What’s so funny?

Anna Dezeuze on humour and contemporary art

Do you know the joke about the French woman who moved to this country because she loved british humour? Over ten years later, she’s still laughing...

Which is why I thought the Hayward Gallery was setting itself a difficult task by staging a show about humour for a British audience (see Review p25). Predictably enough, there were a few moments in my visit when I thought British comedians were funnier than anything in the exhibition – Mark Steele’s comic lecture style is far superior to American artist Doug Fishbone’s laborious video works, while the Swiss artist Olaf Breunig appears as a watered-down version of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat (who is not so great to start with). Even worse, there were some moments when I thought that the works had to compete with British adverts as well. I could not watch Cao Fei’s gently amusing film, in which a sample of apparently random Chinese passers-by dance to hip hop in the streets of Guangzhou, without sadly imagining how easily it could be used to sell mobile phones or banking products.

The exhibition’s avowed aim, fortunately, is more specific than offering a survey of humour in contemporary art: it focuses on the way humour can – or cannot – cross national and cultural boundaries. (Much of its attraction lies in its international perspective – it is a welcome opportunity to see new work, from Europe and Asia in particular.) Over a century ago in his study Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Henri Bergson had already warned that ‘many comic effects are impossible to translate from one language to another, because they refer to the customs and ideas of a particular social group’. Since any joke that requires lengthy explanation will inevitably fail, having to provide information about its cultural, social or national background is bound to be a problem. A case in point in the exhibition is a work by Yoshua Okon, which not only invites us to recognise the faces of Mexican politicians, but also requires us to understand that the title (Staphylococcus, 2004) and the shape of the artwork refer to bacteria ‘which can cause a wide variety of diseases through toxin production or invasion’. This is a typical instance of bad humour meeting bad Conceptual Art.

Conversely, among the works that did make me laugh, Candice Breitz’s Aiwa to Zen, 2003, raised another problem of transnational humour: the use of stereotypes. Like much humour, it plays on what Freud summarised as ‘the succession of bewilderment and enlightenment’: in this case, the viewer slowly realises that the lively dialogues between the Japanese characters (in the short scenes introduced by brief intertitle summaries) consist entirely of the dozen or so Japanese words and names that can be recognised by non-Japanese speakers. Somehow, I cannot imagine a Japanese viewer sharing my mirth at the sight of a kimono-clad Japanese lady inconsolably wailing ‘Ukiyo-eeeeeeeee!’

Breitz’s comedy is luckily not the only perspective on Japanese culture in the show, which includes three particularly funny Japanese artists. I loved Makoto Aida’s Japanese Bin Laden, casually chatting as he drinks his sake, and was touched by Shimabuku’s cardboard box, which called me over to tell me about what it was like to be Born as a Box, 2001/2004. Crouching awkwardly, I rummaged through a bag of laundry to watch a hilarious video by Taiyo Kimura (which involves, at one point, the artist holding a fish’s head in his mouth, and engaging in such activities as brushing the fish’s teeth); and I was startled to notice that the gallery guard was sitting on a very convincing life-size figure of a small child, crouching with its head covered by its arms and monotonously reciting the names of Tokyo subway stations (Kimura’s Untitled (stool for guard), 2007). Alongside these new discoveries, I was pleased to renew my acquaintance with our much-loved British scribbler, David Shrigley, and was reminded that his unique brand of absurd logic is strangely addictive (my favourite piece: a drawing of an adult striking a ridiculous pose to amuse a small child, with the caption ‘You fail to entertain the child. You must be a pedophile.’). Another rising star of British art, Marcus Coates, develops the charming idea of enacting a shamanistic ritual, clad in an animal fur, but his film is over-reliant on the predictably unconvinced response of his chosen audience, the inhabitants of a tower block in Liverpool.

