Just when you’ve figured out how to talk to your children about divorce, and sex, and terrorism, along comes conceptual art to throw off your average. I’ve never met a kid who didn’t get abstract expressionism on some level, and they all love Richard Serra (other than the not yelling really loud while running around the installation part). But try explaining what Jenny Holzer’s phrases mean, or why Damien Hirst cuts cows in half, or pretty much anything by Jeff Koons—it’s enough to make a parent steer clear of any venue edgier than MoMA.
It would be great to say that Miriam Elia recognized that need, and sought to address it for the good of art-loving caregivers everywhere. But her newest project, We Go to the Gallery, is straight-up satire, and it’s very, very funny—that will have to be enough. Elia, a British comedian and multimedia artist who is herself an accomplished printmaker, collagist, and filmmaker, has put together a fond takeoff on the Peter and Jane books she grew up with. Peter and Jane, published by Ladybird Books in the 1960s, were the British equivalent of Dick and Jane in the U.S.—primers for very early readers, with limited vocabulary and simple noun-and-verb sentence structure. (But what is it with the penis names here—Peter, Dick? Do they think little boys might not identify with the correct half of the pair without a subliminal hint? Is Jane secretly short for Vagina?)
In Elia’s version, Peter and Jane visit a very contemporary gallery with their mum and try to make sense of it all:
There is nothing in the room.
Peter is confused.
Jane is confused.
Mummy is happy.
“There is nothing in the room because God is dead,” says mummy.
“Oh dear,” says Peter.
Or as the press release from the Cob Gallery, which hosted the book launch in February, puts it:
The jolly colourful illustrations will enable the child to smoothly internalise all of the debilitating middle class self hatred contained in the artworks at the gallery. Key words on every page also help the child to identify the key concepts, so that they may repeat them at dinner parties and impress educated guests.
Elia has lovingly recreated Peter and Jane’s visual style in painting and collage—perhaps a bit too lovingly for Penguin Books, owner of the Ladybird imprint. Although she published the book herself, raising £5,000 for an initial run of 1,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, Penguin is not amused. It contacted Elia to inform her that it considers the work a breach of copyright, requesting that she destroy any unsold copies—even offering to do the job themselves.
The last ten copies of We Go to the Gallery are for sale on eBay, to be signed and addressed to the highest bidders. In the meantime, Elia is holding off on a second printing, at least until UK copyright law changes in June to provide a fair dealing exception for satire and parody. (The book will no longer carry the Ladybird image, but rather Elia’s own logo of a dung beetle.)
The line between satire and homage is a fine one, to be sure. Fortunately not everyone takes these things quite so seriously. In March, Elia received a letter from Mark Dolley, son of former Penguin CEO Christopher Dolley. In it, Dolley cited Penguin’s founder Allen Lane, who first published the unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover:
A big part of dad’s job was taking advantage of the 1960 obscenity trial and its publicity to sell copies of Lawrence’s book all over the world. Both Lane and my father must be rolling over in their graves at Penguin today both missing a commercial opportunity and also making a crass attempt to stifle art. Far from trying to ban her work, both would have offered Ms. Elia a commission.
He concludes by commending Elia for “her contribution to the spirit and memory of a great British publishing tradition.” While I’m not in a position to bid on one of those last ten signed copies, I’m hoping for a second printing so that I can help uphold a little tradition on my end—and so I’ll know just what to say the next time someone’s reckless enough to let me take their children gallery-hopping.
(Illustration from We Go to the Gallery © Miriam Elia.)