Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Laughing in a Foreign Language - Sophie Risner

30 Artists exploring humour around the world

The Hayward Gallery
Southbank Centre

25.01.08 - 13.04.08

Laughter is a tricky idea to represent - what makes us laugh and why we do it are two very different questions, thus under these conditions it can then be said that this is a bold move for the Hayward to attempt such an investigation into the theme. 'Laughing in a Foreign Language' sees a move towards the commodification of laughter in a 'time of increasing globalisation.' One of the first realities of this show is that it is incredibly weighed down with numerous video pieces. In an ever-digital age this is not particularly shocking but in curatorial terms it goes against the concentration of thought and time placed on this investigation. The shear historical importance of laughter per se means that any exhibition that tries to deal with it has to demand a certain attribute towards the past. Here, Brechtian 'alienation' is explored alongside themes of purposelessness and displacement. Generally speaking this exhibition seems to be overreaching its key themes and at many points seems to find the crafting of a pure assemblage of the funny more of a struggle than a joy. Samuel Beckett’s ‘Worstward Ho,’ 1983 has not only become the key text for recent explorations within art currently but integrates itself as a key paradigm within this exploration ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,’ becomes a get out clause within this exhibition’s exploration, marking not only the justification of failure within the remit of this show but the misunderstanding of failure within comedy. It is one concept to create a dialectic on the quite popular theme of failure within art but surely to bind that to failure within art and laughter is an over prescription of optimism. Mami Kataoka attempts to address this over-prescribed condition of predicating failure to the possibilities of such a global investigation into art and laughter. Is it possible for a show to address such global differences and such different artistic approaches in a bid to unify under the complexities of the funny?

Olaf Breuning’s video 'Home2' explores through a westernised irony the concept of tourism and subsequent breakdown in communication; based in Japan, Papa New Guinea and the Swiss Alps the film finds Olafs protagonist donning masks, playing with locals and screaming ‘I’m gonna meet the natives!’ it’s an uneasy film that seeks substinance in English / American irony yet suffers from an over prescribed length that wilts the humour more than lets it flourish. The polar extreme to this can be found in Janne Lehtinens beautifully subtle comments on the age-old tale of Icarus, here Lehtinen dares to mastermind comedy through the photographic, not easy – especially as most of the show is tragically shown through a video lens, rendering the idea that comedy is something experienced as a moving quantity over the still. Lehtinens ponderous moments of failed Icarus experimentations sum up wonderfully the key element of failure, as through these mini-tales we unpack Lehtinens own inner frustrations and not just sympathise but can see the ridicularity embedded within them. If Lehtinen could be described as subtle then Kalup Linzy’s 'Conversations wit de Churen' is anything but. Linzy embarks on a soap-opera pastiche based on an African-American ghetto family. Most of the footage is badly shot and the over dubbing embaressingly mis-placed - making the work uncomfortable viewing yet essential when transcending the show. Explicit sexual scenes and jargon are interspersed with mundane moments exploring the central characters relationship all performed to one another by the means of mobile phones. Other video work include Kutlug Ataman's 'Turkish Delight,2006' which finds the artist performing for the audience a highly improvised belly dance, wearing traditional turkish attire the artist mocks what he perceives as the conventional global stereotype of Turkey through an almost 3D motion self-portrait. Meanwhile Guy Ben-Ner also finds comedy through self-portraiture, one of the most striking video pieces Ben-Ner's 'Wild Boy' filmed in the artist’s own house and featuring his son looks to the role of father and son within art theory. Here Ben-Ner's son plays a feral child adopted by Ben-Ner. As the tale unwraps we view Ben-Ner teaching his adopted son how to read and write, eat and become human. The end product is awkwardly haunting yet intriquing, there aren't any major moments for clarity of the funny, but it does push towards crafting a relationship that trivializes humanity rather than glorifying it.

On a pictorial note the English contribution to the show manages to bark the obvious, Jake and Dinos Chapman de-face William Hogarth prints with the same mis-placed irony that saw them de-facing Goya in their entry to the 2003 Turner Prize shortlist. Though nothing particularly new, these painfully illustrative moments reflect perfectly back onto the Samuel Beckett concepts of 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better.' The Brothers Chapman manage to mastermind dark European illustrative mischief whilst working so incisevely within the Beckett remit. Shrigley equally finds it hard to step outside of his comfort zone, plastering the walls of the last Hayward space with slogans, wordy commentary and images that staple some kind of injustice and failure to the artists life experiences. Sadly through his more-than-notorious style there is more of a sense of repetition than a crafting through the shows key idea of Laughter.

The problem when forming this debate comes from the innards of what comedy and laughter actually ‘do.’ The response to a claim that a show exploring general themes of laughter is far to obvious, less was the contract of genuine hilarity and more was a construct built on exploring how the weird and wonderful world we live in responds to the notion of unification through the funny. We may not have laughed, giggled and erupted our way around the Hayward but at least Mami Kataoka dared to formulate a dilectic between comedy and the contemporary issue of globalization. Some of the works integrate themselves into this discourse and truly become moments of global observation whilst others lean too heavily on the Samuel Beckett illusion plastering their purposelessness at their core. It is this juxtaposition of failure and intrigued success that finds the show at the Hayward not finding its discourse in the materials of comedy production but in the essence of comedy effect. 

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