Have you ever wondered why Harpo Marx never talked? There’s a story a friend told me, although I’ve never heard it anywhere else, that when the Marx Brothers were just getting their start in show business their first manager took their money and lost it at the racetrack. Harpo said, “I hope you go down in flames!” The next day the manager’s house burned and the other brothers decided it would be for the best if Harpo kept his mouth shut.
Years later when Groucho, Chico, and Harpo got together one last time to make A Night In Casablanca the studio wanted the silent partner to yell one word so they could put “Harpo speaks!” in the ad copy, but Harpo refused and they dropped the scene where he was supposed to yell “Fire!”
That’s what I thought about when I read that the opening of an exhibit by the South Korean artist Lee Bul at London’s Hayward Gallery was delayed because the art burst into flames.
The work called Majestic Splendour consists of fish—real fish—covered with sequins and plastic beads and because the smell of rotting fish made visitors sick at previous exhibitions the gallery added potassium permanganate to the fish.
Potassium permanganate, which, by the way, you can buy at hardware stores, is sometimes used to hide odors. I didn’t know this when I was a kid and added it to glycerin which, by the way, you can buy at hardware stores, and it would burst into flames which, by the way, is really cool to watch and you should do it with your kids, but that’s another story.
Apparently potassium permanganate can also burst into flames when added to rotting fish.
I know this is the sort of thing that prompts a lot of cheap jokes about modern art but making art and putting out there to the public, trying to make a statement, is a risky thing. It takes guts and sometimes those guts burst into flames and I’m not sure where I’m going with that, but I like Lee Bul’s work. One of her others, a silver zeppelin called Willing To Be Vulnerable is oddly eerie, suspended over a silver floor that blurrily reflects it.
I like the fish too. Suspended in mylar bags and decorated with beads they speak to me of the environment, the contrast between the rapidly rotting fish and the staying power of plastic. They’re also beautiful to me, and I never really noticed before how much a fish’s eye looks like a bead. Even the fire seems like a statement: heat can turn fish into food and plastic into toxic fumes.
So be careful about making cheap jokes about avant garde art because you just might go up in flames and, by the way, did you know Harpo Marx was a painter and an art collector?
That’s hilarious. All of it. I did know Harpo was an artist. Not that I would ever recall that piece of information, but when I read it here, it rang true like I already knew that.
What was really fun was as I was working on this I decided to do a little research on Harpo and learned that he practiced the harp while sitting on the toilet. Harpo is like an onion. Under every layer of him is another.
As cool as it sounds, all I could think was the song “Fish heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads…” Maybe I should be more like Harpo:-)
That’s a wonderful song and it goes perfectly with this exhibit! It also went perfectly with a fish hat my wife knitted for me a few years ago.
Before this post I didn’t really understand art, at all. Now I REALLY don’t understand art, at all.
I also confess that if you had said to me “Remember Harpo?” I would have said “Was he the quiet one?” I guess I never really watched a lot of the Marx’s. Come to think of it, I’ve never read any Karl Marx but I should. I also have a very rich customer named “Marx” that, for various reasons, really rubs me the wrong way.
Is it possible I have an anti-Marx bias I never knew about?
Fish. Go figure.
I think teachers and scholars place way too much emphasis on “understanding” art. It’s my humble opinion that when facing art all you really need to understand is how it makes you feel and what it makes you think about. Beyond that there’s history and theory, but all that is optional.
And your experience with Marx sounds like a Philip Roth story. Specifically “Defender Of The Faith”, but that is another story.
I had the good fortune to be exposed to the Marx Brothers early on, but, really, where would the 20th century be without two of its greatest thinkers?
This post includes so many things I love: fish, art, the Marx Brothers, and the mirror scene from “Duck Soup.” My son, who I love, wrote a joke, which I love, about yelling “fire!” but he might find it fishy and even rotten if I quote it here without his permission. So long and thanks for all the fish, Chris.
I love this comment and I’m sure I’d love Aaron’s joke, but since you’re not able to share it here’s something else to love: Steve Martin’s philosophical conundrum, “Is it ethical to yell ‘theater’ in a crowded fire?”
That’s very ethical of you, Chris.