Overall, the show is very tasteful, and very mature. I was relieved to find neither adolescent nose-thumbing at high art (à la Koons) nor infantile scatological jokes justified by theoretical discourses on the abject. Kutlug Ataman’s misguided performance as a Turkish belly-dancer, which can only appeal to ‘cross-dressing men’ comedy fans, contrasts with the other more restrained performative gags in the show. There is no Oleg Kulik pretending to be a dog, no ‘terrorist drag’ entertainment from the wonderfully-named black transvestite Vaginal Davis. Even Peter Land is known to play the idiot in less endearing and more disturbing ways than his works included in this show suggest. There is little trace of the madness and iconoclasm that Jean-Yves Jouannais has so enthusiastically mapped out in his 2003 book L’Idiotie, a celebration of artists painting and behaving badly, producing ‘indefensible’ works, and aspiring to true mediocrity.

What I did miss most in this exhibition, I have to confess, was some good old slapstick, preferably in the form of a falling man (like Bas Jan Ader), and this is where the show’s tastefulness felt limiting. Janne Lehtinen’s elegantly dreamy photographs of the artist about to experiment with a variety of flight contraptions are miles away from the classic banana-peel pratfall, because they are suspended in the moment before any action (and its predicted failure), rather than capturing that sudden, painful and hilarious yank of gravity. As to language-based humour, the absence of puns was very refreshing (Duchamp’s famous word plays are better left in the 19th-century student digs to which they belonged), and Fishbone’s Joke Master Jr., 2006, which offers an endless stream of appallingly bad jokes at the touch of a button, effectively curtails any desire to indulge in that traditional form. I would have liked some more word-image play, though, of the kind that Peter Fischli & David Weiss gave us with Suddenly this Overview, 1981/2006, or that the French artist Joachim Mogarra explores in his captioned photographs (a black and white picture of four books lying face down on the floor, for example, is entitled ‘the beach campsite’). Like falling bodies, these are the kind of works that poke fun at human aspirations to knowledge and meaning – a form of philosophy lurking behind accidental falls, everyday objects and silly statements, and reminding us of the ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ truth of human existence. The only work in ‘Laughing in a Foreign Language’ that approximates this more existential feature of humour is Julian Rosefeldt’s beautiful three-screen film projection, Clown, 2005. The clown trudging up and down a stream in a lush jungle landscape evokes the circularity and absurdity of pointless tasks; you can easily miss his fleeting appearance on the screens. Wearing a clown costume is certainly not enough to produce any real comic effect, but the work is surprisingly mesmerising.

A particularly problematic category of humour for me is that most postmodern of genres: parody and spoof. We are encouraged to believe that it is all about appropriation and deconstruction, and that this in itself is irreverent and subversive. Choosing soft targets such as soap operas (Kalup Linzy) or Hollywood films (John Bock) is probably a sign that there is in fact nothing left in our societies to be revered, thus making the task of irreverence particularly difficult. It is sad to have to point out that Reservoir Dogs, one of the references for John Bock’s film, is already an appropriation/postmodern parody in itself, much in the same way that Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress is subversive enough without Jake & Dinos Chapman’s entirely redundant animal-mask additions. Feminist and other activist modes of parody are certainly far more potent, perhaps because they still have a real enemy. The Yes Men’s enjoyable stunts, probably the best known and most successful political interventions of this century, would have been a welcome addition to ‘Laughing in a Foreign Language’, which struggles to provide us with examples of political humour. Stressing themes of globalisation and immigration, the exhibition includes little-known works by artists that are politically motivated, but they are in fact so unfunny that they appear almost to belong to a separate category within the show. The most political works in the exhibition are also the most melancholy. There is strictly nothing laughable about in Jun Yang’s advice on how to survive as a Chinese illegal immigrant in Austria, which alternates with newspaper stories of the post 9/11 backlash against immigrants in the West. While Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo’s attempts to test the immigration and custom controls at European airports are often amusing (the image of a bunch of policemen trying to prise open suitcases carved out of solid wood is priceless), other works in the same series narrate similar situations of abuse and suspicion which were provoked by the widespread failings and injustice of bureaucracy, rather than the artist’s pranks, and thus appear to be much less light-hearted.

