesting truths of the works.

In the first edition of DVD magazine Wholphin, a group of five writers independently created five different sets of subtitles for the same episode of Turkish sitcom Tatli Hayat (“The Sweet Life”). The DVD begins with the subtitles included in the actual television program and then provides the episode five additional times with the writers’ new scripts.

The end results of the Tatli Hayat reworkings were not as impactful as the videos by Ben-Ner and Linzy, but they successfully initiate questions regarding the role and manipulation of meaning in television.  Ben- Ner and Linzy then take these questions farther by exploring TV’s covert constructions of identity and societal roles.  All of the works ultimately consider how much actual meaning is created by the intentional and unintentional messages communicated by mainstream media.  While the this inquiry has become increasingly persistent across various disciplines, if an answer resides anywhere, it is in a moment of art TV.