Simon Zoric
Coffin Rides (23.01.2020)
Curated by Deirdre Cannon
Disneyland Paris

Coffin Rides (23.01.2020)
Inkjet print
114.6 x 106.8 cm
Simon Zoric appears courtesy of LON Gallery

In memoriam ad infinitum
Deirdre Cannon

Sometimes death can be a laughing matter. In the realms of art and philosophy, death has long been cited as a state to be reckoned with in the pursuit of emancipatory or transgressive activity, with laughter being the ace up the sleeve, capable of weakening death’s resolve. Consider the army invalid-turned Dadaist author Richard Huelsenbeck’s declaration in 1920 that “Dada foresees its end and laughs. Death is a thoroughly Dadaist business in that it signifies nothing at all...with a businesslike gesture, freshly pressed pants, a shave and a haircut, it will go down into the grave...”.[1] Or how the harbinger of the death of religion had their theory semantically overturned by their own death, this ironic turn immortalised by an anonymous graffito as such: “God is dead. - Nietzsche, 1883/ Nietzsche is dead. - God 1900”. In the early centuries AD the Satiric philosopher Lucian of Samosata dissected the vanity of our attachment to the mortal realm. He praised the cavalier comportment assumed by fellow satirist Menippus upon his entrance to the underworld, observing that “You alone were a credit to your breed—because you came in without having to be forced or pushed, but of your own accord, laughing and cursing at everyone”.[2] The spates of laughter that burst forth at a wake could also fit into this cadre: these mysterious conduits of otherwise overwhelming emotion becoming sanctioned behaviour only after ceremonial formalities have been replaced with ritualistic imbibition and storytelling.

Simon Zoric’s work currently exhibits a similar desire to emotionally and cerebrally reroute our passage beyond the veil. Untied to any one medium, although trained in and returning consistently to photography, Zoric’s work also responds to concerns ranging from the contemporary art canon, to relationships, social norms, ego, and failure. His works are at times the result of collaborating with another arts practitioner, previously outsourcing the physical construction of works to a mannequin maker, illustrator, typesetter, and carpet maker. The readymade and conceptual art loom large in Zoric’s artistic expression, these movements and their trademark formal characteristics providing ample fodder for the acerbically crafted brands of sociological observation, subtle protest and comedic commentary that are the hallmarks of his practice.

Comedy and wit’s subversive utility has long been deployed in Western artistic traditions, with Ancient Greek literature being an early notable example. As Lucian’s fictional account above demonstrates, philosophical dialogues would routinely elicit humour in their descriptions of a character’s radical self-comprehension, which often involved the erosion or recalibration of hubris. The merits of frankness, exposure of errors and owning up to one’s own limits were championed by the Cynics and Satirists, employed as ciphers through which criticism could be levelled at hypocritical values and the institutions of a society they considered to be corrupt and confused. A similarly critical stance can be gauged in Zoric’s work, with his creative remit encompassing personal ruminations on his own potential as well as communicating more universal experiences of being an artist charged with the task of negotiating the often cabalistic codes of conduct that govern the art world.

The materiality and subject matter of Zoric’s works purposefully disturb certain perennial oppositions, for example ‘high’ versus ‘low’ art forms or the abject meeting the revered, in addition to bringing together elements and situations that lack a coherent relationship to one another. The way these juxtapositions elicit a humorous response in their audiences can be explained, in part, by the incongruity theory. This theory, most comprehensively distilled by Henri Bergson in his 1911 essay Laughter, posits that humour arises from established expectations and thought patterns that are subsequently (but benignly, as later philosophers have argued), violated. Context is critical, with the resolution of an incongruous setup - the development of a narrative or context that explains the proximity of juxtaposed elements - required to produce a truly comedic scenario.

In earlier works by Zoric, comedy has been achieved by illuminating the hierarchies and bureaucracies at work within the art institution and making equivocal, parenthetical appeals to the individuals that maintain them. This is evident in works such as From the desk of (2013), a framed copy of a letter Zoric sent to the senior curator of contemporary art at the NGV that asks them to acquire a silicone sculpture of his genitals, of which the artist explains: ‘I didn’t want it to be dismissed as a joke, I wanted it to be ambiguous, that maybe I am serious, (which I am) but if it were obviously a joke there would be no point. I wanted that question, that doubt, is this guy serious?’[3] and Hand Towel Dispenser (2017), a paper hand towel dispenser bearing the plaque ‘This Hand Towel Dispenser is proudly Sponsored By:/ Simon Zoric/ Gertrude Contemporary Studio Artist/ 2017-2019’ installed in perpetuity in the communal bathroom of the recently renovated and re-financed Gertrude Contemporary studio complex and gallery. These works aren’t so much indictments of the institutional status quo, but they do poke and prod at the disconnection that exists between the arbiters and incubators of taste and the majority of contemporary artists.

