Laughing In A Foreign Language At The Hayward Gallery

By Katie Alice Fitzgerald Published: 29 January 2008

a group of people in a japanese tea house room laughing

Candice Breitz, Aiwa to Zen (2003). Copyright the artist, courtesy White Cube, London

Review - Laughing in a Foreign Language at the SE1 until April 13 2008.

‘Fun’ seems to have no place within the frenetic and desperate atmosphere which hangs over London at the moment. It has no place that is, until you step into the Hayward Gallery on the south bank to bathe in the warm rays of Laughing in a Foreign Language.

The new exhibition at the Hayward invites the spectator into this little oasis of fun to experience humour in all its guises.

It is important to point out however, that the exhibition is not simply about laugh-a-minute gags, although it is certainly very entertaining. It is rare to experience the opportunities to sit on a small huddled child reciting the stations of the London underground, or to rummage through laundry only to find yourself staring down the neck of a jumper, or watching a video of a man smoking or eating via a fish head in his mouth!

a photo of a man in a clown outfit standing in a shallow stream in a rainforest

Julian Rosefeldt, Clown, 2005. © the artist 2007, courtesy Arndt and Partner Berlin/Zurich and Max Wigram Gallery London

From the cheekily funny to the downright absurd, this exhibition touches on the many faces of humour - including the tragic.

Mami Kataoka, the Hayward’s International Curator, takes us on a winding journey across the globe feeding us works of art that are loaded with political intent or cultural questioning. From the word go our laughs are coloured with either guilt or disbelief as each work throws up another poignant message about society today.

The artists participating in this exhibition are diverse, hailing from 20 different nations, and whilst their choice of mediums is varied, ranging from video, site-specific installation, cartooning and performance, their need to use humour in their work places them in a common playing field.

Humour, in its purest form, provides a vital link between the spectator and artist. It also provides the universal key that unlocks each artwork, and allows us to drift through without the pressure to find the political or profound undertones; these messages seem to reach us anyway.

a photo of two men dressed in black suits and ties with trilbies and sunglasses in a desert at night with a large American car

John Bock, Palms (2007). Courtesy Klosterfelde, Berlin; Anton Kerne, New York© 2007 John Bock. All rights reserved; photography: Jan Windszuz

An example of this is Barthélémy Toguo’s Transit series. In his collection of photographic prints and written accounts, Toguo, who is originally from Cameroon, shares his experiences of various situations which have caused him to be intercepted by security in airports, at national borderlines and even on trains.

The absurdity that a simple Carambar sweet, stored in a cartridge belt, causes hours of scrutiny within French airport security, makes us laugh at its sheer ridiculousness. However the reality of this extreme hyper-sensitivity found in today’s society and the persecution of many innocent people as a result, is a shameful burden that Western nations have to bear.

We are faced with the knowledge that westernised living and opinion is still felt to be the necessary marker of civilisation for the whole world.

This notion is touched upon in other works such as Olaf Breuning’s film Home 2, where the protagonist travels the world implementing his beliefs and cultural references onto people in their own countries. Whilst the comedy is undoubtedly driven by his Napoleon Dynamite - Jackass type character, his ability to involve people so unwittingly in his practical jokes leaves the viewer dancing between roaring laughter and toe-curling shame.

a photo of a pair of clown's boots hanging on a nail

Ugo Rondinone, ZERO (2006) © the artist 2006

Not all the works however are balanced on this tenuous see-saw of the funny but serious. Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov creates his tiny guerrilla art as a form of secret communication. His work Doodles, created specifically for this exhibition, provides us with notions of spontaneity and personal communication.

We as the spectator have to hunt down Solakov’s mini-scrawlings and drawings dotted around the stairwell of the exhibition and once we’ve found them we feel that we’ve uncovered a tiny piece of treasure just for us.

To have such an intimate yet fleeting relationship is reminiscent of quirky post-Fluxus artworks such as Yoko Ono’s A Box of Smile where something small but sweet is briefly open to us and then we pass on. If we step this idea up a notch we can see how the exhibition works in its entirety.

It gives us a chance to ignore the burden of our everyday lives and to experience a variety of thoughts and emotions led by art and humour. In her opening words about the exhibition Mami Kataoka quotes Charlie Chaplin. ‘Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot’.

a photo of a group of people huddled around the window of a ground floor flat

Nina Jan Beier and Marie Jan Lund. The Play Me Series (Look in the Window Until Someone Looks Back at You) (2006) © the artists 2007

These are words we can all relate to as we get increasingly caught up in the misery of work, money, street violence, environmental issues, yet we must remind ourselves that there are avenues of release.

Laughing in a Foreign Language is certainly one of them, a respite not to lose yourself from the world, but to show it in a different way and hopefully allow you a few laughs along the journey.

Have you visited this show? If so, why not tell us what you think?

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