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Review: Laughing in a Foreign Language: Artists explore humour around the World

Laughing in a Foreign Language:
Artists explore humour around the World
Hayward Gallery 25 January – 13 April

Review by Stephanie Cotela

Laughing in a Foreign Language explores the use of various examples of humor in contemporary art with an intention to prove whether or not people can relate to humour as a universal language. The investigation probes mediums ranging from drawings and paintings to interactive installations and live performances and from photographs to television, film and video by a culturally diverse group of artists.

An overlying tone of displacement dominates this exhibition exemplified superbly by Julian Rosefeldt’s work Clown (2005) a three-screen video projection of a clown clumsily hiking through a rainforest. Removed from their intended context, the works used to demonstrate humour evoked little more than a wry grin or a quizzical expression of confusion. For instance, Ugo Rondinone’s, Zero (2006) which consists of artificially aged oversized leather boots that resemble clown shoes hanging on a artificial nail, or Doug Fishborne’s Joke Master Jr. 2 (2007) featuring a man’s voice telling jokes which emanate from a small radio adhered to the wall, moving on to the Chapman Brothers satirical interpretation of a satirical interpretation with an added air of controversy at the idea of using Hogarth’s engravings as a conduit. Some of the films were quite intriguing, such as John Bock’s Palms (2007), however, quite lengthy, lasting the better part of an hour – which in it’s own sardonic way has a way of reminding visitors of their timed-entry admission ticket.

The dark spaces provided for the video art had more of a lethargic effect on it’s viewers than that of provoking gut-wrenching laughter and/or communicating the sense of a globalised understanding. People queuing for headphones or to watch TV was not exactly a way to promote interaction, on the contrary, it created an insular environment in which to observe the works thus enforcing an adverse effect to the idea of relating universally.

There is also an underlying tension that cannot be ignored. For example, Peter Land’s, Hi etc., staged performances appearing in the residual photographs on display, call attention to his foreign status in America, this certainly does not convey a message of the universality of humour, in fact it conveys a message of stupidity that could have resulted into a dangerous situation. Land’s contribution to the exhibition insinuates that a global understanding simply cannot exist.
Despite the optimism that the exhibition will uncover a world united by laughter, the outcome seems to propagate the notion that a westernized perspective is inevitable. Overall, I found that viewer’s reactions were as much a part of this exhibition as the works of art on display. It was very interesting to observe what moved people, disturbed people or made them laugh. For instance, the small Japanese performance artist hunched against a wall in the gallery tightly enclosed to the extent of resembling a tabletop, was maintaining a dialogue with no one. Reactions ranged from laughter to wariness and from contemplation to indifference. The observation of differences in the interpretive responses among visitors added an additional layer to this exhibition that redeemed any disappointment encountered by the works of art themselves.

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