Of Smurfs and Men: A Review in Five Takes
Things I Learned at Art School
by Megan Dunn
Published August 2021
Take 1: The Take
In 1978, I received a copy of the Beatles’ White Album for Christmas. Its eclecticism was startling, a musical education for my eleven-year-old self. A moment from the album that stood out for me was the opening of ‘Revolution 1’, with its slightly ragged beginning breaking down after a couple of seconds and a voice saying ‘Right, take 2’, and the song starting again. (It’s actually ‘take 2’ of take 18, but you don’t need to know that.) I loved that tiny insight into the process of making an album, of discovering that audio recordings, like movies, are made up of ‘takes’ or attempts that can go wrong. From then on, I would listen out for such behind-the-scenes moments in the music I bought. The hilarity of ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ (by Bob Dylan) and David Bowie’s ‘Andy Warhol’ were particularly choice finds. Mistakes and making things, these moments taught me, could be fun.
Comedy and education are at the heart of Things I Learned at Art School by the New Zealand writer Megan Dunn. The blurb describes Things I Learned at Art School as ‘part essay collection, part memoir’. As Wikipedia (which has a few walk-on parts in Dunn’s book) will tell you, the word ‘essay’ comes from the French ‘essayer’, meaning ‘to try’ or ‘to attempt’. In other words, an essay is a ‘take’. Any attempt risks failure, and as Dunn makes clear, Things I Learned from Art School evolved out of such a creative ‘failure’:
In my early forties, I spent two years skyping professional mermaids. I kept their names in an excel spreadsheet called ‘Megan’s Mermaid Log’. I tried to write a book about the mermaid community. When my publisher saw my first draft, it was an epic flop. But she liked the parts about me.
And so, the project morphed into a book about Megan Dunn, ‘reformed video artist’, writer, and author of Tinderbox (2017). To say that failure might be Dunn’s metier might seem harsh, but Tinderbox, which is as funny and as brilliant as Dunn’s latest book, also emerged from an earlier failed project, this time an attempt to write a novel that rewrote Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451.
Riffing on an SF classic and writing about professional mermaids are conspicuously quixotic literary endeavours. But the books that those projects became are concerned with more day-to-day quixotic endeavours, namely working at the soon-to-close bookstore chain Borders (Tinderbox) and going to art school and becoming a video artist (Things I Learned at Art School). In the latter work, this story is told through essays that are as eclectic and formally diverse as the songs on The White Album. The real and nonce essay forms employed by Dunn include the essay-as-recipe (the recipe is for a Frosty Pussy and covers Dunn’s time as a bartender in a strip club); the epistolary essay (the recipient being the late postmodern short story writer Donald Barthelme); the essay-as-prayer (‘when I grow up can I look exactly / like Olivia Newton John? / Amen’); the catalogue essay (‘A Comprehensive List of All the Girls Who Teased Me at Western Heights High School, What they Looked Like and Why They Did It’); and the essay-as-video (‘This Can’t Be About Daryl Hannah’, an account of Dunn’s attempt to use Splash, the 1984 mermaid fantasy rom-com directed by Ron Howard, as the source material for a work of appropriation art).
Dunn’s various ‘takes’ on her early life (from about three to 27 years of age) are notable for their comic brilliance, as well as the playful evocation of the different linguistic registers and literary styles that trace the arc of Dunn’s formal (as well as sexual and emotional) education. For instance, her time at art school begins by comically riffing on the nonsense lexis of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’:
’Twas not brillig, my first year at Elan School of Fine Arts. The slithy toves did gyre and gimble, two desks down from me in our shared white studio. A pair of oil painters in a long-term relationship, the slithy toves shared a lifelong commitment to bug-eyed portraiture, though not as it turned out to one another. All mimsy were the part-time art school tutors, and the use of shellac outgrabe.
But Things I Learned at Art School isn’t ‘merely’ funny (merely funny?). Like the figure of the mermaid, which makes numerous appearances in Dunn’s memoir, it is hybrid. This is not simply because of its melding of the discontinuous form of the essay with the narrative coherence of memoir, but also because of Dunn’s extraordinary facility with tone, her ability to be consistently funny while telling sad stories. There is a melancholic edge to almost all of Dunn’s essays, and the book ends on an elegiac moment – a deeply moving account of the illness and death of Dunn’s mother.
