ART HAS ALWAYS had a sense of humor. Scenes from Greek theatrical comedies are immortalized on classical vases. Bawdy sexual jokes are common in the art of the Dutch Golden Age. And many of the paintings favored by 18th-century French aristocrats were inspired by commedia dell’arte pageantry. The history of art can be a lens through which to examine the ever-evolving cultural forms, dramatic genres and literary conventions that fall under the heading of comedy. Whether reveling in the pleasures of everyday life or skewering the cultivated manners of the elite, art with a comedic sensibility can reflect the values of a dominant class, challenge ruling ideologies—or sometimes appear to accomplish both at the same time. Erupting from perceived incongruities in otherwise conventional situations, comedy can effect a “victorious tilting of uncontrol against control,” as anthropologist Mary Douglas has observed. Laughter, however, can also accompany a feeling of self-satisfaction—what Hobbes called “sudden glory”—that comes from witty assertions of superiority.
The essays that follow explore some intersections of contemporary art and comedy while reflecting each contributor’s singular sense of humor. The comedic forms they consume, spanning from experimental improv to late-night talk shows, are as diverse as the work they produce. Comedian Kate Berlant performs at both galleries and comedy clubs, manipulating the expectations embedded within different venue types. Self-described conceptual entrepreneur Martine Syms identifies kernels of truth within the sometimes pallid fare offered by television sitcoms and romantic comedies, even as she is drawn to the memes shared within online subcultures. While new media defines new contexts for humor, a remarkable reliance on physical comedy and the immediacy of performance remains, whether through the spontaneity and responsiveness of the improv techniques that Amy Sillman applies to her abstract paintings or the dynamics of slapstick that animate Aki Sasamoto’s performances.
A SOMBER ETHICS CLASS on a sticky hot Tokyo summer day. A pencil rolled off a dozing student’s desk, and my friend and I both saw it fall. We were sitting on opposite sides of the classroom, but we sliced the boring air with laser-speed eye contact. We gave each other a nod to acknowledge our shared witness, and we giggled.
As we developed chuckles in reaction to synchronized agreements, we also discovered laughable moments around missed connections wherever we were. Every time I caught something odd and turned to her only to find that she missed it, I would hit her hard on the head, forehead, shoulder or leg. The slap was another form of acknowledgement, marking a glitch in our synchronicity. There were rules to the game: as my hand rose to smack her, she had to defend herself by taking a funny position or quickly commenting on the missed moment. If she succeeded, I wouldn’t hit her. It was an exercise of reflex.
Slapstick was a popular form of comedy in Japan in the ’90s. That must have nurtured our combative nature. We’d laugh whether a slap hit or missed, and we’d spend school days fishing for a pencil-falling moment, just to see if it would lead to a nod or a slap. We each got better at anticipating what the other saw before the world happened.
A GLOOMY DORMITORY common room on a misty Welsh evening. The students returned drenched, because nobody in the country seemed to use umbrellas. It struck me as funny. I wanted to share my observation with somebody, anybody, by nodding or slapping. But I couldn’t.
At 16, I’d left my home for an international boarding school in the U.K. with two English sentences under my belt: “My name is Aki” and “This is a pen.” They didn’t take me far—even when I’d pull a pen from my back pocket as an aid—because I couldn’t comprehend the replies. So I ran off after greeting people with my pen before they opened their mouths.
Desperate to make a friend, I would randomly smack people, and follow up with forced laughter. I thought this would clone my friend from home. I worried about skipping the nodding ceremonies, even though my intent was to express affection. But my language of slaps was inappropriate where hugging and kissing were the norm. So I learned. Humor develops over time. What has not already been experienced together is hard to share.
In that year of miscommunication, I made only one friend: a “Little Aki” who lived inside me, who had grown there over the history of my life. She always agreed to laugh with me whenever I seized a notable moment. I internalized my observations of weird British behavior in order to perform my slapstick act with Little Aki. I no longer needed to hit other people. They didn’t want me to, and their reflexes weren’t good enough anyway.
