Text by Jessica Oralkan. Excerpts from We Go to the Gallery by Dung Beetle Books
In 2014, artist Miriam Elia created We Go to the Gallery, a tribute to and a parody of the much-loved British Ladybird children’s reading books from the 1960s and ’70s. In it, she pokes fun at the contemporary art world—from oversized balloon puppies to giant genitalia—through two small children as they discover the real meaning of contemporary art with Mummy’s help.
The books became an instant hit with features in Independent, the Guardian, and The Times with images shared thousands of times across social media. Retribution from Ladybird’s publisher, Penguin, was swift and surprising—Elia considered the book a work of art, after all. They threatened legal action for breach of copyright unless all sales were halted and the books destroyed. With some modifications and a timely stroke of luck—the copyright law had just changed—Elia and her brother Ezra rereleased We Go to the Gallery as a commercial edition and began work on a new series of books under the moniker Dung Beetle Books.
You graduated from Royal College of Art (RCA) as an artist. What sparked the idea to create this book?
The book was cathartic. It’s very complex, and I can’t explain it because there’s no point in doing that.
But the material in the book goes back to my own childhood. Both my parents met at the RCA, I was apparently conceived there—an ‘untitled’ project perhaps. So much of my ’80s and ’90s upbringing was spent going to art galleries with my parents. I remember their rows about the dominance of conceptual art—my father enjoys it, my mother loathes it.
So the idea for this book struck me one day, and I suppose a lot of those childhood experiences filtered through to the final work.
Did you anticipate it causing such a stir?
No, not really. I do live in my own world, in a way.
I clearly remember my father asking me a day or two before the books came back from the printers: “Did you ask for permission from Ladybird to do this?” I laughed and said, “Hell no! Why would I ask for anyone’s permission to make art?”
And then, before I knew it, the book had gone viral and I was faced with a lawsuit. But in my head, none of it mattered. I knew it was the best thing I’d ever made. It just had to exist.
Several months after litigious Penguin’s retreat, you discovered the publishing of several satirical Ladybird books from Penguin itself. It seems that you opened their eyes to an entirely new opportunity. How does that feel?
It was odd. Kind of nauseating. We Go to the Gallery was never really meant to be a commercial work. I didn’t foresee that it would have this huge impact.
Penguin bastardized the idea and commercialized it with mediocre, artless rip-offs. I’m not angry about it anymore, because there’s no point in wasting energy. The Dung Beetle motto is ‘De Stercore Doctrina—from shit comes learning.’
I still live by that.
So you launched Dung Beetle Books, which aims to drag families into the darker recesses of the collective unconscious for their broader cultural benefit. What are you taking aim at next?
I’m working on a Dung Beetle book of ‘play therapy,’ inspired by my 3-year-old son, Sid. He is beautiful but suffers from a rare neurodisability called Leigh’s, so I spend a lot of time in physical therapy sessions. It’s all filtering into the work.