With Coffin Rides (23.01.2020) however, we see this incongruity shifting focus, now channeled into the realm of morbidity grounded in a sort of irrepressible vitality. The photos here document the participants of a one-night exhibition by Zoric at Gertrude Glasshouse in early 2020, for which the gallery space was transformed into a funeral parlour/photographic studio. A paper ticket machine was positioned at the entrance of the gallery, from which attendees could choose to take a ticket to have their portrait taken in an open coffin. Participants made their way down a red carpet flanked by velvet-roped gold bollards, passing onto Astroturf and eventually assuming their chosen position within a high-gloss coffin furnished with a white polyester interior. Zoric, who performed the roles of funeral director and photographer, wore a suit and tie and coordinated the proceedings.

The many associative implications and associations folded into this event’s mise-en-scène are pleasing to unpick, providing a sense of satisfaction not unlike that of ‘getting’ a joke. This live-action palimpsest riffs on theme park ride photos, the notion of (permanently) exiting through the gift shop and the specter of our fifteen minutes of Warholian fame, reconfigured here as a dress-rehearsed final state of repose. The resulting portraits could be images of the magician’s assistant sawed in half, with the illusion embodied in their willful mimicry of death, not the impossibility of sustaining life. Our mortal coil has unfurled out to a pseudo-supermarket deli queue, complete with a ticket machine that dispenses rides to the underworld.

The staging of Coffin Rides as a kind of Happening signals a new performative expression of incongruity in Zoric’s work, harnessing aspects of disparate situations at the same time, in real time. In her 2008 book The Odd One In: On Comedy philosopher Alena Zupančič evokes the model of the Möbius strip to describe more precisely the relationship between inherently contradictory states that comedic scenarios are reliant upon: a topology that proves a useful foundation from which the sequence of slippages central to Coffin Rides’ critical and aesthetic impetus can be assessed.

Of the Möbius, Zupančič notes that ‘the paradoxical distance between its two sides is “built into” its very structure; it is perceptible only in the fact that we do come to change sides, even though we never actually change them’, and that ‘fundamentally, comic procedure is a procedure designed to make us see the impossible passage from one side to the other, or the impossible link between the two’.[4] This notion of a sustained and fluid interaction between two contradictory ‘sides’ brings into focus a range of concerns that seem to have been rendering in Zoric’s work for some time.

From a formal perspective, this ‘joint articulation’,[5] as Zupančič has termed it, occurs in Coffin Rides’ appropriation of conceptual photography’s impassive and objective regard. The uniform framing and durational activity implied by these images recalls, amongst other contemporaneous examples, Robert Rooney’s works that detail the size and shape of the scorched almonds he consumed from July to August 1970, or the documentation of outfits he wore from 3 December 1972-19 March 1973. Here, the precedent set by Rooney has dual resonance, given that he presented these routines in a grid as ‘a record of the artist’s processes rather than finished aesthetic objects’.[6] Like many of Rooney’s photographic works, Zoric’s Coffin Ride images are an index of the conceptual framework at hand, ie. the number of people who had opted to have their portrait taken over the course of one evening, and, when arranged, do not constitute a complete grid. In Zoric’s irreverent hands, however, such irregularity could be read, as John Edlerfield has contended of Andy Warhol’s gridded silkscreen works, both a factual display and evidence of the artist’s boredom with such repetitive activity.[7] Whilst I don’t think such a flippant treatment of subject matter can be argued here, this line of thinking does put the grid’s tacit dispassionate arrangement of information up for debate. It allows us to cross the floor, so to speak, to where the conceptual conceit can be reviewed with a healthy skepticism - an objective consistent with Zoric’s manipulation of other canonical artistic tropes. In this unfinished grid, a comedic re-instrumentalisation of the conceptual procedure is enacted, pulling back from the point that we apprehend it as purely absurd or futile.

