Where does our laughter arise from? “…From the view of things incongruous, united in the same assemblage”. This is how the Scottish poet and moral philosopher James Beattie expressed his views back in the eighteenth century in his Essay on Laughter and Ludicrous Composition (1779).
Today, in the 21st century, one question is facing us anew: under what conditions can we think of two supposedly opposite elements, such as laughter itself and nothing less than death (or the distant announcement of it), together and within a single picture?
According to the Australian artist Shane Haseman (2009), “all comedy is tragic, just as all comedy is essentially ‘black’. Laughter is largely the social recognition of social conflict, and the expression of a guiltless pleasure taken from the misfortune of others”.
The Mexican view of death, for instance, is unique and it reinforces both Beattie’s and Haseman’s claims: “Mexicans accept death stoically; Europeans, by contrast, cannot easily or bravely confront the prospect of dying… Mexicans not only blur the familiar European distinction between life and death, but they also embrace death, as if it were some sort of welcome friend.” (Stanley H. Brandes, Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead, 2006)
What is ‘reasonable’ and ‘normal’ in one society is not necessarily so in another. Drawing upon a selection of visual materials from contemporary art across the globe, the exhibition To Die Out Laughing features twenty-seven positions proposed by individuals, couples, and groups, while bringing together artists and activists born (or currently based) in Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Ghana, South Africa, Mexico, Australia, Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, USA, Russia, France, Lithuania and Kosova. Humor is here understood as a tool for acquiring knowledge, not only for gaining or expressing pleasure: it is able to turn common sense upside down and, in accordance with the inversion of rationality, to teach us a new ‘lesson in difference’ about humanity as a complex system of thoughts, beliefs, rituals and ways of life.
The exhibition thus addresses historically and culturally diverse interactions of seemingly unrelated phenomena, such as humor and human mortality, with the purpose of questioning (always with a certain twist) what is considered the ‘authority of knowledge’ regarding our exposure to manifold conditions of ongoing global warfare (or global coloniality at large) and common people’s existence on its dark underside.
This exhibition cannot make you laugh without making you feel afraid, or at least slightly disturbed by images on display; but it still invites you to think twice about them. Starting from curatorial research that considers manifold roles of humor and satire in contemporary visual communication through a supposedly inappropriate prism of human death and mortality, To Die Out Laughing puts forward one central idea: that critical perception of the world, as we live it today, is inevitably shaped by many and varied options –often at the very borderline between comedy and tragedy– through which artists can challenge the insufficiencies of conventional perspectives on living and dying across the globe today. At the same time, the artists are always able to propose their own, decolonizing visions that could possibly uproot the normativity of people’s viewpoints: not necessarily or exclusively on humour or through humour, but rather on the burning matters of life and death, in Bulgaria as well as abroad.
In doing so, contemporary art encourages us to accept humankind’s differences and the ‘irrational’ rationality of the Other: it can create new meanings out of old patterns and stimulate a public discussion about how sexuality, racism, and global capitalism, for instance, jointly enter the ‘incongruous assemblage of things’ (as formulated by Beattie centuries ago) through an exhibition-format that fits –but not entirely so– a museum devoted to humour and satire.
And if anyone feels like complaining, a giraffe from Gabrovo is already there to collect all argumented remarks, including the one saying: “This is not an exhibition, this is just a big mess (голям калабалък)!” Yes, it is. After all, what is the purpose of exhibition making if not the ‘irrational’ exercise of freedom and critical reasoning that brings together things incongruous, united in the same assemblage?