David Shrigley’s Lightswitch is a 1-minute and 28 second long animated line drawing of a hand turning a light switch on and off. It’s about as simple as a cartoon could be, but for me, having just this morning lost my best friend to lung cancer, it is one of the most compelling depictions of our existence I know. I can feel Shrigley rolling his eyes, but that doesn’t bother me. He cultivates a flippant, goofy approach to art that uses art’s self-importance as a straight man. That is all well and good, but from the first time I saw Lightswitch several years ago, it struck me as both funny and profound. Below is a typical Shrigley drawing that addresses this very issue.
Just the existence of the above drawing acknowledges that Shrigley is being coy with his audience and that there is ample room for interpretation when it comes to appreciating what he does. The drawing is also a reiteration of the issues expressed in Lightswitch. It simply boils down to a no-frills illustration of existentialism. You can philosophize about life and meaning and the universe, but as mysterious and engrossing as it all is, you are essentially a light switch. One day you are on (alive), and a moment later you are off (dead). You can dream up all kinds of exotic ideas about the nature of existence, but it all comes down to a brutal binary.
However, there is more to Lightswitch than distilling our existence down to a stark black-and-white condition. As with all David Shrigley pieces, there is humor and play. The finger approaches the light switch hesitantly at first. It clicks it from on to off, and the screen goes black. Then we hear a click, and we see the hand and the switch again. Then it presses the switch again, and the screen goes black again. This is repeated several times, and then we see the hand pause and wiggle its finger. It’s playing, it’s enjoying this silly moment. Then it starts turning the switch on and off very quickly. Humor is all about timing and it is hard to describe, but there is a very funny sense of whimsy as the finger plays with this newfound toy.
The irony is that there isn’t really a way to “play” with this toy. There isn’t a way to be creative. It’s either on or off. Our lives are similarly simple, but we find a way to play anyway. Absurdity and humor are close cousins.
I find the little cartoon mesmerizing. The meaningless of life is oppressive for some and liberating for others. I find it a relief. Lightswitch cuts through all the bullshit that we distract ourselves with and dumbs down our pretensions of significance. It doesn’t matter what you do or say, at any moment you might get turned off.
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