Sara Sjölin at SALTS

Artist: Sara Sjölin

Exhibition title: Sara Sjölin’s Special Improvised Comedy Routine

Curated by: Cassidy Toner for fiancé

Venue: SALTS, Birsfelden, Switzerland

Date: September 17, 2020 – January 30, 2021

Photography: Gunnar Meier Photography / Courtesy: SALTS & the Artist

Andy Kaufman famously said, “I never told a joke in my life.” I think this sentiment most ac-curately encapsulates the work of Sara Sjölin. Though the final product is often cloaked in a comical tone the underlying structure of her pieces are composed of discomfort and agony. This is the foundational element of all comedy.

“These people are paying to laugh at your pain. And it made him angry because that shit was really hurting him, and everyone’s like, “Oh, we love you. You’re great.” And he’s like, “What? You know how painful that shit was I had to go through to make you laugh?”

– Mike Epps on Richard Pryor

There are always two sides of comedy- the inner-life and the outer-life. What’s presented to an audience is the aftermath of a period of internal reflection. Sjölin’s exhibition at Fiancé could be considered a physical manifestation of this idea. On the exterior wall of the exhibi-tion space the artist has mounted two large television screens to display her videos. The first piece, Hotel Scene (2020), depicts Sjölin as the musical entertainment for a hotel lounge. In her own words she chose to do this without, “ever having attempted to make music before.” She plays with the idea of musicians being praised for their vulnerability. Not some lip-synch-ing fake, but like Taylor Swift crying in her bedroom.

Accompanied by a piano Sjölin croons,
you just come up with a melody from nowhere…
somehow you have to repeat the melody…
if you repeat the melody then…
well it’s hopeless…

Housed inside the exhibition space is an aged newspaper clipping, aptly titled My dad played the clarinet as a little child, (1956/ 2020.) At the end of Hotel Scene Sjölin begins to reminisce about her father’s time as a musician before the video abruptly cuts off. The rediscovery of this newspaper fragment led Sjölin to question her identity as an artist. Her attempts to har-ness the musical genes she’s surely inherited have failed as the hotel guests yawn and look generally exacerbated by her lackluster performance.

Plenty of comedians have explored the notion of failure. There are the classics like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but I’m reminded more of Kristen Schaal’s stand-up special, Live at the Fillmore (2013.) Part way through it totally derails as Schaal stumbles on a word-the audience walks out, and the final scene depicts Schaal, in a futuristic hospital bed, still in a psychosis from the performance. It’s the feeling you have in the moment of failure- you’ll never get over this. I’m constantly in awe of Sjölin’s ability to savor these moments. She even has the discipline to sit in them like a Buddhist monk and stretch the moments to minutes. So it made sense when she began performing Improvised Comedy (2020.) This is the second work presented on the exterior of the space. The videos chronicle Sjölin as she performs her stand-up routine at various clubs across Scandinavia. In her act she recalls her first experience with stand-up comedy, which wasn’t great. The comedian performing began to make fun of Sjölin as she watched from the crowd. Naturally, Sjölin turned the tables in her stand-up act and made fun of the comedians skills for nearly berating an audience member (warranted or not.)