Comedian and artist Miriam Elia presents to you a children’s book like you’ve never seen before. Her new book We Go to the Gallery is unique, clever and hilarious: in the style of a 1950s children’s Ladybird book she pokes fun at modern art and approaches dark issues such as death and sex in a thought-provoking yet mirthful manner.
We Go to the Gallery looks exactly like an old fashioned children’s book, but it is far more suited to adults. Miriam first got the idea after writing an article for satirical magazine Fun called ‘Art School Checklist’. In the style of an I Spy guide, it took you around a gallery, or a degree show, viewing formulaic work that you had to match with the tickbox guide. “It was quite funny but it didn’t really take me anywhere,” Miriam explains.
It was after this that Miriam stumbled across the idea for We Go to the Gallery. “I’d been collecting Peter and Jane books since I was a kid and I was reading one and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Peter and Mummy and Jane were looking at this work and talking about it?’. It was a collision course, which most of my work is like; I sit there just playing with stuff and suddenly something weird happens.”
The book was launched earlier this month at The Cob Gallery in London on whose website Miriam sells the book as: “The first in a series of ‘Harlequin Ladybird’ books designed to make scary subjects approachable for the under fives. Described in bold colours and clear and concise English, each book will drag families into the darkest recesses of the collective unconcious, for their broader cultural benefit.” This deeply dark and ironic description is indicative of both the book and Miriam’s character. It seems to be these traits that have engrossed her audience.
As soon as she began work on the project, it proved to be a huge hit. “I produced a few prints from it that I showed in a very small group show and people were just standing there laughing. I thought, yes, I’ve done it, that really works.”
We Go to the Gallery has been two years in the making and certainly seems to have been worth the effort for Miriam. Speaking about the book, she was singing with pride and excitement: “I think it’s my favourite thing I’ve ever done. I’m in love with it, I loved working on it, learning how to draw like Harry Wingfield, I loved everything about it.”
“I’d say the most important thing about it is the clash within it of this 50s optimism and then the nihilism that came in the 70s. We’re children of that outlook, that kind of really negative outlook; the two were such polar opposites but in that book they’re kind of existing together.”
“I think it would be really funny if I went to prison for a Ladybird book”
The book is obviously very close to her heart, particularly, no doubt, because she worked on it with her brother, Ezra. “Me and my brother wrote it together. I did all the artwork and it’s my concept, but we did a lot of the one-liners together, because we used to write jokes quite a bit.”
The book may be very funny, but it is certainly not light-hearted, nor for the fainthearted for that matter.
According to Miriam: “It’s not funny in a throwaway sense. It touches on things that are really difficult to say, that people don’t want to say. That’s why people laugh. Laughing means you’ve definitely said something that everyone can relate to. I think that the God is dead one has probably got the most impact for me, because it’s so blunt.”
Despite poking fun at contemporary art, Miriam makes a point not to specify any particular artists. “I didn’t name any artists. There were some people who were like, ‘put a Damien Hirst in it’, but then it just becomes too obvious. You might have seen the Jeff Koons one but it didn’t say Jeff Koons…”
The satirical book seeks to condemn the art world in general, rather than any particular artists. “It’s a really critical book; I’m a big fan of being critical and showing judgement through humour. I’m not into non-judgemental culture, I think it’s bullshit.”
Miriam may sound harsh but her demand for critique applies to herself and not just others: “I really like hearing people’s responses”, she tells me. “I really like negative responses as much as positive ones which is an odd thing to say but I really value that because I think there’s nothing you can ever create that everybody likes.”
“When I was a comedian I would tell a joke and 80 per cent of the room would laugh but there’d be a couple of people at the back looking at me like ‘Bitch, you’re not funny, this is crap – they’re all mad’. It’s the same with making art, you can’t please everyone.”