Like a form of instinctive muscle memory, Coffin Rides coaxed forth learnt behaviours its collaborators readily associated with the postures of death. Many have been captured lying supine, arms crossed or neatly folded, eyes closed, with some even wearing makeshift death masks. A sustained encounter between opposing states is orchestrated by permitting the living to experience the inside of a coffin. In so doing, Coffin Rides engages directly with the taboo, posing a challenge to the entrenched conventions that dictate how we deal with the process of dying and its accoutrements. Another seemingly involuntary expression on the faces of some participants—a soft, ambiguous smile—enhances the disorientation that arises from this particular joint articulation. This enigmatic mien, often accompanied by an unfixed gaze into middle distance, recalls that of the Mona Lisa: its classification as a ‘Gioconda smile’ derived from the painting’s Italian title; La Gioconde. To return the paradigm to a Classical reading, this expression can be interpreted as a manifestation of ataraxia: a term established in Ancient Greek philosophy to describe an ideal state of equilibrium with the world, an impenetrable unperturbedness that allows a person to elevate their thinking above a reliance on dogma or hegemonic belief systems. Within the interstices that Coffin Rides opens between life and death, this enigmatic smile poses an alternative to fearing or resisting what lies beyond the moral realm, with the ostensibly louche act of taking a coffin for a test ride transformed into a genuine invitation to reckon with our own finitude. By meeting their temporary departure with a Gioconda smile, these sitters conjure the panoptic wisdom of an ancient sage, enacting an almost knee-jerk suspension of judgement and submitting to an embodied meditation on their limbic state.

Lastly, this work sustains an encounter between opposing temporal states through an anachronistic mode of memorialisation, echoing Susan Sontag’s observation that ‘All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.’[8] The roleplay of these sitters’ egress sets in motion an acceleration forward in time, with such a foreshortening of one’s future fate intensified by its commitment to the photographic medium. It forces both the subjects and viewers of the work to confront a moment that has yet to pass, but which is certain to: at which point the work’s punch line will be delivered in full.

In conversation with Zoric, he revealed another incidental avenue that Coffin Rides took to bring opposing realities in lockstep with one another. After each photograph had been taken, Zoric asked participants to provide their address—meaning their physical address—so he could send a copy of their portrait to them. Many participants mistook this request to mean their email address, a forgivable slip given the photos were taken with a digital camera and the increasing obsolescence of snail mail. In wanting to supply each sitter with a physical vestige of their future departed self, the unintended yet complementary and compounded incongruity generated by this exchange highlights, as Zupančič‘s writings emphasise of the comedic setup, two realms of understanding lived out genuinely within one and the same scene.

The temporal, attitudinal and formal snafus Coffin Rides puts into effect feed through to a series of works Zoric currently has in train, which consists, to date, of With Bobby Fischer (2011) and With Rodney Dangerfield (2019). These photographs show the artist posing at the graves of famous people that have had an impact on his life, in Iceland and Los Angeles respectively. Zoric intends to continue this series to its logical conclusion: the final work already slated to be an image of his own gravestone, aptly titled With. Following this logic, one can imagine the reprise of Coffin Rides as another live event; another album of intrepid Menippean souls.

For now though, in an ever-expanding iteration of Zupančič’s Mobius strip, this work resides in a repurposed service-person’s washroom that bears the name of the ‘happiest place on earth' (or the French version of it at least). In the current context, Coffin Rides’ comic register is matched by the incongruent mimesis at play in (the gallery) Disneyland Paris’ appropriated visual identity. Here, Zoric’s photographs can be parsed as inversions of the aforementioned theme park photos: the souvenirs of patrons captured mid-rollercoaster ride being hurtled around in ‘death defying’ loops, gripped in complex throes of delight and terror, that are made available for sale after their subjects have been safely delivered back to earth. Devoid of such synthetic tests of our human limits, these portraits of chthonic thrillseekers are instead animated by sleight of hand, stillness and an uncompromising philosophical pragmatism. It seems fitting that one, maybe two, people at a time can pay their respects to Zoric’s riders from within this cryptish gallery; its comedic contortions drawing audience, artwork and architecture into a cross-dimensional mise en abyme.

[1] Richard Huelsenbeck, ‘En Avant Dada’, cited in Charles Harrison & Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002, p. 263

[2] Lucian, Dialogues of the Dead, vol. VII, translated by M.D Macleod, Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, MOMLXI, 1960, p. 21

[3] Simon Zoric, ‘Hello, it’s me’, MFA thesis, Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne, 2014, p. 21

[4] Alenka Zupačnič, The Odd One In: On Comedy, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008, pp. 55-6.

[5] Ibid., p. 58

[6] Maggie Finch, Endless Present: Robert Rooney and Conceptual Art (exh. cat.), Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2010, p. 7

[7] John Elderfield, ‘Grids’, Artforum, May 1972, p. 56

[8] Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Rosetta Books, 1973, p. 11