Noble & Silver
Beaconsfield, London, UK
Last year, at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery, Carolee Schneeman re-enacted her 1964 performance Meat Joy. This redux staging was an orphaned moment of beauty from a bygone era, an awkward attempt to rekindle passions of happenings past. It was characterized in part by the audience’s singular reluctance to involve themselves in any way with the faux bacchanal - and the raw fish and chickens being slung around didn’t help matters either. Viewers were like punters at a stand up comedy gig - reserved, perhaps a little stage-shy, and wary of being taken for a ride. I knew just how they felt. Personally, I have nothing against audience participation, so long as I’m not involved. Unfortunately, at Kim Noble and Stuart Silver’s four week residency at Beaconsfield, I was.
The art school trained duo garnered a slew of praise three years ago when they sprung from comic obscurity to public attention having been awarded the prestigious Perrier Award for comedy at the Edinburgh Festival. Theirs is a deadpan comedy about comedy, deconstructive humour that shouldn’t work because it breaks the cardinal rule that you should never explain a joke, but somehow raises a chuckle for the very reason that it deftly flips that law on its head. Their art, on the other hand, is a practice that attempts to explain art, or rather cock a snook at the formal and operational armature that exhibiting the stuff is built upon. By refashioning the signposts and syntax of the gallery visiting experience as self-referential mirrors of themselves, Noble and Silver like to share a laugh with their audience and, according to the press release, ask ‘what is the work?’.
Well, this work was undergrad institutional critique peppered with a few laughs, the odd guffaw and some painful groans. We’re Spending Four Weeks at Beaconsfield, So Let’s Hope Everything Goes OK (Part 4)‚ was the cloyingly clumsy-but-endearing title given to the set of self-consciously wacky situations Noble, Silver and a small cast performed daily throughout the run of the show. Greeted at the door by a charming French airline stewardess, visitors were invited to watch a spoof promotional corporate video for the gallery before entering the main space, which resembled a work/live environment. Letraset wall texts, of the kind to be found in any public art institution, cutely referred to their own status as Letraset wall texts of the kind to be found in any public art institution. Food was being prepared in the kitchen as the airline stewardess busied herself making sure visitors were ushered to the right part of the gallery at the right time. For here, as with all comedy, timing was crucial.
The show comprised a series of sketches, each room focusing on a different scenario. In one, for example, a conversation was enacted between one of the duo with a video of the other trawling that week’s shows in London; another room was transformed into a sombre chamber in which one of the artists was strapped to a chair fixed high above the door like a piece of low-rent religious iconography. Each involved either Noble or Silver physically placing themselves one step ahead of the visitor, and with such perfect timing that they seemed almost omnipresent. One minute they’d be bustling around the kitchen, the next magically appearing in another room just as you walked through the door. In the toilet, a cellist could be found playing doleful divertimenti while a young woman occasionally showered herself in a cubicle. I received a polite apology for a soup dish not being ready but was instead offered (and, it has to be said, enjoyed) a delicious salmon roulade. I chuckled and smiled my way around but couldn’t help feeling that this cod-surrealism, supposedly pointing out the ‘arbitrariness’ of contemporary art, was in fact indebted to spoof clichés of an older avant-garde. Although the logistical feats of ubiquity were beautifully executed, the substance of the experience was closer to wandering into a slightly clunky Python sketch. Art world navel gazing needs levelling with careful satire, not with potshots at the cosmetics of art practices past.
Take a look at Gilbert & George’s astonishingly funny early videos and drawings. Here, their dry wit reaches far beyond the rarefied mores of art into a gritty world of ambiguous social commentary. Recent TV comedy shows - the Paul McCarthy-meets-English-Gothic of ‘The League of Gentlemen’ or the blacker than black satire of Chris Morris - have revealed the dark potency of a humour that can exploit strategies rooted in contemporary art. Aren’t there better causes for Noble and Silver to fight, and pomposities to puncture, tease and deflate than the semiotics of museum signage? This could have been Lenny Bruce doing Hans Haacke, Tony Hancock riffing off Hal Foster or Andy Kaufmann rewriting ‘Inside the White Cube’. Instead we got The Two Ronnies larking around with an art theory primer. Laugh? I nearly cried. But only nearly.