Laughter, explained Bergson, requires ‘a momentary anaesthesia of the heart’ – a distance from feelings of sadness, pity, or even affection. It is perhaps because I feel too much empathy for Toguo that I could not bring myself to laugh at some of his stories. Too much distance, on the other hand, can also hinder laughter, just as explaining a joke spoils it. This is why I do not enjoy parodies of things or people I just do not care enough about, or why fictitious scenarios that feel too removed from reality will leave me indifferent. In the case of the film by Harry Dodge and Stanya Khan, for example, I was disappointed to find out that the artists had invented and staged the whole scenario. The dialogue between a bloody-nosed Valkyrie and a cameraman following her around the streets of Los Angeles is evidently laden with symbolic and political connotations, but her rawness and insecurities would have touched me more had she been a real person. Humour is always called to tread this fine line between familiar and unfamiliar, reality and illusion, the intimate and the ‘anaesthetic’.

In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Simon Critchley argues that the best humour is that which makes you feel uncomfortable, self-conscious, or ashamed – in fact, that which you cannot quite make yourself laugh at, that is just not funny at all. I would like to suggest instead that the best humour is that which is funny almost in spite of itself – an accidentally comic situation, or perhaps a private joke which you happen to stumble across, and are not really sure whether it is supposed to be humorous or not. I am not speaking here of the ways pranksters like Borat or the Yes Men trick their victims into believing their lies; nor am I referring to the endless amateur footage of children and pets forever tripping, slipping, dropping and tumbling under the camera’s adoring gaze. What I have in mind here is a conversation with Swiss artist Roman Signer in which he seemed almost surprised that I found his work very amusing, because humour has never been his primary aim.1 We did end up agreeing that his recent work Old Shatterhand, 2007 (on display at Hauser & Wirth), which involves the artist trying to shoot at a practice target while strapped to a vibrating slimming contraption, was quite funny, and that few things involving real guns actually are. The grace of Signer’s actions, or Fischli & Weiss’s classic The Way Things Go, 1987, lies in their child-like wonder at the everyday. Guy Ben-Ner’s film in ‘Laughing in a Foreign Language’ is suffused with a similar sense of play, but its odd poetry is too self-conscious to produce the simple glee of Signer’s elaborate tricks. Accidentally funny works conform to the ideal of effortlessness to which all humour aspires, whether in the charm of casual wit or the elegance of perfect comic timing. Even an ironic, phlegmatic dandy can share a ‘child’s rapture in absurdity’, as Peter Schjeldahl wrote about California’s most effortless comic hero, Ed Ruscha.

No writing about humour can escape the well-worn cliché that writing about humour is, in fact, impossible. This is certainly one of the reasons why the anthology about The Artist’s Joke edited by Jennifer Higgie (from which all quotations in this essay are taken, unless otherwise stated) does not work: most of the texts, whether by artists or critics, refer to humorous artworks and end up sounding like someone telling you about a hilarious thing that happened to them, but really ‘you had to be there.’ The book’s other main problem lies in the fact that Higgie’s introduction to the volume and the theoretical texts which she selected fail to provide a rigorous apparatus with which we could start taking humour seriously. (In this sense, Jouannais’s virtuoso account of idiocy in modern art is far more useful.) Just as humour itself is balanced precariously between distance and emotion, universal and individual, writing about humour is often either too sympathetic and narcissistically autobiographical, or too dry and abstract. I will of course admit to both, since my love of British self-deprecation was the other reason I moved to this country all these years ago ...

1. Conversation with Roman Signer, London, January 24 2008.

Laughing in a Foreign Language, Hayward Gallery, London, January 25 to April 13 2008. Roman Signer, Hauser & Wirth, London, January 25 to March 15 2008.

Anna Dezeueze is a research fellow in art history and visual studies, University of Manchester.

First published in Art Monthly 314: March 2008.

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