Issue 142 October 2011 RSS

Michael Portnoy

Objectif Exhibitions, Antwerp, Belgium


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 extreme deviation from a more ‘professional’ kind of humour. One participant took to the stage and recounted keystroke by keystroke what she did at work. Another danced in flamenco shoes.

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 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.

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 (which, I admit, I've never seen live), or even the carrot jokes he told during the exhibition’s opening (which I was not present for), 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) read at the release for a book included in the exhibition (which, unfortunately, I didn't find time to read), 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 caught my attention. 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.

Esperanza Rosales

This review has been amended from the review which appeared in Issue 142 to correct the numerous errors, false statements, oversights and conjecture which follow:

Erratum: December 1, 2011

There was no tap dancing in Portnoy's Taipei Women's Experimental Comedy Club, although during one act a performer travelled rhythmically across the stage in flamenco shoes. The reviewer was not present at the performance, and her statements regarding the character and feel of the event ("they felt close to improvisation", and "their easygoing deviation from a more 'professional' kind of humour") were conjecture based on performance stills and second-hand information. The two cognitive linguists Chlopicki and Petray were mistakenly referred to as 'fictive'. The event which the reviewer attended was not, as she stated, "the opening", but rather a release for a book of carrot jokes written by Portnoy which was also part of the exhibition but overlooked by the reviewer. The public discussion organized by Portnoy included two Flemish philosophers who study humour not "two theorists of Flemish humour". It was falsely suggested that the eclipsing of other people's performances is "still the crux of [Portnoy's] work." This has not been a crucial element of any of his works since Soy Bomb in 1998. The reviewer had never, in fact, witnessed any of Portnoy's exhibitions before this show in Antwerp. It was falsely stated that the "delivery of 'SCHOWLORT'" in the public discussion "[conveyed] all of the physical detail missing in the audio recording," however the word was delivered in exactly the same manner in both cases. The correct caption for the image should read: "Michael Portnoy, A collection of 'carrot joke' beginnings", performance still."

About this article

Issue 142 cover

First published in
Issue 142, October 2011

by Esperanza Rosales

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