Take 2: An Incomplete List of the Art Works Mentioned in Things I Learned at Art School
Picasso’s Mother and Child by the Sea; the optical-illusion poster, ‘What’s On a Man’s Mind’; ‘a faded print of a rose’; Van Gogh’s Sunflowers; Cezanne’s Card Players; Monet’s Poppy Fields; a painting of a calla lily by Georgia O’Keefe; Tenniel’s illustrations to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living;Tracey Emin’s My Bed; various works by Jeff Koons; various works by JH Lynch; a Mondrian place mat; various works by Magritte; an unattributed picture (found in a massage parlour) of a fish; Constable’s The Hay Wain; Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World; Picasso’s Girl in a Chemise; various works of art found in a hospital waiting room; pictures by the author’s daughter of ‘hearts, butterflies, flowers, family’; The Tree of Life by Kushana Bush; Duchamp’s Fountain; and Meret Oppenheim’s Object.
Take 3: Education & Ekphrasis
In addition to the works of art listed above, Dunn’s memoir is populated by toys (My Little Pony; the Smurfs); TV shows (ALF; To the Manor Born; Sorry!); films (A Room With a View; The Linguini Incident; The Sheltering Sky); commercial art (the cover art of the Sweet Valley High series of books, described by a friend of Dunn’s as ‘visual cocaine’); and graphic works (inspirational texts such as ‘Desiderata’ and the Prayer of Serenity). All of these works intersect with Dunn’s quotidian life, illustrative of how art simultaneously occupies mundane and extramundane realms.
It is not surprising that a work called Things I Learned at Art School should be so concerned with visual art and material culture. Images and things in Dunn’s literary rendering of them act as metonyms for different milieux. The Smurfs, Barbie, and the My Little Pony series obviously evoke Dunn’s 80s girlhood. But they are not merely (‘merely’ again) indices for nostalgia. Dunn defamiliarises, even as she mobilises, the retro-nostalgic lustre of such objects by attending to their histories in design and consumer culture (explaining, for instance, how the inventor of the My Little Pony series originally wanted the toys to look like real horses). Such objects also evoke the abrupt shifts that can occur in moving from one stage of life to another, such as when Dunn writes that she and her friend Kelly ‘got more and more Smurfs until suddenly we stopped buying Smurfs and started picking up men instead’. Dunn represents each of these things (Smurfs and men), as sources of both enchantment and disenchantment, a tension associated with Dunn’s sentimental and commercial histories of people and objects more generally.
Narratives of education conventionally deal with this dynamic, and all the places represented in Things I Learned at Art School are educational sites: the homes of Dunn’s mother (including a flat above an old-people’s home); school; her father’s house (a ‘shoe box’ in Wellington); the eponymous art school (Elam School of Fine Arts); an ‘artist-run space’ called Fiat Lux run by Dunn and an art-school friend; and Dunn’s workplaces in what was once called the demimonde (a massage parlour with the Buñuelian name of Belle de Jour, where Dunn worked as a receptionist; and a strip club called Showgirls, also named after a film, where Dunn worked behind the bar). In these places Dunn is both charmed and disillusioned by the people and events experienced there, which is to say she is educated in the ways of the world (and therefore also herself).
This tension between charm and disillusion is thematised in the parallel tension between sincerity and faking it. But this tension between the sincere and the faked in turn relates to the artworks and objects that populate Dunn’s memoir, as well as her time studying ‘Intermedia’ at art school in the 90s, when irony was all, and sincerity was deeply unhip. The shifting valence of art (and Art) in the memoir produces a tonal dynamism that is most clearly observable in the references to works associated with that unstable cultural category, kitsch. Dunn studiously avoids describing the vernacular artforms she evokes as kitsch, save for one instance when evoking the kitsch artwork of JH Lynch, though even here Dunn implies kitsch’s instability, since she notes the presence of Lynch’s work in a ‘non-kitsch’ context: its appearance in Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange. It is clear, though, especially in the descriptions of her time at art school, and running the avant-gardist art gallery, Fiat Lux, that Dunn and her peers delight in the op-shop aesthetic of the kitsch, and that her education in postmodern aesthetics either informed or chimed with Dunn’s ambivalence with regard to seriousness. Dunn is habitually flippant and deadpan in her humour (though she is never cruel).
