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KNOCK KNOCK: Humour in Contemporary Art, South London Gallery

The recent group exhibition Knock Knock at South London Gallery (SLG) explores the diverse use of humour in contemporary art landscape. Curated by SLG director Margot Heller and artist Ryan Gander, it exhibits works from 36 artists, both established artists and young practitioners, and spans the main site as well as the new major expansion at the former Fire Station building across the street.

One trope of humour in art is the use of unexpected conjunctions, like Duchamp’s urinal (Fountain 1917). Many works in this exhibition also incorporate humour by showing familiar subjects in an unexpected manner, with Ceal Floyer’s Saw (2015) cutting through the gallery floor, Heman Chong’s text Oops! Something went wrong. We’re working on getting it fixed as soon as we can (2016) written on the entrance door, Joyce Pensato’s enormous charcoal drawing of Mickey Mouse being chased by military Donald Duck in a nightmarish portrayal, and the surveillance by Maurizio’s taxidermy taking over gallery eaves in the form of stuffed pigeons.

Humour may also reveal human self-contradiction and incomprehensibility—then it becomes satire. In Pilvi Takala’s satirical video Real Snow White (2009), she dressed up as Snow White but was refused entry to Disneyland because security guards believed her costume could cause confusion with the ‘real’ Snow White inside the park. Her prank, like the Yes Man’s entertaining stunts, lying between absurdity and trenchant wit, uses ridicule to allude to the status of illegal immigrants and wardrobe regulation in France.

There are moments when a humorous trope leads to notions of poignancy. At the Fire Station building, Ugo Rondinone’s fibreglass sculpture (If There were Anywhere but Desert, Friday 2002) occupies the ground floor gallery. The lonesome beer-bellied clown, maybe one from Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture (1987), lies on the floor of the white, empty room, facing towards the strategically coloured window. The sense of melancholy and detachment is both thought-provoking and empathetic. The resonate it builds within the viewer can be more enduring compared to humour.

Besides the oblique humour on show, light-hearted visual puns offer joyous moments: Judith Hopf’s Flock of sheep (2007) hides under the staircases at the entrance. The work is literally a flock of cuboid concrete with freehand drawing of sheep faces supported by metal legs. Upstairs, hangs Matthew Higgs’ Portrait (Landscape) (2006), displaying a red canvas with the centralized quote ‘NO OIL PAINTING’.

Perhaps the most remarkable work is Harold Offeh’s video Smile (2011) which illustrates the fine line between humour and horror. In the video, Offeh grimaces and makes a seemingly forced grin to a soundtrack of Nat King Cole’s eponymous song (composed by Charlie Chaplin). The relentless and ceaseless repetition generates a sense of distressed sensory overload. While both the artist and viewer are locked in an endless loop of suffering, the wit soon turns to dread.

Despite its diversity, this exhibition is positioned awkwardly, trying to curatorially reconcile distinct artistic practices under a common theme. The heterogeneity eliminates the narrative between artworks. Just like humour, curation also needs to be contextual. These remarkable pieces remain in the show disconnected, due to the fact that they do not, in themselves, communicate humour. Humour is used as artistic strategy, rather than the objective. Nevertheless, the dominating theme of humour enforces a hashtag on the works that overshadows and diminishes their criticality.

Having said that, living in this era of upheaval, in the days of fury, it might be clever to look instead for the punchline, and let humour be our zeitgeist.


I am interested in the entanglements of landscape and narratives, that are necessary, if not inevitable, in rewriting certain histories.