17 Sep 2023

Steamed Hams! Internet memes turned art

From Culture 101, 1:00 pm on 17 September 2023

Steamed Hams is the name of a new exhibition at the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt.

It takes its curious name from a 1996 skit in animated television comedy show The Simpsons in which Superintendent Chalmers visits Principal Skinner for lunch - only for Skinner to burn the roast and resort to a ridiculous series of lies to cover it up. 

'Steamed Hams' became something of an in-joke between Simpsons fans but then really went viral in the late 2010s when tens of thousands of home creators started remixing, redubbing and remaking the scene, making it ever more ridiculous. 

Steamed Hams Exhibition photography August 11, 2023 in Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

Steamed Hams Exhibition photography August 11, 2023 in Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Photo: Mark Tantrum

There's Steamed Hams but it's directed by Quentin Tarantino, Steamed Hams except everything goes really well, Steamed Hams but it’s an AI generated nightmare and - strewth mate - the Australian dub.

A small selection of Steamed Hams is currently on show at the Dowse as part of the exhibition which features artists who employ humour and popular digital storytelling devices to explore how our worldview is being filtered through everything from TikTok to AI art. 

“What I'm really interested in with the Steamed Hams phenomenon is it's become itself this hugely creative response that's happened on the internet,”

Curator Chelsea Nicholls told Culture101's Mark Amery.

Cecelia Condit is a famous example of an artist who has been given a new creative lease of life via social media, she says.

“Cecelia Condit was a fine art professor, she made feminist video art through the 1970s and ‘80s and was really well known in small, filmic avant-garde circles, but it's only been within the last 10 years where her Possibly in Michigan has blown up because teenagers on TikTok found it and have kind of re-loved and that's where she's been getting the art world kudos that she never really did get.”

Possibly in Michigan is a cannibal, horror, feminist musical from 1983, Nicholls says.

LOWER HUTT, NEW ZEALAND - August 11: Steamed Hams Exhibition photography August 11, 2023 in Lower Hutt, New Zealand. (Photo by Mark Tantrum/ http://marktantrum.com)

Steamed Hams Exhibition photography August 11, 2023 Dowse Art Gallery, Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Photo: Mark Tantrum

“It's about these two women in a suburban mall and they're being chased through the mall by this creepy masked man. But then they turn the tables on this stalker, and they end up eating him together.

“The whole thing is set to this musical, which is incredibly, incredibly catchy.”

Teenagers on TikTok film themselves lip synching to songs from the short film, she says.

Condit now has works in the Guggenheim and has been featured in Frieze, she says.

“She's getting the contemporary art acclaim that she's deserved for 40 years.”

Nicholls was particularly interested in looking at how different contemporary artists reimagine and repurpose “these little nuggets of pop culture.”

“And the way that they got embedded in the internet subculture and became something that was bigger and arguably more meaningful than the original.”

Chelsea Nicholls

Chelsea Nicholls Photo: supplied

Happy Birthday Lindsay Lohan by Claire Harris features in the exhibition, she says.

“It's a bit of an underground Wellington legend. The work started out in 2011 on the cusp of Lindsay Lohan's 25th birthday.

“At that time, she was on house arrest, she was dealing with a lot of addiction issues and mental health issues. But she was absolutely sort of ripe for the picking on the internet.”

Lohan was being ripped apart by the likes of blogger Perez Hilton, she says.

“Claire's project was initially kind of in reaction to this. And it's about Lilo, it's about Lindsay Lohan, but it's also just about the treatment of women online generally and young women in particular and what we praise them for and then what we devour them for.”

Happy Birthday Lindsay Lohan took the form of performance art, meets teenage sleepover, she says

“She stayed up for 25 hours straight watching every single Lindsay Lohan movie ever made which is actually pretty big filmography for such a young actress as well it's pretty amazing.

“What we're showing at the Dowse is an archive of that 10-year project and each year that she did it, she did every single year on Lindsay Lohan's birthday.”

Another artist featured is Beth Frey and her work Sentient Muppet Factory.

“We've described her work as like a Hieronymus Bosch landscape, meets a Cindy Sherman film still, meets a haunted 1970s children's show, which I think kind of captures the vibe.

“I mean, they're creepy and they're funny, and they're strange. But I think it's really interesting in the way that she's then critically reflecting on this sort of technology and in all bits in the way they come together in our contemporary culture.”