Interview: Miriam Elia

Contemporary art is rarely humorous. This ex-stand-up comedian is setting that right.


Miriam Elia as she appears in her installation

Miriam Elia as she appears in her installation

Miriam Elia is attempting to come up with a definition of conceptual art.

Although she has made a considerable reputation for herself as a stand-up comedian and Radio 4 comedy writer, Elia defines herself as an artist and her comedy as such too.

Her latest work, an installation entitled I Fell in Love With a Conceptual Artist… And It Was Totally Meaningless, could equally be a piece of comedy writing. It features Elia, photographed in full chav gear, including tattoo and piercing, telling of her (true-life) relationship with Turner Prize-winning conceptual artist Martin Creed in the format of a Take A Break magazine article. The spoof spread stands several feet high and "is cloudy and smokey and over-the-top, like a barmitzvah," says Elia, over a black coffee at a café near her home in Muswell Hill, north London.

She says the work was completely based on her experience. "It's a literal piece of work but it's also heavily metaphorical. It could equally be called 'I Fell in Love with a Concept'. Most people read it and they laugh because they see it as comedy, which it is, but I can tell you that every word in it is completely true. So to me it is tragedy.

"It started when my friend said I should write my feelings about my relationship down on a piece of paper. So I did, and then I just started to laugh because it was so clichéd. So I wrote it in the style of a trash magazine."

Elia, who is the granddaughter of the noted caricaturist Ralph Sallon,, adds that once she finished the piece she decided that she would submit it to Take A Break itself.

I don't want to be a boring comedian on Mock The Week

"This was about the most conceptual-art thing I could have done. They wrote an email back thanking me for my submission but saying that unfortunately they couldn't publish it because their readers didn't understand words like 'gallery' or 'installation'. That letter forms part of the installation. I might even include this interview," she adds with a chuckle.

Elia grew up in north London and went to JFS which she found "stuffy and suburban". The Royal College of Art was a completely different kind of experience but was also frustrating.

"I left art school disillusioned. I didn't know what I wanted to do but I definitely didn't want to be an artist. I already had a bee in my bonnet about comedy since I was a kid listening to endless episodes of Tony Hancock. So I got into stand-up but I didn't really like the fake confessional element of it. I was much more interested in writing and getting my ideas over in a humorous way."

She entered some of her sketches into a BBC new talent competition. She won and her ideas became the basis of a BBC Radio 7 series called A Series of Psychotic Episodes, written with her brother, Ezra, which won a Sony Award. The shows did well enough to transfer onto Radio 4.

"I began to meet all these people like [Father Ted writer] Arthur Matthews and Sandi Toksvig. But I think everyone in the industry found me a little difficult to deal with. There was always some discrepancy. I always said I didn't want to do stupid panel shows. I went to the Edinburgh Fringe but it felt weird."

She adds that all the time she was writing and performing comedy she found herself coming up with a lot of material about artists who hated themselves, without really knowing why she was doing it.

But at some point she decided that she could be an artist and also be funny. "Why do I have to feel that one half of me is comedy and the other half is art? I did this sketch about Edward the Hamster - who was a real hamster but the sketch was based on Hancock. And I made a film which is showing at the RCA over Christmas - it's about a rabbit who is claiming benefit for 300 kids." She chuckles again.

Elia also decided that she did not need to decide on a medium. "All the artists of the last century basically hit on something when they were about 30 and then spent the next 60 years milking it. I don't want to be a boring comedian on Mock the Week. I find it so unimaginative. Comedy at Channel 4 and the BBC has become about the cult of celebrity. So why restrict yourself."

Elia adds that Judaism is very important to her and indirectly influences her work.

She says: "When the Roman stormed our Temple they asked: 'Where are your Gods?" And they answered: 'We just have books'. So maybe Jews were the first conceptual artists."

And maybe this interview does belongs in an installation.

'I Fell in Love with a Conceptual Artist' is showing at The Nave, 1 St Pauls Road, Highbury, London N1 until December 11. Details at www.thenave.com

    Last updated: 11:46am, December 8 2011