LONDON — Jokes are about laughter, but they’re also about competence. Nothing expresses mastery over the boundaries of a shared knowledge better than the act of pushing at those boundaries. Or, to put it another way: playing with the rules, in the way that jokes play with conventions, is the supreme affirmation that you know them. “Laughing” and “making-laugh” emerge within the framework of the joke as reciprocal, almost contractual, gestures, like secret handshakes or conspiratorial winks.
On one condition, of course. That you “get it.” Getting it. That’s the problem. Jokes not “got” are not funny. In fact, they’re alienating. “Getting it” represents the stark border between insiders and outsiders, newcomes and native speakers. For every joke warmly understood is one whose capacity to exclude edges toward elitism.
A concession: Knock Knock: Humour in Contemporary Art at South London Gallery is, by-and-large, a well-rounded show. Aiming to capture the persistence of humour across contemporary art, co-curators Margot Heller (SLG’s Director) and Ryan Gander have brought together an impressive roster of established and upcoming artists, and a range of comic strategies. Absurdist masterpieces like Lucy Gunning’s The Horse Impressionists share the stage with Joyce Pensato’s unsettling paintings of comic book characters. A lot is going on in this exhibition, its subject reflected through a variety of viewpoints.
This said, I found one tendency in the exhibition inescapable, and, ultimately, oppressive. It’s best demonstrated through a couple of examples.
Bedwyr Williams’s “Fucking Inbred Welsh Sheepshagger” (2107), a fur-covered bike fitted with large ram’s horns, is one of the first works encountered in the exhibition space. Repurposing a series of stereotypes about Williams’ national identity, the sculpture levels the same charges of incestuousness and sheepish lack of initiative at the exhibition’s public. Placed haphazardly in the South London Gallery’s corridor, the artwork invites the viewer to go for a ride. On to the next opening, the next trend.
Ceal Foyer’s “Saw” (2015), meanwhile, takes the artists themselves to task. Emerging, in full “Tom and Jerry” style, from the floorboards, “Saw” is a clever, screwball nod to postminimal sculptors of the 1960s and 1970s monomaniacally intent on the circumscription of space. By cutting through the fabric of the gallery, albeit in an outlandishly cartoonish way, Foyer nods to this sculptural practice while questioning the value of many of its aims. It’s a work that elegantly, and devastatingly, brings Gordon Matta-Clark eye-to-eye with the Looney Toons.
Splitting the difference between these two selections gives a reasonable picture of what Knock Knock is about. Most of its laughs are generated by pulling at art’s histories and conventions, or otherwise poking the odd, knowing jab at the art market and art people. The results are mixed. On the one hand, there are plenty of clever, thoughtful, and often biting takes on the field — and, for what it’s worth, I found Williams’s bike and Foyer’s saw genuinely funny. On the other hand, each joke seemed to draw an ever-tighter line around the art cognoscenti capable of “getting it.” The laughter was always transitive, laughing “at” or “with,” and, after a while, the whole exercise began to feel a bit tiresome and self-congratulatory. At best, the joke’s subversive or cathartic potential never quite emerged as forcefully in the exhibition as it could have. At worst, the compulsion to be funny ended up violently exacerbating contemporary art’s already strained relationship with “getting it”: its love, insatiable as always, of the navel gaze and circle jerk.
To their credit, curators Heller and Gander saw this criticism coming, and a few works point to this problem from within the exhibition’s framework. Simeon Barclay’s 2016 “Gatefold Series: I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now,” is a rich example. A three-panel monochrome painting, redolent of certain minimalist works, plays host to two small inset images, a photograph of Maradonna’s “hand of god” goal in the 1986 world cup, and a diagram of the hand, showing precisely where the fateful ball hit. A hyper-attention to spatiality bridges the two worlds — minimalist panel and football controversy — but the contrast between popular culture and fine art discourse is made to feel too acute, an effect highlighted by the comical discrepancy in size between the panel and the images. As such, the possibility of “getting it,” of crossing over from one “field” to the other, ends up looking deliciously silly.
But even this dose of self-reflexivity doesn’t help a whole lot. Although Barclay’s work astutely points to the hierarchies that separate “knowing art” and “knowing about everything else” it does so firmly in the terms of the former. We are thrown into the weird situation of laughing at the overspecialization of our language in that language: deriding the exclusivity of in-jokes with further in-jokes. This might well be intentional, another smart twist in the fabric of Barclay’s work, but it plays straight back into the exhibition’s slightly nauseating insider-y cleverness. Talking about contemporary art is the prerogative of any contemporary art show, but I couldn’t help but feel that jokes were a subject which could have offered more: something bigger, louder and, ultimately, richer. Instead, it’s that queasy sensation of insiderdom that I’ll remember best.
Knock Knock: Humour in Contemporary Art continues at South London Gallery (65-67 Peckham Road, London, UK) through November 18.