LONDON ‚ÄĒ The clown dozes peacefully on the gallery floor, his flabby gut exposed. He wears a shiny red nose and an exaggerated grin. Yet there‚Äôs nothing terribly cheery about him; he‚Äôs a vision of gloom.
The clown is a fiberglass sculpture from 2002 by Ugo Rondinone called ‚ÄúIf There Were Anywhere But Desert. Friday,‚ÄĚ and it will be a highlight of ‚ÄúKnock Knock: Humor in Contemporary Art‚ÄĚ at the South London Gallery. The show, which opens on Saturday and runs through Nov. 18, celebrates the 127-year-old institution‚Äôs reopening after a major expansion.
Visitors might come expecting gags, pranks, and laugh-out-loud moments to share on social media. But ‚ÄúKnock Knock‚ÄĚ is more likely to leave them scratching their heads. The humor is often oblique ‚ÄĒ conveyed through irony, paradox, double meaning, and opaque cultural references.
The two-part show is staged in the spacious main gallery and in a new multistory building across the street, a former Victorian fire station. Perched on the main gallery‚Äôs ceiling beams are a group of stuffed pigeons by Maurizio Cattelan. Other lighthearted displays include Lynn Hershman Leeson‚Äôs image of a woman with a clock in place of a torso, ‚ÄúBiological Clock 2,‚ÄĚ from 1995, and Matthew Higgs‚Äôs ‚ÄúPortrait (Landscape),‚ÄĚ from 2006, an all-red canvas bearing the inscription ‚ÄúNO OIL PAINTING‚ÄĚ across the middle.
The humor in many other works in the exhibition is even more elusive. Barbara Kruger‚Äôs 1988 image ‚ÄúUntitled (We Don‚Äôt Need Another Hero)‚ÄĚ shows a chubby man peeling a banana. A sculpture by Basim Magdy is a glass basketball hoop titled ‚ÄúGood Things Happen When You Least Expect Them,‚ÄĚ from 2010.
‚ÄúEveryone is going to come here and say, ‚ÄėBut that‚Äôs not funny work, and this isn‚Äôt about humor‚Äô ‚ÄĒ and I want people to do that,‚ÄĚ said the artist Ryan Gander, who co-curated the exhibition. ‚ÄúFor me, the best shows are the ones that, when you‚Äôre on the bus on the way home, you still think about, even if you didn‚Äôt like them.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúIf you curate an exhibition that makes people laugh, it‚Äôs just a theme of entertainment: This is not what exhibition-making‚Äôs purpose is,‚ÄĚ added Mr. Gander, who also has a work in the show: a pair of large, animatronic eyes set in the wall that react to the viewer in a manner that‚Äôs both droll and spooky.
The South London Gallery‚Äôs director, Margot Heller, the show‚Äôs main curator, said that the expansion deserved to be celebrated with a range of works that was ‚Äúopen to the whole gamut of audiences.‚ÄĚ At the same time, she added, ‚Äúlaughing out loud is not our gauge for success.‚ÄĚ
The exhibition is ‚Äúintended to be quite thought-provoking about what humor is, what makes us laugh and what doesn‚Äôt, and why,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúArtists use humor as a device, as a mechanism to achieve something else, which isn‚Äôt about laughter. It‚Äôs about prompting people to think about other issues. That‚Äôs the defining characteristic running through most, if not all, of the work.‚ÄĚ
One artist in the exhibition whose work has met with mirth (not all of it good) is Martin Creed. He won the 2001 Turner Prize after being nominated for a work that involved the lights in an empty gallery switching on and off every five seconds. It led one visitor to throw eggs at the wall and prompted the British tabloid newspaper The Sun to start a mock competition called the ‚ÄúTurnip Prize.‚ÄĚ
Mr. Creed has also exhibited a crumpled piece of paper and presented videos of people vomiting and defecating. His stated aim is to make art that, like life itself, is ‚Äústupid,‚ÄĚ or devoid of meaning or explanation. His ‚ÄúKnock Knock‚ÄĚ contribution is a row of potted cactus plants and a wall painted with diagonal stripes.
Mr. Creed said in an interview that it was not his intention to be humorous. ‚ÄúThe problem of laughter is, it‚Äôs gone in a second. If you‚Äôre living with your own work, you can‚Äôt laugh all the time: It‚Äôs a momentary thing,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúIf some of my work makes people laugh, that makes me happy. But to me, the worst possible thing is a person who thinks that they‚Äôre funny, or wants to be funny and isn‚Äôt. Basically, I don‚Äôt want to run that race, because I don‚Äôt want to lose the race.‚ÄĚ
The focus of ‚ÄúKnock, Knock‚ÄĚ is contemporary art, but humor has been present in art for centuries. Hieronymus Bosch crowded his paintings with farcical-looking creatures, and William Hogarth amused the viewer with his crude cautionary tales. It became a much more important subject in the 20th century, as the author Sheri Klein explains in her 2007 book ‚ÄúArt and Laughter.‚ÄĚ
Ms. Klein argues that the artist most directly responsible for that was Marcel Duchamp, who famously submitted a porcelain urinal to a 1917 exhibition in New York. Two years later, he presented a painting of a mustachioed Mona Lisa labeled ‚ÄúL.H.O.O.Q.‚ÄĚ (which means ‚Äúshe‚Äôs hot to trot,‚ÄĚ in cruder language, in French).
Decades later, Pop Art provoked amusement by using banal everyday items as a subject, like Andy Warhol‚Äôs Campbell‚Äôs soup cans, Jeff Koons‚Äôs vacuum cleaners, and Claes Oldenburg‚Äôs giant sculpture of a hamburger.
Later in the 20th century, artists used nudity as a vehicle for humor. Paul McCarthy‚Äôs ‚ÄúSpaghetti Man‚ÄĚ (1993) is the sculpture of a standing rabbit with an elongated penis that coils like a noodle on the floor below. Sarah Lucas‚Äôs ‚ÄúTwo Fried Eggs and Kebab‚ÄĚ (1992) evokes the female anatomy by laying those foods on a table. (Ms. Lucas is in the ‚ÄúKnock Knock‚ÄĚ exhibition with a new work titled ‚ÄúYves,‚ÄĚ a sculpture of a female nude made of stuffed tights.)
Despite those examples, art and humor make awkward bedfellows, Ms. Klein said in an interview, and they are not often examined together as a subject.
‚ÄúThere is a stigma about laughter as a response to a work of art: If it arouses laughter, then it must not be serious,‚ÄĚ she said. Humor is also ‚Äúassociated with low-class behavior. If an artist is evoking laughter, then it must mean that it‚Äôs a low-class piece of work,‚ÄĚ she added.
Ms. Klein recalled that in the immediate postwar period, the United States had plenty of artists who made pun-filled, laughter-inducing art, such as the Chicago Imagists, a group of artists in the 1960s whose Surrealist-inspired work made use of word plays and puns. But today, ‚Äúthe culture at large is a more joyless culture,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúWe are in a time of great pessimism: Humor is not being used as a form of resistance anymore.‚ÄĚ
Ms. Heller said the exhibition deliberately showcased ‚Äúartists you haven‚Äôt heard of or seen, or who haven‚Äôt had exposure,‚ÄĚ rather than rolling out the usual suspects. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs more of an essay, going through it: a little winding journey through diverse approaches.‚ÄĚ
Knock Knock: Humor in Contemporary Art
Sept. 22 though Nov. 18 at the South London Gallery, London; southlondongallery.org.