Book Review: We Go to the Gallery, Miriam and Ezra Elia

“We Go to the Gallery”
Miriam and Ezra Elia
Dung Beetle Ltd, 2014-2015
Hardback, 11.7 x 17.8 cm (4.6 x 7 in), 47 pp., £20.00 + postage
ISBN 978 0 992 83490 6
Available direct from the author.

When we visited the Pompidou Centre in Paris, we inadvertently walked into the 2009 retrospective of Pierre Soulages’ work,* which we had hoped might be light relief from the venom and vaginismus poured onto canvas at a concurrent exhibition on feminism.

There was something deeply surreal about walking from an endlessly looping movie of someone’s endoscopy to the clinical white walls, Soulages’ monotonic and monotonous canvases, and sparkling dinner jackets and gowns gathering in front of his paintings. The most bizarre twist to this was that hardly anyone attending that reception was actually looking at his paintings – they were so pre-occupied with their socialising, or maybe had already grown bored with black paint.

If you too find Tracey Emin’s bed tawdry, her scrawled sketches embarrassing, and are bored to tears with pickled sharks and other absurdities, then you should enjoy Miriam and Ezra Elia’s delightful parody of a classic Ladybird learn-to-read book, We Go to the Gallery.

Written by both Elias, and illustrated by Miriam, it has already attracted its own controversy. Before the most recent change to UK copyright law which finally made such parody an explicitly fair use, the current owners of Ladybird Books, behemoth Penguin Random House, demanded that every copy of its first edition should be pulped, as Penguin (who also happen to publish Miriam’s other book) claimed the book was in breach of copyright.

Thankfully the change of law and dogged persistence by the Elias’ lawyers have triumphed, and we can enjoy their work at last.

Starting with those fateful words “We are going to the gallery. Mummy wants to show us the art” the Elias take us on a nightmare journey where “Pretty is not important”. Miriam’s superb recreations of the illustrations in an archetypical Ladybird book show exactly the sort of scenes that we are confronted with by ‘modern art’, and their words bite to the quick: “The canvas is blank. Susan is blank.”

Those who have tried to take ‘modern art’ seriously can have added fun recognising the (in)famous works on which each spread is based. I confess that I have spent many years trying to disremember (or possibly dismember) these from my mind, so whilst they still come a little hazily, like Pernod burps a wave of nausea is never too far away.

The parody is made the more perfect by the endpapers, which keep the spirit with “The jolly colourful illustrations will enable your child to smoothly internalize all of the debilitating middle class self-hatred contained in each artwork.”

The danger with this type of parody is, once read and chortled over, it has served its purpose and is spent and done. The many little touches which have gone into its writing, illustration, and design ensure that you will want to keep looking at it. It even feels like one of those old early readers, and this edition was lovingly printed by Miriam on a 1950s Heidelberg press in Krakow, Poland.

Your reponse will depend on which side of the fence you have chosen. If your walls are peppered with abstract expressionist paintings, and you have a season ticket to the Saatchi Gallery, then you will probably try to laugh it off. For the most of us, who can see through the long stream of conceptual crap, it is light in the darkness, something to cheer you up at the end of a hard day, and comfort in knowing that you are not the only person who can spot cultural fraud a mile off.

Miriam and Ezra Elia have achieved something that tens of thousands of words of crafted reasoning cannot: they have shown the truth, with a wry smile.

What next? Their website promises commercial editions of this book in the Autumn, in the US and UK, and a new title “Art School Checklist”. I eagerly look forward to it.

Buy it and love it.

I am very grateful to Richard Bledsoe’s excellent Remodern Review here, for drawing my attention to this book.

*Postscript (27 Oct 2015). I was perhaps being harsh. My attention has been drawn to an excellent blog which covers the work and art of Pierre Soulages here on Artsy: if you wish to find out more about him, that seems an excellent place to go.