Joking apart

Can humour cross cultural boundaries? Not from the look of the Hayward's new exhibition

Is art funny? Is comedy anything but? In my work as a stand-up critic, I often bemoan the lack of artistic ambition in comedy beyond the imperative to make people laugh. So I should be the ideal punter for the Hayward Gallery's "Laughing in a Foreign Language", which explores the use of humour in international contemporary art. Yet here, with comical inevitability, I find my usual gripe reversed. The artworks on show are conceptually rich, but not funny. Or if they are funny, it's in a way that invites the stroking of chins, never clutching of oh-my-aching-sides.

I wonder if the Hayward has sold these artists short by promising laughter. Is that really the response the works on display seek to elicit? Not always - as the exhibition occasionally acknowledges. "Though the tale is not remotely funny," runs the blurb next to Jun Yang's video about a Chinese immigrant to Austria, "it points to a ridiculous situation." I duly didn't laugh - but I did consider pointing to laughter.

Yang's video is not alone in its slim connection to the nebulous theme of the show. The Franco-Iranian artist Ghazel's Wanted posters, advertising for husbands to help her circumvent immigration laws, and the Korean Gim Hong-sok's Bremen Town Musicians, a migrant-worker refit of the Grimm's fairy tale about abused animals, are neat ideas, though scarcely more humorous than works by, say, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin or Gilbert and George.

Ah, but perhaps if I were Iranian, Korean or Chinese-Austrian I would find these works funnier. After all, the exhibition claims to examine how and whether laughter can cross cultural boundaries. Yet it isn't very eloquent on the subject. A few weeks ago in the neighbouring Purcell Room, the Complicite actor Jos Houben performed his slapstick masterclass The Art of Laughter, in which he discusses comedy across borders. A recording of that lecture would have made an instructive addition to "Laughing in a Foreign Language", from which any conclusion or none could be drawn on whether a Cameroonian would find a Mexican droll. Or vice versa.

The Mexican in question is Yoshua Okon, who has arranged 80 mugshots of wannabe politicians in the shape of bacteria. It is the crudest example here of how jokes don't travel, because only a Mexican would recognise the politicians. But the idea behind the joke isn't foreign to me - less so, at least, than the work of Glasgow-based David Shrigley, who has covered a wall with the kind of scratchy, faux-naifs doodles for which he has, mystifyingly, made his name.

The Cameroonian is Barthéémy Toguo, whose exhibits are accounts of artworks rather than the artworks themselves. Like the stand-up Mark Thomas, whose shows are second-hand records of his real-world activism, Toguo's Transit series (1996-99) commemorates his provocative interventions in international travel. Here is a photo of him in a wooden hard hat, which led to trouble at airport security, or dressed as a dustman, which bothered les bourgeois on a French train.

To have witnessed Toguo's activities at first hand may have been funny. To read about them in a gallery is less so. A comedian's material is only as good as his or her delivery. Here, the Finnish photographer Jaane Lehtinen's promising joke (the bathos of trying to outdo Icarus) is let down by its execution: the Heath Robinson flying machines he has built are too blatantly inadequate, and humour leaks through the credibility gap. The work of Marcus Coates, who performs a shamanic rite for residents of a condemned tower block in Liverpool, is more successful - because it's played straight, and neither we nor the bemused Scousers can decide whether his antics are beautiful or bonkers.

Comedy is about context, too, and some inventive efforts to amuse here just find themselves in the wrong place. Martin Walde's The Key Spirit is a door in the gallery wall and a mound of keys on the floor in front of it. It's meant to be funny watching punters search for the key that will open the door. Taiyo Kimura's Typical Japanese English shows absurdist scenes on a small screen inside a laundry bag. It's supposed to be funny watching visitors peer into a heap of dirty clothes.

But we are in an art gallery, where the unusual is sanctioned - expected, even. In this environment, workaday oddness (the conjoined curtains of Danish-born Nina Jan Beier and Marie Jan Lund, say) can raise a smile, but won't raise the roof. I prefer the wilder, more unruly imagination of Jake and Dinos Chapman, who have superimposed a ghastly cast of monsters (think Maurice Sendak meets Francis Bacon meets Doctor Who) upon The Rake's Progress, Hogarth's series of engravings. This is as close as the exhibition gets to the rug-pulling, mind-bending art-comedy of the likes of Noble and Silver, a Perrier Award-winning duo whose work is both conceptually challenging (they trained as artists) and very funny (they work as comedians).

In their absence, the artist here who would most likely hold his own with a Friday-night comedy crowd is the American satirist Doug Fishbone. His Joke Master Junior Joke Box 2 machines are located around the gallery. Press the nose, and you hear the artist crack a gag. I got one about a woman looking at two still-life paintings of meals laid out on tables. One costs £500; the other costs £1,000. Why so, asks the woman. "You get more ham with that one," replies the dealer. As that joke suggests, and as anyone who looks at it for five minutes would tell you, the art world is full of absurdity, piss-taking and subversion. Too little of it is on display at the Hayward.

"Laughing in a Foreign Language" runs until 13 April 2008 at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1. Details:

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty