Original article courtesy of The Guardian, September 22, 2015. By Claire Armitstead.
When Miriam Elia released a small book lampooning the art world, she might have expected a squall, but she was completely unprepared for the force of what swept down on her. In 44 pages, closely modelled on the Peter and Jane Ladybird reading books from the 1960s and 70s, she poked fun at a more recent generation of artworks, from bissected animals to outsized female nudes, as seen through the eyes of two small children.
Like Peter and Jane, We Go to the Gallery consists of simple scenes with new vocabulary at the bottom of each page. Rereleased in a mass-market edition this week, the book is funny, smart and – to any parent who has tried to introduce small children to modern art – excruciatingly recognisable. “The rubbish smells,” says the girl, standing before a binbag installation. “‘It is the stench of our decaying Western civilisation,” says Mummy.” Along the bottom, the new-words panel lists: “rubbish smells western”.
Elia raised £5,000 through Kickstarter to publish the book, painstakingly replicating the design techniques and printing technology used in the original Ladybird books. As encouragement, she put individual pages out on social media. By the time the first edition of 1,000 books had been released, at £20 apiece, it had gone viral. Retribution was swift, and it came not from the art establishment but from corporate publishing, with a lawyer’s letter from Penguin threatening legal action for breach of copyright unless sales were halted. Not only had she copied the style and named the children Peter and Jane, she had also cited Ladybird on the cover, brushing aside the reservations of her graphic designer father with the words: “It’s an artwork. I can do what I like.”
“It was really distressing,” she says. “I’m not a very professional person. Millions of people around the world were sharing pages of the book, but nobody knew what it was.” Soon it had become a collectors’ item, reselling for as much as £900 a copy. She needed to reprint, but realised a second edition would require changes. So, in place of the Ladybird reading scheme, the Dung Beetle scheme was born.
This evolution involved not only the wording but the illustrations. The artwork for the original Peter and Jane series was produced by collaging photographs and overlaying them with a watercolour wash. So Elia needed child models to remake hers. Her search for “the right sort of children” took her to a modelling agency in Yorkshire because “London children just didn’t look right”. She sourced period clothes from a costumier friend who worked on the recent Kray twins film Legend, making pictures that replicated the look – “red lipstick for Mummy is important” – while creating something subtly different.
Her search for the right sort of children led to a Yorkshire modelling agency: ‘London children just didn’t look right’. After the second edition of 5,000 sold out, Elia decided to issue a more affordable mass-market edition: 8,000 of the 20,000 copies have already been shipped to the US, and a sequel is on the drawing board. Her success as a self-publisher has enabled her to rent a studio in London and finance herself for the forseeable future as an artist-provocateur.
“We set up Dung Beetle Limited as a joke,” she laughs, “and it’s become a corporation with a ‘fulfilment centre’ to send out the books.” By we, she means herself and her older brother, Ezra, who is cited as co-author, and with whom she created a previous hit: The Diary of Edward the Hamster, 1990 to 1990. Their childhood memories of owning a hamster were the basis of this mordant story of an abused pet, which began life as a satire for Radio 4 before becoming a Sony-nominated animation and a book. It is a memorial to the suffering of the only pet the siblings were allowed growing up in north London, when they would really have preferred a dog. “Wednesday May 5: Why exist?” writes Edward. “Wednesday May 7: Two of them came today, dragged me out of my cage and put me in some kind of improvised maze made out of books and old toilet rolls.
Ezra was good with words, while Miriam was the arty one. She left school to study animation in London and graphic design in Brighton, where she spent her downtime rummaging through house clearance bags for the postwar memorabilia with which she is still obsessed. She went on to the Royal College of Art, where disillusion quickly set in. “It was all bland and sterile: like going to church.” So she decided to sidestep into comedy, winning Channel 4’s Gags to Go prize in 2007 with a short film, Cockface, about an alcoholic robotic rabbit with a shuttlecock for a nose; and a BBC new talent award in 2008 for the first episode ofA Series of Psychotic Episodes, which went on to be commissioned for two series on Radio 4.
Her break with comedy came after she received a call from the BBC saying they had hired another quirky female comic and there wasn’t room for two. “It was maybe good timing, because I needed to get away from it,” says the 33-year-old. “I fell out of love with comedy and I can’t do it any more.”
As an artist, she says, she is both sceptical and optimistic. “I really enjoy making something that undermines the philosophy of contemporary art – but what I’m making is contemporary art.” The postwar optimism embodied in the perky Peter and Jane learning system clashes delightfully with the wilful nihilism of the modern art scene. “Everything I do is about a violent clash between two things that makes something funny. That clash is the backdrop of my life.”
In the case of We Go to the Gallery, she has had the last laugh. Not only did Penguin fail to come up with copyright documents to support its case, but weeks after publication of the book, copyright law relating to “caricature, parody or pastiche” was changed, making it unlikely that she could be sued anyway. The Dung Beetle looks set to roll on.