Miriam wanted the books to be as authentic as possible in terms of design and production. “It’s really made to look like an actual 50s Ladybird book. Everything is replicated really beautifully. We got it printed in England and I went to the printers and I sat with a magnifying glass looking through all the prints.”
Anyone who has seen an old Ladybird book will recognise that the layout is also recreated perfectly, with a picture on one side and text on the other, even highlighting the key words the children are introduced to. Made with a combination of watercolour, gouache and digital photographic manipulation, the pictures Miriam has created are beautiful and bold; as good, if not better, than the originals she was imitating.
Miriam has certainly been successful in terms of design; however, this has led to some unforeseen problems. The book’s true likeness to the originals has led to concerns over copyright infringement and ongoing talks with Penguin, owners of the Ladybird brand. “I didn’t know anything about copyright law,” she told me. “There’s no point worrying too much about it. The work’s out there and there’s nothing they can do about it really.
“The law is changing soon to allow for a lot more freedom for artists to parody or use satire. Copying has always been done in art, they copy things and then they change them and that’s how something new happens. I wasn’t making a kids’ book, and I wasn’t taking it to the children’s book market. I think I’ve got a pretty good case, but they’re legally obliged to be like that. It exists in the world so I’ve already done my job.” As with most things, Miriam takes an easy-going, humorous stance, telling me, “I think it would be really funny if I went to prison for a Ladybird book.”
“the book touches on things that are difficult to say, that people don’t want to say”
Despite these issues, the book has been a success. Although initially having trouble finding a publisher, Miriam was able to self-fund the book through Kickstarter. “None of my publishers wanted to fund it. They said it was very funny but a bit too much”.
Regardless, having managed to more than fund her Kickstarter campaign, receieving nearly £5,000 in donations, Miriam has certainly received great support. And, although not being able to sell as many books as she would like due to the circumstances with Penguin, the book has spurred a lot of interest. “When I had to take it off sale for two weeks because of the Penguin thing, it was really stressful, but every day I have people contact me about it. I think even Damien Hirst has got a copy.”
We Go the Gallery is a collage of art and comedy, evidence of her varied career. After leaving art school in 2006, Miriam set off on a whirlwind career in comedy, radio, film and art. “I was on the dole for a while,” she explains, “but then I thought. ‘Oh, I’ll be a comedian.’ I don’t know why, so I was and I won these big competitions in comedy even though I had trained in art.”
“I then started writing radio comedy and did all of that entertainment industry thing. I’ve always been in love with the likes of Tony Hancock and The Goons and classic British comedy so I was going go in that direction.”
“Then, after about four and a half years of that I became disillusioned with the entertainment industry and wanted to go back to making beautiful things again like prints and books.”
Since leaving radio, Miriam has embarked on a number of different ventures, including a book entitled Diary of Edward the Hamster 1990-1991. Similarly bizarre as We Go to the Gallery, it follows the dark life of Edward, the existential Hamster. Another collaboration with her brother Ezra, the book was praised by critics and sold over 15, 000 copies in the UK. It was sold in the Tate Modern and MOMA and was published in seven different countries, including the USA.
However, not one to be content without variation, Miriam has found herself missing radio. “I might be going back to radio again soon though, at least, I think I feel like going back, but the entertainment industry is really shit because it’s just so dated and clunky and vulgar.
“I don’t even watch telly; it doesn’t inspire me. I’m so nostalgic but in the days of Father Ted it was a joy to watch TV comedy, but now…” She trails off, apparently engrossed in sentiment and sorrow for what has become of modern entertainment.
Just like her career path, Miriam is one-of-a-kind, an artist/comedian able to merge her talents together to create something new and extraordinary. Her confidence and eccentricity allow her to live in her own creative world. “It’s nice,” she says, “to exist outside all these little worlds so people can’t define you: you’re an artist or you’re a comedian or you’re this or that. You’re just this little independent vessel, making stuff.”
But whatever Miriam is, with various comedy awards under her belt and successful books in tow, it’s certainly working for her.