Multiples offer artists a unique opportunity to experiment with new materials and to step outside of their usual repertoire of themes. With the potential to surprise both themselves and their audience, artists' multiples explore ideas that are out of the ordinary, their serially produced format inviting lightness and mirth. Multiples encourage artists to keep it short and sweet, to put a concept in a nutshell, to dare to be unusual, stretching them in new and unforeseen ways. This results in an oeuvre of multiples often quite distinct from artists' main output, offering another way into their work.
Always novel and often jawbreakingly funny, multiples bring out the joker in many artists, including Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, and Jonathan Monk amongst others. Provoking reactions ranging from curiosity through to sheer bewilderment, these quirky works revel in their own absurdity, featuring elements of the inexplicable and the unexpected that never fail to incite laughter.
The title alone of Sigmar Polke's Potato Machine - Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another from 1969 suggests the pure incongruity of the work, which consists of a device by which one potato attached to a string is propelled in circles around a second. Polke quite literally puts the humble potato at the center of the piece, clearly delighting in how marvelously odd this vegetable looks in a fine art context. The unexpected displacement factor of the multiple makes it so funny—how is anyone supposed to take this seriously? Polke appears to be saying to critics and curators alike, would you like to lend the Potato Machine gravitas or gravy?
Hilarity features heavily in Beuys' multiples too, in particular in his bizarre combination of a lightbulb plugged into a lemon that is Capri Battery from 1986. Demonstrating the artist's love of the surreal in this pairing of two similarly shaped, yet otherwise utterly dissimilar everyday objects, we are left amused and bemused by this unforeseen fusion of citrus and electricity. Equally witty is Beuys' Evervess II 1, 1968—two soda bottles in a wooden box which the owner is supposed to drink then throw the bottle cap as far as possible. By calling on collectors to directly interact with the finished piece Beuys cheekily bends the rules of art consumption and viewing etiquette—who would dare decrease the value of their art by dismantling it! Part joke, part gibe, Evervess II 1 is a wonderful example of the multiple’s potential for play and intelligent social commentary.
Serially produced pieces continue to make us laugh by virtue of their incongruity and humorous observations on our daily lives. Artist David Shrigley is well known for his slyly funny cartoons and is a comic master when it comes to the inconsequential. Untitled (How are you feeling?), 2006 cleverly relies on our expectations of common codes of politeness being thwarted for comedy value. Instead of responding with "I'm fine thanks" to a polite enquiry about a person's wellbeing, they give a full and wholly unwelcome description of their state of mind, with complaints of how they "are much too fat and that people are laughing" at them! As one reads the monologue and its increasing ridiculousness, one cannot help but grin at the exchange. Shrigley here mines the potential of the unexpected, but also highlights how embarrassed we are by honesty, in particular that of strangers, our immediate instinct being to laugh.
Multiples allow artists to be light and playful. Due to their democratic legacy of providing affordable work for the people, and not just for high-profile collectors, they permit artists to escape out of the shadow of critical oversight, giving more freedom for experimentation. But whichever way you look at it, orbiting potatoes are just wonderfully silly.
David Shrigley's Brass Tooth, 2010 is available to buy now on fineartmultiple—click here to find out more.