Before my conversation with Emmanuel Laflamme, I wondered whether or not I would face a nihilist or a comedian due to the juxtaposition of humorous satire and depressing societal ills in his postmodern oeuvre. My questioning was misplaced. Laflamme’s work does not comment on as much as it reflects contemporary society, and - if one thing is certain to the artist - the current world is a confusing mélange of beauty, tragedy, and absurdities.
It was raining the day we met. I got to the address and entered the empty factory-like building, discovering an endless carnivalesque shared studio. I was suddenly struck with an irrational anxiety, convinced that I had mixed up the date or the time. The space I was in and the moment itself felt alien to me, as if I was entering a world I had never seen before. I felt as though I was trapped in one of Laflamme’s absurd artworks. After a minute, Emmanuel shows up with a warm smile; he offers me tea, I decline, and we sit in his enchanting studio space for our conversation. The contrast between the coldness of his absence and the warmth of his presence made me uneasy, but it was the perfect preparation for our conversation.
Laflamme is a self-taught multi-media artist full of ambition, confidence, and passion. Primarily known for his humorous mashups and his pop art, the artist has also delved into sculpture, performance art, filmmaking, and other mediums. This impressive artistic range is essential to his oeuvre, fueled by a constant need for innovation and experimentation. Laflamme prioritizes the artistic idea rather than restraining himself in his aesthetic and technical approach. Justifying this artistic indeterminacy, Laflamme explains that “each idea has a way of being interestingly expressed” and, hence, that “the medium always follows the idea”. These ideas are at the core of Laflamme’s art, always striving to display the world in a new light, to unsettle our perceptions of normality, or to provoke our comfortable views of the contemporary world. Uncovering the ridiculous contradictions of modern society, Laflamme embodies absurdism.
I was reluctant to compare Laflamme’s works to memes when I was speaking with him. As I mention ‘meme culture’, he grins. For him, memes possess a significant societal power. Rather than a form of low culture, Laflamme sees memes as “a universal visual language that gives people the power to transform culture for themselves”. In line with meme culture, Laflamme’s work combines the worlds of pop culture, art history, and contemporary politics through the appropriation of imagery. Laflamme shapes the meaning of popular iconography to extrapolate new meanings.
In this way, Laflamme’s work carries the spirit of contemporary meme culture, with his own unique aesthetic and discursive viewpoint. However, Laflamme does not want to be misconstrued as political; rather than offering a distinct message, he holds a mirror to our past and current myths in order to recontextualize them. The responsibility of attributing meaning is in the hands of the viewers rather than the artist.
As I was going through Laflamme’s diverse catalog, I was mostly struck by his humor. Despite the heavy themes he chooses to tackle, Emmanuel always finds a way to make you chuckle - even when it seems immoral to do so. In Adam + Eve, he reimagines a Northern Renaissance woodcut of the couple by replacing the Forbidden Fruit with the Apple logo. Another piece, Climate Change features polar bears on a disappearing iceberg drinking soda over which is written “climate change” in the red Coca-Cola font. I asked him whether his work was primarily comedic or tragic. He had trouble answering. There’s a comedic absurdity to Laflamme’s mash-ups which are layered with meaning despite their simplicity. His humor relies upon our collective knowledge of global social issues, making it simultaneously depressing in some instances. Laflamme’s artworks exist within a paradoxical realm where comedy and tragedy are linked: absurdism.
We discussed Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus due to their shared interest in the absurdity of the existential quest for ultimate meaning. Laflamme’s work channels Plato and Camus in its view of the modern world. His philosophy is not nihilistic, it simply uses absurdity to be more realistic in its portrayal of modernity. The contemporary proliferation of information has led to a world in which everyone has to know and care about every issue afflicting the global world, overwhelming people with an amount of ethical responsibility that goes far beyond one’s own potential power. Rather than submitting to despair, Plato, Camus, and Laflamme demand that we escape from our illusions; they implore us to distance ourselves from the world as we know it in order to see it in a more truthful manner.
“When we are submerged in tragedy, chaos, and all conceivable issues, we cannot remove ourselves from the illusion. We cannot appreciate all the beauty around us.”
In this way, there is a profound humanity to Laflamme’s body of work. If tragedy divides, comedy brings together, and the artist attempts to create a bridge between the two. He recalls the famous quote: “comedy is tragedy plus time”. His ironic rendering of the contemporary social landscape means to distance us from life’s inescapable tragedies and, possibly, make us chuckle in the process.
In many of Laflamme’s artworks, symbols of Neoliberal capitalism and Religious symbolism are interchangeable. I ask him: “are you trying to link the indoctrination of capitalism with that of the clergy?”. His answer was much more nuanced than what my binary question anticipated; my error was in assuming that the man before me was categorically against religion. In fact, for Emmanuel, “spirituality is beautiful”. Of course, he also saw the parallel I was suggesting, but his concern was different in nature. With admirable passion, he admits; “I’ve always found Biblical symbolism and iconography to be so powerful. To understand these stories and images allowed me to better appropriate them”. Thus, ridicule is not always the goal of his approach to iconographic appropriation. They become a bridge through which Laflamme can discuss with our ancient myths through a modern lens.
Laflamme argues that Quebec’s absolute disassociation from Religion has led to a “spiritual void” in our contemporary culture, one that pop culture has had to fill. While Neoliberal corporations and the Clergy certainly utilize a comparable rhetoric of indoctrination, Laflamme’s concern is much more spiritual than it is political. Mythical symbols of morality have been replaced by pop-cultural icons created to appeal to a market. Thus, the artist reshapes ancient religious art in the same way that he does pop culture, including it in his own practice of meme-making. As always, Laflamme does not give the answer, but the link he creates in his artwork asks an elemental question about the nature of pop culture in our systems of belief.
Whether intended to be comedic or tragic, Emmanuel Laflamme’s work is profoundly human: undefinable, constantly evolving, and complex. He means to provoke with his pointed satire and question with his unconventional perception of the modern world. My conversation with him was nothing I had expected. Rather than only discussing his diverse technical knowledge, intricate artistic process, and influences, I ended up discovering the person himself. More than anything else, it was this human discussion which made me truly appreciate his delightful art.