Exhibition review: Joke Taxonomy, 138 Gallery

Here, humour comes easily but the provocation lingers.
‘Joke Taxonomy’, installation view at 138 Gallery. Photo: Supplied. A brown wooden panelled gallery space with readymade objects including a pair of pink Dino chairs, a litter box, and a small trophy.

The anatomy of a joke includes recognition, deception and resolution – when expectation and reality butt against each other in such a peculiar manner that it provokes a laugh.

In Joke Taxonomy, this takes the form of an arrow shot into a power socket, a sink strainer fitted perfectly into a tuna can, a comically small trophy self-proclaimed to be the ‘world’s greatest’ and more. Here, curator Jincheng Deng has gathered the most precariously funny pieces to question “what’s in a joke?”

The fine line between humour and offence is immediately challenged in Yusi Zang’s Bird Bomb (2024). Placed on the street-facing window sill, the toy grenade installed on a synthetic bird foot with a figurative feather hops daringly between violence and playfulness.

A pair of Lou Hubbard’s dino-chairs stand nearby, a 2019 iteration with deflated and tattered soccer balls that appear like wigs, framing the kiddy furniture in serious conversation.

Sitting on opposite walls are Chunxiao Qu’s video installation, The presentation (2024) and James Brett’s For sale: $1000000 (2024), both speaking to the sometimes self-deprecating nature of an artistic career. While Brett’s painted slogan of ‘I’M CONTENT DYING BROKE’ plays into what feels like pre-destined pessimism, Qu’s scripted video sets artistic questioning into perpetual motion.

It’s worthwhile to note that while readymades appear simplistic or “lack effort”, they oftentimes require intensive mental and physical labour to fine-tune – hence, the deception.

Stuart Ringholt’s Electric arrow (2008) involves an entirely new pseudo electrical fitting that had to sit at a certain height to appear real, and every blue crystal of Simon Zoric’s litter box, Untitled (Blue) (2022) was meticulously placed according to a model.

It’s perhaps a telling coincidence that Ringholt has taught both Qu and Zang, and Hubbard was Zoric’s supervisor at university, adding an intergenerational dimension to Joke Taxonomy.

The brown wood-panelled walls of 138 Gallery itself also serve as an oddly charming juxtaposition between the past and the contemporary, playing into the troupe of the exhibition.

Read: Exhibition review: Searching for Sanctuary, State Library Victoria

Joke Taxonomy is a peculiar little show in the best way possible and sharp-witted in using humour as its provocation.

Joke Taxonomy is on view at 138 Gallery, Melbourne until 29 June; free.

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. She took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs and was the project manager of ArtsHub’s diverse writers initiative, Amplify Collective. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne and was most recently engaged in consultation for the Emerging Writers’ Festival and ArtsGen. Instagram @lleizy_