In 1711, in an essay for The Spectator, Joseph Addison defined wordplay as a “kind of false wit,” a petulant “jingle of words … comprehended under the general name of Punning.” The fraudulence of this kind of repartee was proven by the sonic emptiness of “a Punn”: housed in a weak shell of meaning, it appeals only to “Mob Readers” who “prefer a Quibble, a Conceit, an Epigram, before solid Sense and elegant Expression.”
It took a century and a half for the visual avant-garde to wean itself from these disparagements—beginning in (the opposite of) earnest in the Symbolist milieu in Paris during the 1880s, when a cadre of witty literati grafted verbal punning to various visual declensions, best elucidated in the quip-filled catalogues produced for exhibitions of Jules Levy’s Arts incohérents beginning in 1883.
Piotr Uklański, born in Warsaw in 1968, is heir to the underbelly of this lineage, which, in the spirit of Tristan Tzara’s “acoustic discs”—rather than Marcel Duchamp’s obsessive spirals and repetitions or Robert Smithson’s word piles—keeps dissolution and commonality in touching distance.
We find it in Uklański’s ski-jumping team, “Boltanski … Polanski … Uklanski” rendered on T-shirts, in gallery office graffiti, and cohabiting with religious paraphernalia in Polmart (2007). Pre-ski, it’s just the first names—Christian, Roman, Piotr—unfurled as a banner a decade ago. A religion, an empire, and … what? … something that Peters out?
Its humour noir can be found in The Nazis (1999), a leporello of masculinist fantasies, postures saturated with vampiric mastery and homoerotic insignia fetishism—a rogue’s gallery of Wehrmacht and Schutzstaffel officers inhabited by a Who’s Who of lionized leading men, from Marlon Brando to Michael Caine.
Its joie de vivre arrived with The Joy of Photography (1997–2007), a festival of technical can-do-ery, like a photographic variant of paint-by-numbers, in which the how-to manual expands into the high art domain, and amateur enunciation is cross-fertilized by commercial imperative. The trans-generic waterfalls and sunsets in this series strike back against the documentary or diaristic denomination of recent photography. Images are grown and harvested within the technical penumbra of the photographic apparatus as set out by one of its leading corporate administrators.
And yet in that “joy,” a kernel of catharsis is still tethered to the release of humor. For it was the cathartic discharge of affect that Freud located at the heart of the social functionality of the joke.
—John C. Welchman