Strewn about the hallway is a trail of debris; lights, brooms, boxes, and other obstacles in a semi-organised sprawl. It’s like someone tried making a shop out of the bits in their attic, sifting through the junk, arranging it into small, improvised displays. The skeleton of a mostly empty postcard stand is propped in one corner, while a clear container with the inevitable, unsolvable tangle of electric wires sits in another. Propped up on one stand is a brown and grey photograph; what looks like a scuffed-up, dirty floor, with a hand truck and some rubbish scattered around. A metal grille runs across the image, with a thick, dull, chocolate-coloured sludge underneath it. Behind the propped-up photo is an odd set-up, with a work light dangling from a sideways soap dispenser – even more improbably, with a pair of sunglasses you can make out held inside. A text installed just beneath gives a winding explanation: ‘at the mechanics…hovering over the body wash pit out came the camera and almost at the same moment as taking the shot the sunglasses disappeared into the pit’. Pulling back, the quarantined sunglasses might now make more sense, displayed in a sort of makeshift mini-version of the car workshop. But then the photo itself, you can’t help but look again and try to stare into the impenetrable depths of whatever forsaken globs of mank had gathered in that drain over the years.
Locky Morris’s The Drop (2007/16) tells a story, but it also makes us act out a sort of double-take, running between the different parts of the installation to piece together and relive the moment when – plop/click – the glasses disappeared into that trough of filth, and the camera simultaneously captured the scene. It’s an impossible, comic moment, but also one where you shake your head and think, ‘Isn’t it always the way?’. Like most of Morris’s work, The Drop springs from photography to entangle us in that brief incident. He explores the mundane, and picks at the seemingly insignificant to bring out the humour and the deeper paradoxes in those moments, the forgotten fascinating corners in the day’s repetitive chores. Each work finds a sort of homemade comedy and philosophy, fashioned from nothing other than an apparently ‘normal’ situation; each work, if we might briefly think of it this way, like a sort of self-contained episode of a sitcom.
The world’s first televised sitcom aired in the UK in 1946. Broadcast live from a BBC studio in North London, Pinwright’s Progress followed the mishaps of the titular Pinwright as he attempted to manage Macgillygally’s Stores. Ten half-hour episodes were made over a year, but no record other than a few still photographs exist of the transmissions. Over the next 70 years, from I Love Lucy to The Big Bang Theory, the sitcom has become one of the most consistently popular genres – and perhaps one of the most profitable facets – of television and broadcast video. The format developed from character-led radio comedy programmes of the 1920s, where audiences would consistently meet the same cast of main and supporting characters (as opposed to the variety and sketch shows, which had made the transition from stage to mass broadcast, but would eventually lose their commanding popularity).
The sitcom, a 1960s abbreviation of ‘situation comedy’, is then defined by its situation: One house, or an office, or bar or restaurant within which the action is played out over and over and over again. The sitcom inhabits a sort of cyclical time, where the father over-reacts to some minor infringement by his kids, and the neighbour calls by to remark on another occurrence, and maybe to steal some food from the refrigerator, and then in the next episode it all happens again. But nothing really changes, and perhaps that static environment is where its impact comes from.
‘All great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning,’ an Algerian once wrote – an anarchist, who had been an amateur goalkeeper and a part-time meteorologist. That beginning, to him, wasn’t far away or contrived, it was something immediate. It was only, and always, the muddled, inexplicable workings of our own heads. The only philosophy humankind could live by, he reasoned, was that which we could perceive and prove ourselves; which, by the very nature of being our own individual and subjective manoeuvring within that head, is precisely nothing. We might attempt to share these observations, but that only multiplies the problem. The only rule humans can live by, Albert Camus concluded, is the absurd; the relentless and patently ridiculous attempt to try and make sense of where we stand in relation to everything else around us – from the cars on the street to the stars in the sky. ‘The absurd is not in man,’ he wrote, ‘nor in the world, but in their presence together.’[i]
A task that is pointless, repetitive, and just a pain to do is sometimes called ‘Sisyphean’. Sisyphus was a wily Ancient Greek king who, in some versions of the story, tricked Thanatos, the figure of death, chaining him with his own shackles. Stopping humans from dying didn’t seem to be Sisyphus’s aim so much as to evade his own demise, but once the gods caught up with him, all the versions agree on what happened next: He was sentenced to an eternity pushing a boulder up a hill. Whenever Sisyphus would reach (or should we say, in the present tense, ‘reaches’?) the top of the hill, the rock would roll (rolls) back down the hill, for him to repeat the whole thing again, forever. What interested Camus was that pause, when Sisyphus would be strolling back down to where the boulder was resting, before he’d start his laboured climb one more time. What did (does) he think about? Camus’s take on the tale was different; he didn’t see it as an inane, frustrating struggle – sure, what isn’t? Sisyphus was a sort of self-made man, who had to answer to no one, and could accept his task as any calling:
“Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks… This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Camus wrote these words in 1942, just a matter of months before Pinwright’s Progress was written and broadcast. The proximity of the creation of the sitcom and Camus’s ideas on absurdism might not be directly correlated, but it feels like one response to his philosophy, one attempt to explore it. The sitcom has proved itself one of the West’s most sustained explorations of repetition and absurdity. Part of the allure of the absurd, and the sitcom, is their ready evidence: Much of life happens in seemingly static situations. Things that make no sense and have no apparent reason happen all the time, again and again. The question might be, following Camus’s line of thinking, not just what do sitcom characters think about between shows, but what do we think about between the hubbub and inane mumbling of our own lives? How do these propose their own ways to approach the world?
Morris’s response to this is to fashion miniature monuments to the absurd, to take the seeming accidents or distractions that happen, and treat them as the true calling of our lives. A daily tea-making ritual becomes the fractured altar of Teabreakdowns (2007/16), as if a sort of memorial for both the browned and cracking pencil that began to disintegrate from years of misuse as a stirrer, as well as the cracked mug immortalised as an image printed on a mug. Anything, it suggests, might deserve such reverence.
A box of photographs stashed in an upturned cabinet is blocked only by another photograph, an image of a text message that gives the work its title: Stop Lookin’ at Photographs! (2009/16). Of course, it’s too late. It’s this being caught in the act of already looking at the photograph that is Morris’s nudge; not only that we should keep looking, but if we have to anyway, then we might as well find in our own garages and closets and pockets the things that themselves form a world. Through his work, Morris suggests that we might pore over our own lives as closely, to try and peer precisely at the things that we ignore, and to return and return and return to them.
[i] All quotes from Albert Camus’s essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, Éditions Gallimard, 1942; translated into English by Justin O’Brien, 1955.
Published to accompany the exhibition Locky Morris: Stop Lookin’ at Photographs! at Naughton Gallery, Belfast, December 2016 – January 2017