AN EXPERIMENTAL SHOW at Long Island City’s Chocolate Factory Theater. It was 2009, and I was performing Secrets of My Mother’s Child, which included a monologue about crying in the airport bathroom after seeing my mother to the gate for her flight. I was standing on a wooden table, stepping on grapefruits with a pair of knife-shoes—a wearable sculpture I’d made. As grapefruit juice dripped through holes in the tabletop and splashed loudly in cups on the floor, I spoke of my tears and a woman having diarrhea in the next stall. And that was when I heard an audience laugh at my work for the first time.
I’d been making performances since learning about dance and Conceptual art at college in New England, and they were serious—I had no need for laughter because I was satisfied with my inner giggles. Secrets of My Mother’s Child came from sadness, and as I stood on the table I was preoccupied with the seriousness of my performance. Executing the scene even had a therapeutic effect on me.
So it was a complete surprise for me when the audience started laughing hysterically. In retrospect, their response was predictable, because my performance was visually odd and full of toilet talk. I didn’t intend to make people laugh with my “serious” art, so I was puzzled. Now I knew how my European schoolmates felt when I hit them and laughed in their faces.[pq]I didn’t intend to make people laugh with my “serious” art, so I was puzzled. Now I knew how my European schoolmates felt when I hit them and laughed in their faces.[/pq]
AN OVERCROWDED ART STUDIO in an East Village basement. Miriam Katz, a curator who loves comedy and brings stand-up acts to museums, is visiting. I told her about how I received unexpected laughter at the Chocolate Factory, and my observations that some audiences respond to foreignness, seriousness, or the juxtaposition of them as humorous. Miriam told me about open mic nights, where comedy clubs allow anyone who signs up to try out a routine.
I teach in an MFA program, and I’ve experimented by assigning my students to do a stand-up act at an open mic night. I think of it as a lab to find out what parallels artists can draw between the world of comedy and the world of art, and the blind spots of art we can identify as a result. Sometimes when artists are overly concerned with expressing a particular intent, it helps to try out a completely different form. By taking another perspective and measuring their tendencies against a new set of criteria, the essence of their work can suddenly emerge.
I took on the challenge myself along with my students. My first stand-up routine was a miserable failure. Waking up the next morning with all the should-haves and could-haves was something I had never experienced with my “serious” work. As if I fell off a horse and needed to get back on to erase the trauma, I’ve gone back to open mics on my own, to test some of the episodes that I include in my performance work. But the rules of stand-up are different. There’s no sculpture for visual juxtapositions. There’s none of the seriousness that comes with performance art venues. Laughter is not my ultimate goal in art, but the open mic is the ideal place for me to pare my mixed-medium ideas down to plain speech, and hone an effective delivery.
A RUNDOWN APARTMENT complex on a blooming Kyoto street. As part of my contribution for “Parasophia,” the Kyoto International Festival of Contemporary Culture, I made a diptych performance piece titled The Last Call, Wrong Happy Hour (2015). The work was site-specific; I fit myself in a storage unit buried in the ground, and streamed a talk on stand-up comedy to viewers outside. Then I moved on to Wrong Happy Hour, an installation where I offered the audience beer and casually preached about romance, aided by sculptural gags. At the end of my performance, I went behind a wall that was mobile and pushed it to evacuate the audience to the street.
The shrinking bar provoked much laughter when it premiered at JTT Gallery in New York. Here in my home country, no one laughed. It surprised me at first, but then I remembered my private giggling with my teenage friend, and my silent laughter with Little Aki. Shortly after the Kyoto debut, an audience member wrote me a letter with a long description of how funny she found the piece. She and others in the audience may not have laughed out loud, but they nevertheless described the piece as omoshiroi, which means interesting or funny. As it turned out, the audience’s perception of the humor was as deadpan as my delivery.
It was yet another moment of lost and gained friends. Comedy as a form of communication changes its rules with the landscape and the weather. I cannot expect the same reaction from a Japanese audience as I do from a New York one. And yet it came close. Like a cheap key ring whose ends won’t meet, I’d come back around, but I’d lost the key to that girlhood friend I once shared laughter with.
Nobody travels between different places and mediums with me. I laugh even louder inside, with a deadpan serious face outside.