The attention to artwork, kitsch or otherwise, is not simply a product of Dunn’s artistic education. The paintings, books, films, images, and objects referred to allow a complex set of motifs to operate in Dunn’s work. The tone of Dunn’s story is attached, mermaid like, to the complex of often-subtle motivic connections between apparently disjunct events. The picture of fish seen at the Belle de Jour massage parlour, for instance, nicely echoes the numerous mermaid images that appear in Things I Learned at Art School, especially those that relate to female sexuality.
Dunn’s habitual drollery both masks and exposes the quotidian or melancholic nature of the educational experiences recounted. As Dunn quips, ‘You can’t outquip a quipper – and in my experience one can never be over-equipped’. But, as previously noted, melancholic and elegiac elements feature as strongly (if in a more intermittent way) as the flippant. If education is experience, then Things I Learned at Art School is inherently concerned with the loss of innocence. The less comic side of ‘picking up men’ is always present, as the accounts of working in the Belle de Jour and Showgirls make explicit. Dunn is not so reactionary as to represent these occasions in her life as ‘falls’, and there is still much comedy to be found in these times of her life, but the episodes are ultimately presented as professional and emotional dead-ends, leaving Dunn in an apparently depressed state.
To return to the plethora of images and intertextuality found in Things I Learned at Art School, these thingsare not (once again) ‘merely’ a product of an education in postmodern aesthetics that undoes hierarchies of value (as seen in Dunn’s collage artworks that, for instance, mix Daisy Duck with Magritte). Dunn’s evocation of art suggests that she is writing what I have elsewhere called ‘ekphrastic memoir’. Ekphrasis is, at its simplest, the verbal representation of a visual artform. It has traditionally been associated with poetry, but ekphrasis is seen in numerous intermedial contexts (music and literature; film and painting; and so on). The role of ekphrasis in memoir is notable because of memoir’s focus on subjectivity and narrative. Works such as Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Zona, or Nathalie Léger’s triptych of ekphrastic memoirs, illustrate the ways in which quotidian life and art can intersect in unexpected and intense ways. While Dyer and Léger can trace these intersections with humour, Dunn offers a comic articulation of the ekphrastic memoir.
The comic nature of Dunn’s ekphrastic memoirs shows, especially in Things I Learned at Art School, a perhaps-buried relationship with procedures that generally don’t share the same cachet as ekphrasis (especially in its poetic form). Ekphrasis, as an intermedial form, is related to the mashup, found art, appropriation art, and remixing – all forms that feature in Dunn’s accounts of art school and Fiat Lux. These intermedial forms work because they tell us something new about their constituent parts. By dubbing a collage of Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons with dialogue from Apocalypse Now,Todd Graham’s Apocalypse Pooh (1987) tells us (presumably) something about the representation of war (or bears). But this video mashup – namechecked a number of times in Things I Learned at Art School – is also simply funny or ridiculous. Surely, Graham fused Pooh Bear and Kurtz because he could, for the heck of it. In that respect, it could also be related (like Dunn’s own mashup video based on Splash) to camp style, and deadpan delivery, hybrid modes that, like works such as Apocalypse Pooh, conspicuously confuse tones and registers in the service of comedy. As Dunn points out,Todd Graham (like Dunn) gave up on video art; he is now a comedian. But, as the elegiac conclusion of Dunn’s memoirs suggest, Dunn is not solely interested in the comic potential of ekphrasis and its associated intermedial procedures.
Take 4: Two Things at Once
Dunn’s attraction to hybrid artforms is inherently literary. Literature, with its reliance on metaphor, symbol, allegory, and polysemy generally, is the discourse par excellence of duality, of being two things at once. Founded on the figure of the mermaid, Dunn’s project is conspicuously dual in nature. It is a sad book that makes you laugh, or a funny book that makes you cry. It engages in a non-derisive ridicule, respectful of the everyday dignity of those who sometimes act in ridiculous ways. This may be characteristic on Dunn’s behalf, but the elegiac ending suggests that loss and death act as a restraint to the potential excesses of satire and mockery. The penultimate essay, ‘Art in the Waiting Room’, illustrates this most clearly. In recounting Dunn’s mother’s last days, the essay, as its title makes clear, considers the uses of art in the context of a hospital waiting room.
