August 2, 2014

Laughter, Top of Tobu building roof in Tokyo, 1956

Laughing is a lot easier when the sun is shining. A little summer show Sorry for Laughing with artists Ditte Lyngkaer Pedersen and Raphael Abrams, which I co-curated with Onika Simon, is opening on Wednesday August 6, at 7pm at KN, Berlin. I myself had the pleasure to participate in Ditte's piece Laughter, it was very funny, and here you can read my account:

"Laughter - Rooftop of Tobu Building in Tokyo", photo: Kenji Oomori, 1956, in Ditte Lyngkær Pedersen, Laughter, video, 2010-2014.

Like a ritual enacted again and again, the photo Laughter made its appearance on several occasions, each with at least five persons present. It didn’t happen, however, at random events. The settings had to be cordial, with friends or family of the artist Ditte Lyngkaer Pedersen. Being Ditte’s roommate, I participated in the “happening” during a dinner at our Berlin home in 2011. The original photo served as guidance: Laughter is a depiction of four women and one man laughing on a rooftop in Tokyo, 1956. Mystery always enhances ritual. The exact circumstances in which the picture was taken are unclear. Ditte’s friend, Yoshiko Okuzawa, Ditte's friend who is depicted in the photograph, doesn’t remember. And the photographer Kenji Oomori refuses to dig up the past. So we will never know what was so funny that day on the roof in 1956. Was it a laughing with or at? And was it real fun, laughing out loud? Or was it staged? 

Ditte Lyngkær Pedersen, Laughter. ZK/U Fellow Residents, Berlin, 2014, video 2010-2014 
It is hard to laugh for real in front of the camera. To do so, one has to forget the photographer. Like this other facial activity, lovers kissing, laughing out loud is unflattering for the face - except in Hollywood film. The opening of the mouth never fails to affect every other part of the face, immediately modifying its character with wrinkles, crinkles, and laugh lines. While struggling with breath, the reddening of the face follows suit, accompanied by tears. And then the body contracts - the limbs, the diaphragm and the back getting into strange contortions. Yet despite it all, laughing is fun to do. When a camera appears, however, we prefer to stay in control and crack a smile – conditioned by the Kodak “cheese” publicity of the 1950s. It’s the cultural reflex of the “we are so happy” philosophy of capitalist society. The open smile in front of the camera must not be seen as an expression, but as a reaction.

Me on the left in Ditte Lyngkær Pedersen, Laughter. Christmas Party, Kottbusser Damm, Berlin, 2011, video 2010-2014

Laughing, however, is the most visible expression of happiness, as we discussed before. We know that art can make us happy, but can it make us visibly happy? Was Ditte looking for that connection between art and happiness? Seeing Laughter in the album of her Japanese friend, something had pierced her, so she told me, and since then the photo had stuck in her mind. In his  Roland Barthes talked about the "punctum" that jumps out at the viewer within a photograph - 'the accident which pricks, bruises me'." Like a therapeutic treatment to heal that "punctum", Ditte asked her friends and family to re-enact the 1956 roof top scene again and again. So at that dinner in 2011, the five of us had our pick and positioned ourselves in front of Ditte’s camera. I chose the woman on the left side of the picture - with the arms crossed in front of the diaphragm and the head bent to the back. Did Ditte then say something to make us laugh? If she did, I have forgotten. Nor do I recall the dinner or the food itself. And furthermore, I can’t recognise every person in the picture. But I do remember the laughing very well. Upon throwing my head to the back and opening the mouth, it had followed naturally. The fakery of the first seconds turned into real pleasure. Laughing even until the pleasure turned even into a kind of pain. 

Ditte Lyngkær Pedersen, Laughter. Christmas Party, Kottbusser Damm, Berlin, 2010, video 2010-2014 

Laughter therapy encourages people to laugh at things that hurt. The photo Laughter seems to induce this kind of rebellion: "The greatest enemy of authority,” Hannah Arendt said, “[…] is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.” Laughing out loud is considered inappropriate - not only in traditional, but occasionally also in modern Japanese society - and is especially disgraceful for women. This custom of discreetly covering the mouth with the hand is often interpreted by Westerners as shyness or as an oppression that asks for liberation. In 2013 the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity awarded the Japanese fast food chain Freshness Burger for their “liberation wrapper”. The wrapper, with a closed mouth (“ochobo”) depicted on it, allows Japanese women to chew down a gigantic burger and still look lady-like. Behind the paper wrapper she can now open her mouth wide for a big bite. That the commercial was so appealing to Western critics and media might be because of their belief that for women, liberation begins with the body. 

The laughing fit captured by Ditte in 2011 had no particular reason – and maybe the same counts for the 1956 one. Smiles in art history are enigmatic - the ironic self portrait by Rembrandt or the legendary Mona Lisa being the most famous examples. There is something in these smiles that can never be fully grasped - a mystical truth that stays out of reach. Yet laughter is rarely attributed this power in art history. It is reduced to jokes or to a coping with distress - a laughing in the face of death. Also in daily life it is hard not to feel excluded in the presence of people having a laughing fit: from the outside the unreasonable laughter makes no sense. However, if one has that laughing experience, which becomes so rare in adulthood, then there is a kind of bliss that envelops you until the ecstasy fizzles out. Is it this bliss that shimmers in Laughter, Top of Tobu building roof in Tokyo, 1956?


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