2006 It’s Not Punny if You Have to Explain It

It’s Not Punny If You Have to Explain It (1)
Allan deSouza
(published in X-TRA, Contemporary Art Quarterly, LA. Vol.9, No.1. Sept, 06)

When looking at the photographs in Jeanne Dunning: Study After Untitled, which mostly depict or refer to the female body, I wonder if I’m being told a joke without its punch-line or a punch-line without the preamble. To the viewer (especially the male viewer), what could be more familiar and yet more terrifying than the female body? Much has been written about Dunning’s work in relation to the Uncanny, the familiar that becomes unsettling, if not terrifying, by its displacement, by its unhoming. What could be more homely––and I mean that in the Freudian sense of the heimliche or the original heim of the womb––and yet more alien than the female body? What could be more of a target for the coping mechanism of humor?

For a long time, I used to think that Jeanne Dunning’s work was just not rude enough, her bodies just don’t leak enough, they don’t dissolve sufficiently enough into each other to contaminate the social body. But that desire on my part for the gross, or for the arousing, or for the arousal in inappropriate circumstances, misses the point of her photographs. Dunning’s work is not purposeful in that sense––its intention is not to make us recoil, make us aroused, to test us, or even to tell the joke and its punch-line. It’s more subtle and more conflicted.

Despite their restraint––and you can feel that the work doesn’t want to impose––her photographs get under your skin, in the way that you might be at a party and someone you dislike keeps touching you, stroking your arm while telling you a joke. It’s not unpleasant––the joke has potential, the physical touch is nice––but you feel that a boundary is being crossed. The discomfort is more social and psychological; you experience physical pleasure while simultaneous wishing if only it was someone else touching you that way. Dunning’s work is like that––there’s an undeniable pleasure, even lushness in viewing it, and yet, at the same time, you wish it would go to another part of the room and bother somebody else. Yet, when it does you’re left socially interruptus, with no climax.

While Sigmund Freud was writing Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, he was simultaneously writing Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, both published in 1905. He kept both manuscripts on his desk––the joke pile and the sexuality pile––and supposedly managed to keep the two subjects apart. I imagine him theorizing the oral stage, getting to vagina dentata, say, and thinking maybe that should go on the joke pile. Penis envy? Joke pile. Mother-in-law jokes? Sexuality pile. My point is not only that the joke and sexuality can’t be kept separate, but also that they are often interchangeable.

This is the crux of Dunning’s work, this apparent but failing attempt at separation. By separation I mean to imply individuation––the process by which the subject or self is formed, informed, mis-formed and misinformed in relation to the Other. The attempt to separate into two distinct piles, as with the process of individuation itself, is fraught by the inevitable leakage from one pile into the other––from the Self into its Others and especially from and into the Other embodied within one’s Self.