Miriam Elia is a conceptual artist, but she’s very funny. The ‘but’ is important – conceptual art tends to be anal, preachy, trivial and badly made. A case in point might be the work of the 2001 Turner Prize winner, Martin Creed: he presents a screwed-up ball of white paper or a lightbulb going on and off in an empty room as art, because he is an artist, trained at an art college (but more on that later). Creed also happens to be the subject – or perhaps object – of one of Elia’s works: ‘I fell in love with a conceptual artist and it was totally meaningless.’
Meeting Elia in a noisy London café gives me pause to consider whether I shouldn’t pay a bit more attention to conceptual art. The meeting also made me reassess my general antipathy to contemporary political art – because her conceptual art is political as well as funny. And, unlike many conceptual artists, she has something interesting and nuanced to say, using a quirky, visual language, with a sharp and satirical eye on the world around her. She likes to make art that makes us look again, which holds a mirror to our world and to ourselves without telling us what to think, and without making supposedly radical political points about unfair power relations and inequality. Her work is packed with detail. While Creed’s screwed-up paper ball seems pointlessly mystifying, Elia’s work gives us a lot to look at, ponder on and laugh about.
One of the main targets of her satire is the art world in which she grew up, studied and still lives. You may have seen her book We Go to the Gallery, which she first published with her brother in 2014. Inspired by her childhood collection of Ladybird books, and exasperating years in art college which left her feeling angry and destructive, it meticulously mimics the Ladybird format for the Peter and Jane early-reading scheme, redrawing the mother and two children, to create a hilariously satirical commentary on the state of contemporary art.
At the centre of Elia’s work is a commitment to close observation of the real world around her. Her books (she has recently followed up We Go to the Gallery with We Learn at Home and We Go Out) hone in on contemporary groupthink and expose it to ridicule. The fact that she has tickled a nerve, making even (most of) her targets buy her book and laugh, shows how sharply observed her work is. (Penguin has since ripped off her idea by creating their own Ladybird ‘kidult’ series, having failed to sue her for copyright infringement.)
‘The heart of what I do is looking at the real world – translating it into some form of theatre by actually looking at the way people are – and reflect that back to them’, she tells me. ‘I am doing my best to hold a mirror up, but there are a lot of ambiguities in that mirror – it’s not straightforward, so hopefully my work reflects that.’