This might be apocryphal: “laughter is the death of an emotion,” I remember reading in Freud, in translation, a riff on Friedrich Nietzsche’s statement that “Wit is the epitaph of an emotion,” whether the phrase is Freud’s or simply mine. These words come to mind when looking at artist Antonio Darden’s work, but in misfitting ways. There are myriad types of laughter and each with wide ranges of intensity therein. If there is truth in this Freudian phrase, then the humor induced by Darden’s work runs just shy of, or strikes just off from, laughter, for there is always an uneasy mix of feelings and emotions when encountering this work. We would have to qualify this laughter not only as laughter in the dark, but moreover as laughter from, at, and with a bête noir.
The provenance for this laughter is the absurd, particularly as described by Paul Beatty in his book Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor: “the funniest and oftentimes the saddest, folks realize if it weren’t for absurdity, life wouldn’t make any sense.” Beatty follows this up by quoting fellow novelist Chester Himes, who says, “Albert Camus once said that racism is absurd. Racism introduces absurdity into the human condition. . . . If one lives in a country where racism is held valid and practiced in all ways of life, eventually, no matter whether one is a racist or a victim, one comes to feel the absurdity of life.”
Beatty, by way of Himes and Camus, has helped me get at the absurd humor that drives Darden’s work. Take, for instance, Last One Left, an installation that was the centerpiece for a solo show at End Project Space in Atlanta. A dare-I-say-lifelike alien lies on a gurney with a video of a disconcerting human in an alien outfit above it, setting up a vibe that taps into the very American tradition of UFO believers. On the wall is also mounted a set of bugged-out eyes that watches over it all—us included?—prompting us to mimic it, feel the feeling it presents, but surveilling us all the while. It is a hegemonic element, indeed, but the theatricality of it all carves out space for the viewer to feel his/her/their own presence.
Meaning deepens in Last One Left through detail. The tattoos on the alien are those that graced the body of Darden’s late brother, David F. Darden III, who was shot by policemen in Atlanta. Ever the stubborn emotion, grief is not entirely snuffed out. Furthermore, their mother and father passed away shortly thereafter, which is the source for much of Antonio Darden’s artwork, as proclaimed in his artist statement:
Processing loss is a vital part of my work. I am the last one left of my immediate family. Daily I face the absence of a localized historical infrastructure. I have no point of comparison nor verification of familiar memories. . . .Through humor, sober self-reflection, and the constant digestion of content, I question the fickle (terminally ill) landscape known as social identity. These systematic investigations point to the complication of our many shared lives and deaths. Everything we deal with on earth is universal. Race is a construct. Satire is a vehicle. And grief just is.
Yes, these lives and deaths are shared, but not as a set of emotions I can feel. Rather, through Darden’s artistry, I can have some other access to the grief here, to be with it in some way that helps me help myself out.
Sang James (BOJ) stages for me how deep engagement with another’s grief-filled and awe-inspired work helps Darden attend to a grief otherwise difficult to encounter. The star of this moving installation is gospel star Cleveland James. By portrait and voiceover, Darden uses Cleveland’s version of “I Stood on the Banks of Jordan” to give us a sense of the immeasurable, personal grief in the unexpected passing of both parents. As with his work in general, the pop culture reference and performativity of Sang James (BOJ) risks kitsch and theatricality, which makes the threat of laughter utterly palpable. In his introduction to The Book of Negro Humor, which he edited, Langston Hughes proclaims:
Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it. Of course, you laugh by proxy. You’re really laughing at the other guy’s lacks, not your own. That’s what makes it funny—the fact that you don’t know you are laughing at yourself. Humor is when the joke is on you but hits the other first—before it boomerangs. Humor is what you wish in your secret heart were not funny, but it is, and you must laugh. Humor is your own unconscious therapy.
Grief is what is in Darden’s secret heart, and this boomerang effect goes both ways.
Images © 2023 Antonio Darden.