This essay also most explicitly thematises the ‘ekphrastic encounter’ (the affective, associative, interpersonal encounter with images), which, it becomes apparent, has all along been at the heart of Dunn’s memoir. Artwork throughout Dunn’s memoir is evoked because of its associative power, but in ‘Art in the Waiting Room’ Dunn makes explicit that the associative power of art is found in its radically unstable nature. The critic David Kennedy makes a similar point in The Ekphrastic Encounter in Contemporary British Poetry and Elsewhere (2012), in which he notes – via Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1973) – that ‘ekphrasis is inherently unstable because it is powerfully associative. The basis of that associative power may be in the painting itself, but it is magnified in the individual spectator’. This link between association and subjectivity is, I believe, the basis for ekphrastic memoir. But what about the link between comedy and ekphrasis, so powerfully engaged by Dunn? Most studies of ekphrastic writing are concerned (to use terms derived from Calvino) with the oracular and the tragic, but as Kennedy notes,
ekphrastic poetry is not a humour-free zone…one of the enduring fascinations of ekphrastic poetry is its mix of registers. For example, Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ is tragic on one level but on another feels comic, almost even absurd, because of the play of scale and all the narrative elements competing for our attention with the falling figure.
Disillusion (the everyday form of education) is commonly figured in terms of falling, and in this regard Dunn (while no Icarus) is the falling figure of her own narrative full of competing elements. But Dunn’s sensitivity to the comic potential of ekphrasis is linked to the ‘mix of registers’ that Kennedy finds integral to ekphrastic poetry. Indeed, it is notable in Dunn’s writing how often a joke can find itself in an otherwise un-comic context. The description of a flat ‘the size of a hiccup’ that Dunn and her mother (who was a smoker) lived in, sits within a beautifully complex mix of melancholy, irony, and lyricism:
Ash collected in the hexagonal tray. The packet of Benson & Hedges glinted wickedly in the afternoon sunlight. The flat was the size of a hiccup. Everything in it came from an op shop. Including Picasso.
Perhaps because of the source material, Dunn’s ekphrastic encounters with films (such as Splash, Working Girl, and The Linguini Incident) are more associated with a playful or ironic tone, but even here, she reserves a degree of respect (even for a ‘bad’ film like The Linguini Incident), since Dunn – perhaps not surprisingly for a one-time appropriation artist – is less concerned with whether a film or painting is ‘good’, so much as concerned with what it is good for.
In ‘Art in the Waiting Room’, Dunn turns, without didacticism or sentimentality, to the vernacular uses that art is put to in the eponymous waiting room. These uses have great dignity, but they have nothing of the pompousness or facetiousness (which seem to be two sides of the same coin) found in academic or gallery art. Walking with her gravely ill mother through the hospital, Dunn
showed her my favourite painting [in the hospital], tucked in a corner. Its colours so bold that from the corner of my eye I first suspected Matisse. Then was embarrassed when I realised the artist was Harriet, aged six, who donated Flowers for the Leukaemia Ward in memory of her father Ned.
The leukaemia ward turns out to be the site of an unexpectedly late lesson – which once again illustrates the duality of things – in Dunn’s artistic and emotional education.
Take 5: The Voice
Back in the 90s, when Dunn was doing Intermedia at art school, the idea of ‘voice’ was manifestly suspect, associated as it was with presence, authenticity, and authority. But, despite the emphasis on visual art in Things I Learned at Art School, a deep sense of voice is apparent in Dunn’s writing. This is partly the recognisable voice of the stand-up comic. Deadpan, camp, the quip: these are all comic styles that rely on subtle articulations of voice. It is also partly because, despite the stylistic variety of the essayistic forms, Dunn maintains a recognisable ‘Dunnian’ style. As such, Things I Learned at Art School strikes me as book crying out to be made into an audiobook, read (of course) by the author. And if that audiobook production transpires, I strongly hope that there is a blooper reel at the end with fluffed takes. After all, as Tinderbox and Things I Learned at Art School make clear, Dunn has a genius for producing extraordinarily compelling work from her mistakes.
David Kennedy, The Ekphrastic Encounter in Contemporary British Poetry and Elsewhere, Routledge, London, 2012.