A funny thing happened on the way to the new Serpentine show: the gallery got a sense of humour, says Waldemar Januszczak
Now, as a sign of greater civilisational balance, as a welcome development, a step forward, seeking to amuse in an artwork is no longer seen as a disqualification from real achievement. We have had Picasso. So, nowadays, we know that you can be a genius and still inspire guffaws. In art these days, humour is out of the closet. It’s up there. It’s out there. It’s one of art’s main modes. Which is the reason that State of Play has been organised by the Serpentine Gallery.
State of Play brings together a dozen international artists of standing, all of whom seek in some way to jolly us into insights, to gag us into an ungagged vision. Let me immediately admit that the results are mixed, with the misses out-numbering the hits. But let us also thank the Serpentine for doing the right thing by contemporary art in mounting this selection. The issue of the comic in art is an issue in need of serious gallery examination. And while the rest of our so-called modern-art spaces focus increasingly on lavish displays of heritage modernism, full marks, with extra stars on top, to the Serpentine for fulfilling the duties of a contemporary-art gallery by putting on contemporary art. Are you watching, Tate Modern? The first thing you encounter in State of Play is a rude obstruction to your progress, fashioned by that professional wag Martin Creed. A pile of floor tiles, behind a safety barrier, has been plonked in the middle of the entrance. You have to step around it to enter the show. Beyond the tiles, blocking your usual gallery route even more emphatically, is a floor-to-ceiling wall of breeze blocks built by Andreas Slominski, entitled, amusingly, Wall Built from Top to Bottom. Thus, the gags kick in from the off. It’s hardly side-splitting stuff, but those who smile easily may find a bending of the lips setting in early, and both pieces get you thinking about gallery decorum. I didn’t realise how keen I was to get in here until I discovered I couldn’t. It’s like having your knuckles rapped as you reach out for a plate of cakes. Art is outed as a modern goodie. You are outed as a modern grabber. If you make it into the show, don’t like it and want to get out, and if you are only 3in tall, you can climb Sarah Sze’s extravagant mini fire escape, which meanders up the gallery wall before exiting excitingly through the cupola.
The Serpentine is, as experience has taught us, too small a gallery successfully to achieve theme exhibitions of this scope and nature. In its architectural dynamics, it’s a one-man-show sort of place. So the usual shortfalls occur. The theme feels as cramped as a python in a shoe box. Nobody is presented in enough depth. Every exhibitor gets one or at best two pops at the target, which cruelly exposes their marksmanship. The people who work best are the experienced young guns, the hotshot gallery guerrillas trained to succeed at first sight in the era of quick-fire international displays: the wow merchants.
Above all, this means Tim Noble and Sue Webster, the Posh and Becks of gallery luvvie-duvviedom. Noble and Webster produce excellent self-portrait silhouettes, projected crisply onto the gallery wall, of the two of them staring at each other with love. In this particular case, the doting mood is unsettled unpleasantly by the additional shadow of a crow pecking at Tim’s eye. Ouch. When you get in close and examine the blobs of mysterious dark stuff onto which a spotlight has been shone to create this miraculous silhouette, you see that the effect has actually been achieved with a sculpture of carefully twisted dead vermin: chiefly rats and crows, taxidermified and bent into miraculous love portraiture. It’s a fantastic piece of visual invention and conceptual game-playing. They are fantastic artists. Arcimboldo may have arrived first at the madcap idea of creating faces out of carefully arranged selections of still life — 500 years ago, during the Renaissance — but Noble and Webster boost the grotesqueness and crank up the irony. They’re so today.
As is the extremely naughty Maurizio Cattelan. The site of Cattelan’s contribution to this show is not the Serpentine Gallery itself, but the streets of London in general. Cattelan’s stuff could be anywhere. Keep your eyes peeled. I came across it at the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet on Oxford Street, just next to the cinema at Marble Arch. Underneath it was a down-and-out sitting on a cardboard box. Above it loomed the creepily jovial face of the Son of Santa, the plump and goateed founder of the chicken-holocaust franchise, Colonel S. What a dangerous dud he looks, by the way, when you actually examine him, as Cattelan encourages you to do.
Kentucky Fried Chicken branches on Oxford Street have an infamous political vulnerability to them. They’re so American, so Confederate even, that whenever global protesters march down Oxford Street, it is the KFC branches they target. (If chickens marched, they would be protesting here too.) Knowing this, knowing that Colonel Sanders was, in real life, a man not known for his, ahem, liberal views, Cattelan has decorated the Oxford Street KFC branch with a row of strident and utterly provocative Islamic posters.
White Arabic calligraphy on black. No translations, no explanations, no logos, no help. If you don’t speak Arabic, you assume, inevitably, that this must be some Allah-inspired call to arms, some fierce denunciation of godless US chicken exploitation, something anti-Bushy or anti-Blairy, printed on cheap clandestine presses in Leicester or Finsbury Park. They are perfectly done. Perfectly flyposted. Perfectly positioned. So perfectly that most will walk past them. The only reason I didn’t was that the Serpentine had tipped me off. They weren’t inflammatory Islamic calls to arms, either: they were love poems in Arabic. Terribly gentle and moving. Great poetry, apparently.
You grin at this cheeky aesthetic manoeuvre, or at least I did, for the same sort of we-know-what-they-don’t-know reasons that make you laugh when Ali G interviews a former head of the FBI and the former head of the FBI hasn’t a clue who Ali G is. It’s called America-baiting. Did KFC know what Cattelan was planning before it allowed its outlet to involve itself in his sneaky perceptual games? Oh yes, Maurizio Cattelan is naughty. Very, very naughty.