Renowned designer and dedicated table tennis fanatic Katsumi Asaba opens the exhibition “Sense of Humor” at 21_21 Design Sight with a bit of Nankin tamasudare (literally translated as Nanjing lily), a type of street performance in which a screen made from bamboo slats is twisted into surprising forms. Kicking off the show by donning a “funny” Chinese hat and bringing up Nanjing is unsettling, but OK, let’s see what happens.

A sate! A sate!” Asaba chants (it’s not really translatable, but might be akin to “hey!”), and through deft prestidigitation, the bamboo slats transform into a fishing rod, then a bridge and a halo. In keeping with the theme around which Asaba has gathered together work from various artists and designers from around the world, he comically fumbles a move and says “This is really difficult.”

This gets quite a good laugh from the preview audience, but despite what the title suggests, the exhibition is more about playing with viewer expectations than out-and-out comedy. Asaba’s own work in the show includes examples of his use of Dongba script, writing symbols that first appeared in southern China in the seventh century and one of a handful of pictographic language systems still currently in use, and documentation of various projects devised by Asaba using table tennis as an activity promoting human interaction and as an inspiration for design.

Pingpong also features in a video piece by the clown princes of art slapstick and classical mechanics John Wood and Paul Harrison; there is a design for a pingpong paddle stand based on the shape of a cactus plant by product designer Kohei Watanabe; and a discombobulating table tennis table by French graphic designer Damien Poulain.

“I painted the table with black and blue stripes and extra-large pingpong balls to make it more difficult to play the game normally. The hope is something new and different comes out of this,” Poulain says when asked about the boldly colored table, whose serious intent might not be immediately obvious from the fun design.

Simple, innocent-looking graphic design mixed with an avant-garde sense of provocation can also be seen in “Rolling Boy” and “She is Looking at the Apple” by Norio Nakamura. In the first of these, a kitchen is shown from various stylized viewpoints, resulting in the appearance of unexpected compositions that are both goofy and unsettling. In the second, a video animation, a cartoon female figure looks at everyday objects and food items that then reappear somewhere else. This work could easily be an innocuous way for toddlers to pass a few entertaining minutes, but there’s also an eerie hint of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” about it.

Trick art pops up in the work of Tiger Tateishi, whose sci-fi/fantasy-inflected paintings “Fuji and Matsu-Tree Like a Tiger” and “Gourd and Dragon” incorporate Salvador Dali’s paranoiac-critical method, and Shigeo Fukuda’s 3D object “Vegetables and a Face,” which harks back to the portrait head paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (c.1526-1593). Exhibits in this vein, combined with an abundance of collected material, which Asaba writes in his director’s message came from a desire to “search for laughter by walking around the five great continents,” give the show a cabinet-of-curiosities feel. This doesn’t necessarily result in a laugh-a-minute experience, but there are chuckles to be had.

As an exuberant visual spectacle, the exhibition delivers. Fans of the written word who find Asaba’s proposition that “Humor is the heart of communication” too glib might find the meticulous analysis of his Seibu ad campaign in “Living With Patriarchy: Discursive Constructions of Gendered Subjects Across Cultures” more fun though. LOL.

“Sense of Humor” at 21_21 Design Sight runs until June 30; ¥1,100. For more information, visit www.2121designsight.jp/en.

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