Known for its unique fare of thought-provoking and comprehensive exhibitions that give you the “greatest hits” of a theme or period, the Mori Art Museum is now tackling the complex topic of humor in a two-part exhibition running till May 6.

The two shows, “The Smile in Japanese Art” and “All About Laughter,” are a natural extension of the museum’s inaugural 2003 exhibition, “Happiness: A Survival Guide for Art and Life,” and explore myriad forms of humor — gags, satire, slapstick, farce, jokes — and the complicated emotions that can lurk behind laughter.

“The Smile in Japanese Art,” subtitled “From the Jomon Period to the Early Twentieth Century,” was assembled by curator Mami Hirose as a historical survey of humor in the works of about 100 classic Japanese artists. Sixteen pieces have never been exhibited before, and some of the older works, which were difficult to attain, will be on display for only a brief time. A major rotation of works will be made after 50 days.

“All About Laughter,” subtitled “Humor in Contemporary Art,” offers around 200 photographs, paintings, videos and installations from about 60 artists. Having conceived of the idea for the exhibition before the Mori had even opened, Senior Curator Mami Kataoka proposed it to David Elliot, the museum’s previous director, about two years ago.

“I tend to like works that make me laugh,” says Kataoka. “Laughter distorts conceptions of normal. I thought laughter could be a good way to provide a bridge between the art world and the public.”

Though she knew she could assemble enough laughter-related works for a full exhibition, Kataoka says that “after starting to compile the works, I was surprised at how many I found.”

The first of four sections in “Laughter,” “Anti-Art and Avant-Garde Laughter,” explores two major 20th-century movements: The “anti-art” Fluxus group from Europe, first brought to public attention by George Maciunus in 1962, and the avant-garde Japanese Hi-Red Center, introduced in 1963 by Jiro Takamatsu, Natsuyuki Nakanishi and Genpei Akasegawa. “Anti-art” thinking, rooted in the post-World War I Dada movement, led to Fluxus artists mocking mainstream acceptance of capitalist values in the 1960s, with pieces such as Maciunus’ useless ping pong rackets. As you see in “Laughter,” the racket’s heads are covered in Styrofoam, hoses or empty cans, making them either a subversive political statement or simply sight gags.

The second section, “Everyday Laughter,” featuring art since the 1990s, explores common experiences, self-identity and bodily expressions. Thai artist Porntaweesak Rimsakul celebrates the humor that can be found in everyday objects, such as in “Waterfall” (2003), a standard men’s urinal that contains a landscape made up of a stick of mossy wood and tiny figures, which attract close inspection.

“A lot of people have brought their face very close to the bowl, almost touching, to look at the small figures. This is quite an unexpected reaction to me, because the urinal is usually considered an unclean thing,” Rimsakul says. “Humor can dissolve boundaries and gives viewers power over the artwork.”

In artist Taiyo Kimura’s “Typical Japanese-English” (2005), a video display, placed within a laundry basket full of clothes, shows a series of strangely comical scenes including raw meat being “washed” in a washing machine, and a man brushing the teeth of a fish that protrudes from his mouth. For Kimura, one gauge of a successful idea is whether he himself laughs: “When I laugh at my own idea, then there is a very high percentage that it will be successful.”

Trine Lise Nedreaas, a Berlin-based Norwegian artist, combines elements of humor with serious matters. A video triptych titled “Forget Me Not” (2004), portrays three individuals with peculiar talents. One video, which a major museum has indicated interest in purchasing, shows the world’s sausage-eating record holder in action.

“The man has no teeth so it seems funny and you laugh, but it is an uncomfortable feeling at the same time,” says Nedreaas.

In “The Flip Side of Laughter,” the third section, well-known Japanese artist Makoto Aida presents a video work titled, “The Video of a Man Calling Himself Bin Laden Staying in Japan” (2005). Dressed as Bin Laden in a beard and a turban, Aida is sitting beneath a kotatsu (heating table) surrounded by liquor bottles. As he rambles on about living in Japan, it appears that Bin Laden has lost his passion for politics and religion, enjoying instead the food and sake and other hedonistic delights of the country. Is he becoming like the rest of the Japanese?

Based in Berlin, South African artist Robin Rhode derives his inspiration for his graffitilike drawings and performances from the rough street culture and criminal subculture he encountered during his high school days in Johannesburg. Humor is an important part of the playful videos he makes of himself and others interacting with pictures that he draws in chalk and charcoal on streets and walls.

“It offers so many complex questions. I find it fascinating. One facet is with identity. Humor destabilizes the psyche and our own understanding of ourselves,” he says. “Finally, it allows us to keep a dialogue with each other.”

The fourth section, “Deviant Laughter,” includes more peculiar works, such as the naughty-child fantasies of New York-based Swiss artist Olaf Breuning. Breuning’s photographs, including “I Am Scared of the Chinese” (2006) and “Can Someone Tell Us Why We Are Here?” typically present collections of oddly attired people and beings in staged settings or landscapes.

“Many Swiss artists have a kind of smile in their work. It is a Swiss thing, being from one of the richest countries in the world. It’s not like being born in Africa,” says Breuning. “Humor is a tool to conquer the world. In this tragedy of life, it is better to go with a smile.”

Although laughter will always be a popular topic, the question facing any contemporary artist, including those in “Laughter,” is that of the longevity of their works. Will their quality pass the test of time like the historical works shown in the “Smile” show? Perhaps only a few will outlive their era. For today, at least, they will make you laugh and smile at the folly of art and life.

“All About Laughter: Humor in Contemporary Art” and “The Smile in Japanese Art: From the Jomon Period to the Early Twentieth Century” run till May 6 at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi; open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Tue. till 5 p.m. For more information call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.mori.art.museum

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