Michael Portnoy

Objectif Exhibitions

Discussion on 'carrot jokes' between Michael Portnoy and humor theorists Oliver Brems and Tim de Mey, June 11, 2011, video still.

Discussion on 'carrot jokes' between Michael Portnoy and humor theorists Oliver Brems and Tim de Mey, June 11, 2011, video still.

Discussion on 'carrot jokes' between Michael Portnoy and humor theorists Oliver Brems and Tim de Mey, June 11, 2011, video still. 

For the Taipei Biennial in 2010, Amsterdam- and New York-based artist Michael Portnoy formed an experimental comedy club for local women in which amateurs developed their acts in workshops on humour. Portnoy based his idea in part on an ambiguously defined comedy club run by Bolivian women in the 1970s called Las Rodillas (The Knees). Like Las Rodillas’s ‘anything goes’ attitude and stage acts, the women taking part in Portnoy’s project delivered performances that were at times amusing for their easygoing deviation from a more ‘professional’ kind of humour. One participant took to the stage and spoke candidly about her day at work. Another danced in Flamenco shoes.

Though they felt close to improvisation, these performances were scripted with the artist, who has in the past explored various areas of writing and directing humour, role-play and games. For his solo exhibition in Antwerp, ‘Script Opposition in Late-Model Carrot Jokes’, Portnoy devised a new category of joke/non-joke – the ‘Carrot Joke’ – and framed it as a classification by the cognitive linguists Chlopicki and Petray. Visitors found themselves faced with five photographs, each picturing a single carrot on white ground, either amputated, bisected, segmented, sliced or splitting. Each white frame contained a solicitous button that told a carrot joke when pressed. The jokes (which were pre-recorded by Portnoy) followed an illogical narrative format – wildly incongruous or intentionally impossible to understand – matching the natural irregularity of the carrots with which they were paired. In each, the punch-line is never reached, making them somewhat invincible as jokes and impervious to analysis or even judgment. Were they funny? Vaguely, yes. But powerfully performed (as photographs that speak)? Not really.

In 1998, Portnoy became somewhat infamous when he was thrown out of the Grammy Awards. He’d been hired to perform as a backing dancer for Bob Dylan and halfway through the live televised performance, he tore open his shirt to reveal the words ‘SOY BOMB’ written across his torso. Coupled with the absurdity of the words and the deliberate flamboyance of his dancing, it was Portnoy’s ability to eclipse one unique performance with another that still appears to me to be at the crux of his work. As a performer from New York with a background in experimental comedy, theatre and dance, he is also very gifted with words and wordplay, and he is, by nature, a bit of an upstart.

The provocation and spectacle of his ‘SOY BOMB’ performance would be difficult to replicate, but Portnoy has continued to make absurd and slightly surreal works that amount to really good experimental theatre pieces. But it’s unclear whether the levity of his previous performances, or even the carrot jokes he told during the launch party for the book included in the exhibition, can be matched as concrete art works. In hearing the joke for Duck-I’m-ready, duck-I’m-slipping, or duck-I’ve-lost-track (2011) performed live at the exhibition’s book launch, for example, it was the delivery of ‘SCHOWLORT!’ – the name of an unexplained character which, according to Portnoy’s script, is ‘pronounced monstrously in the back of the throat’ – that conveyed all of the physical detail missing in the audio recording. Likewise, a public discussion Portnoy organized between himself and two Flemish philosophers who study humour did have its moments, but for this show I had hoped to see Portnoy ‘the performer’ perform more. The constraints of the five framed objects on the wall just seemed too limiting for the natural exuberance of Portnoy’s practice.

This review has been amended from the review which appeared in Issue 142.

Issue 142

First published in Issue 142

October 2011

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
At La Panacée, Montpellier, Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto for a new movement and attempt to demarcate an artistic peer...
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018