Laughing In A Foreigh Language

I visited this to get an idea of different humours around the world, this is because there could be any number of people from any number of different cultures coming to view my work, and if I want it to be funny I need to make it funny for a wide range of audience… not just myself.

This is a piece of writing from by Jonathon Griffin

Laughing in a Foreign Language

Hayward Gallery, London, UK


Julian Rosefeldt, Clown (2005), three-screen film installation

Let’s get this out of the way: this show is not, on the whole, funny. Nor does it primarily try to be. Though some of the artists included do go for laughs, and a few of them succeed, most of the works in ‘Laughing in a Foreign Language’ use humour as a tool to pry open a door rather than simply to entertain. Take, for instance, Julian Rosefeldt’s work Clown (2005) a three-screen video projection of a clown clambering through a rainforest. Of course the work illustrates a kind of preposterous dislocation that threads through a lot of what is considered funny, but the signifiers of humour are so self-evident – the incongruity of the figure and setting, the absurd costume and the resulting clumsiness – that to actually go so far as to laugh seems pretty unnecessary, despite the sense that comedy is somehow being enacted. The problem is that laughter is most often an expression of surprise; while the very title of the exhibition seems to promise mirth aplenty, the main surprise at the Hayward is just how many stony-faced visitors there seem to be.

Closer inspection of the full exhibition title reveals that this was perhaps the intention all along. Would laughing ‘in a foreign language’ perhaps not involve the usual vocal emissions at all, but rather sound and look quite different? Curator Mami Kataoka asks whether humour might provide a bridge across cultural differences, or whether it is so tied to cultural specificities that a joke withers and dies as soon as it is taken out of context. It seems likely that the Hayward would like the answer to be the former; in fact the 70-odd works from around the world included in the show left me with the sense that we are living in depressingly atomised times.

I don’t actually believe this to be the case. I think I was tricked by the exhibition’s clunky curatorial premise into feeling that my failure to ‘get’ certain works of art was due to the chasm of incomprehension between myself and the culture that they sprung from. On reflection, much of the work was just plain bad. Iranian-born, France-based artist Ghazel’s advertisements – offering her hand in marriage to visa-seeking immigrants – are not nearly as subversive or original as they’d like to be. Nearby, the icons by Jun Yang offering other Chinese immigrants tips on how to blend into western European society (‘Don’t spit on the ground’; ‘Don’t wear headscarf’) are simply asinine.

Things get better later on. Olaf Breuning’s Home2 (2007) is a brutal satire of the type of western tourist who believes that grins and hugs and dollars really do cause cultural barriers to crumble. Kalup Linzy’s soap opera-style videos send up ignorant and lazy representations of African-American roles and language on television, using, like Breuning, the breakdown of cross-cultural communication as the object of their uncomfortable humour – the very best kind.

However, being assailed by so much work that uses entertainment as its lingua franca is exhausting, and not a little irritating. Increasingly I got the sense that humour may not offer insight into other cultures so much as teach me about my own: the latent prejudices, pressure-points and intolerances that make one thing funny and another not at all. 

Jonathan Griffin

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