Laughing in a Foreign Language, Hayward Gallery, London

When you're outside it, the joke is no laughing matter: Humour is lost in translation at this show: for gags, stick to 'The Simpsons'

As instructed by its label, I press the button on Doug Fishbone's Joke Master Jr. 2. After a second's pause, an American voice – much, much too loud – growls, "How do you get your wife to scream for an hour after sex?" There is no way of stopping the thing: the two other people in the room, tiny and Japanese, turn to look at me. "Wipe your dick on the curtains!" hollers Fishbone's scabrous clown. I smile weakly and make a show of scribbling notes on my pad. The couple, expressionless, leave.

You may ask what all this has to do with art, and the answer, strangely, is everything. Fishbone's work is not in a Soho joke shop but on a wall in the Hayward Gallery, part of a show called Laughing in a Foreign Language. The point of this is to ask "if humour can only be appreciated by people with similar cultural, political or historical backgrounds". Another question might be whether we all register amusement in the same way. Perhaps the Japanese are laughing on the inside, though I think not.

Which makes the Hayward's point nicely. We live in global times, and art, people and humour move about: they have, if you like, become commodities in world trade. This alone makes for a theatre of the absurd. Once, comedy was a local affair. Now, we can fail to laugh at Japanese comics; the Japanese can misunderstand American sex jokes and we can all scratch our heads at Olm unterwegs. The more jokes are translated, the more they get lost it translation. You gotta laugh, aintcha?

Well, no. There's nothing like not getting a joke to make you feel alienated, and alienation is the punch-line to much of the work in Laughing in a Foreign Language. Peter Land, a Dane, stages performances in which he carries suitcases blazoned with slogans proclaiming his foreignness through the streets of American cities. These slogans become the title of his subsequent photographs: thus, for example, Hi, I'm new around here, so please don't rob me, mug me or kill me. Could you please direct me to a cheap hotel?

The joke is on Land, and yet he is the one who tells it. To understand why Hi etc is funny, we have to understand the risks attendant on its telling: that someone, possibly carrying a gun, might not get Land's sense of humour and rob, mug or kill him. And this recognition that jokes are actually rather dangerous things – that they call for a global understanding that can't possibly exist – is at the heart of most of the work in the Hayward's show.

If you're planning a trip to the South Bank in search of a good belly laugh, in other words, you might be better off staying in and watching The Simpsons. Kutlug Ataman's Turkish Delight may have its share of belly, but the laughter it provokes is hugely uncomfortable.

In the video, Ataman, dressed as a woman, does a belly dance in a sequinned bikini. Men in drag are a commonplace of comedy, and yet something in Ataman's performance – he put on 20kg for the role – stops you from tittering. A gay man and a Turk, the artist is doubly used to being taken for an exotic. The story his film tells isn't one of laughing with but of being laughed at; and, however unwillingly, we are made complicit in that laughter. For all his sequins and gyrations, it is Ataman who has the last laugh.

This question – who, precisely, is laughing at whom? – is also asked by Candice Breitz's wonderful video Aiwa to Zen. Breitz gets a group of Tokyo friends to act out a drama based on her own tiny Japanese vocabulary. As with most Westerners, this consists largely of brand names and items from takeaway menus, travelogues and war comics. Thus a man in a suit nods sagely and says "Suzuki origami mitsubishi osaka" while a woman in a pink rabbit costume intones "Wasabe samsung mishima".

The odd thing is that Aiwa to Zen seems completely explicable in its inexplicability; which is to say, it seems Japanese, and so by definition beyond comprehending. That it is actually the cod-Japanese creation of a South African artist who lives and works in Berlin brings us up short. The actors are quietly playing up to their understanding of our understanding of them, a piece of politesse that makes you blush. And so it should. As with life in this new, global world, the joke is on us.



Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (0871-663 2519) to 13 April

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee